Online Viral Marketing Campaigns

It can often be very difficult - especially in the massive modern marketplace - to get word about your product to a large amount of people without spending a fortune in advertising. So what can you do, as a small business owner? How can you get knowledge of what you have to offer out to the people who need it? And, perhaps more importantly, how can you do that without exhausting your bank account?

1. What is Viral Marketing?

First, we should probably find out what exactly viral marketing is. Viral marketing, simply put, is knowledge of your product which spreads "virally" - by, in other words, self replication. The most ancient form of advertising is also a form of viral advertising - the classic "word of mouth" approach. In other words, someone uses a product, likes it, and tells their friends about it. The initial audience reached - the one person who tried the product - "replicates" when he tells his friends, expanding the audience to them as well, who in turn "replicate" by telling their friends.

Needless to say, viral marketing is a very powerful form. If every person reached by viral marketing told two friends, it wouldn't be long at all before you'd reach an enormous audience. Just look at the numbers: one friend tells two friends, who each tell two (4), who each tell two (8) and so on: 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1028, 2056, etc - as you can see, it really doesn't take all that many iterations before you've reached a very large group of people. In the next few pages, we'll take a look at some popular methods of online marketing using viral marketing techniques as well of some very successful examples of it.

2. Bad Viral Marketing

First, though, let's look at what not to do - what isn't good viral marketing protocol, in other words. This is what springs to mind when most people think of "viral marketing," and it's critical to make this distinction with your customers and clients when you talk about viral marketing. The sort of viral marketing that has negative connotations in most cases is indeed viral marketing, but a form of it with very debatable success rates. There are two basic types of bad viral marketing: spam and actual adware and spyware viruses.

Spam is viral because it infects and forwards - the classic "forward this to ten other people to get a discount" scams are good examples - and takes over things like mailing lists in order to replicate itself extensively. The problem, of course, is that no one actually reads spam, thus negating its effectiveness entirely. If you want to be successful, you'll have to take a different approach. Viruses could also be considered viral marketing, at least the ones that infect your computer and cause pop-ups to appear. However, this only annoys people and causes negative connotations to the products that appear in the pop up ads. By taking these examples of what not to do and acting accordingly, you can achieve success in your viral marketing ploy.

3. Good Viral Marketing

There are plenty of good examples of viral marketing out there - don't get discouraged! Some of the biggest successes - Google and HotMail - will be discussed in later sections. Needless to say, with examples like that, you definitely have a good shot.

In many ways, the Internet is built for viral marketing. Communication around the world is instantaneous, and the "birth rate" of viral marketing is sped up to unbelievable rates. The communication potential in the online idea marketplace makes for astounding potential in viral marketing - the only thing that matters is how much you can get out of it and how well you can utilize the resources offered to you. We'll discuss some possibilities at a later point in the article. For now, take a look at some of the best in the business and how they did it.

4. Example One: Indirect Viral Marketing and Hotmail

One of the classic examples of modern online marketing using viral marketing techniques - one cited, in fact, by many modern professional works on the subject - is that of Hotmail and the quantum leap in users Hotmail gained when it started its service. The method it used was one particularly suited to an email company, and one extremely effective.

Their idea was elegantly simple: to offer a simple web based email service, for free, and to make money off of advertising. Their viral marketing scheme came into play with a simple tag and link inserted at the end of every email sent using Hotmail - which says, in effect, that anyone who's interested in free email can click the link. What that meant is that every Hotmail user is also a Hotmail advertiser - the first few people to use it sent emails all the time, and everyone who read the emails received the offer to join hotmail. Thus the viral spread came at a rate, in general, far more than the two new contacts per person mentioned above.

The only disadvantage to Hotmail's technique was that it was still pervasive and unintentional - in other words, every email sent using the Hotmail system included the advertisements and tags for Hotmail, which some users disliked. A company that solved that problem, Google, used a different form of viral marketing, which also proved to be very effective.

5. Example Two: Direct Viral Marketing and Google

The reason Google's approach is called "direct viral marketing" is a simple one: its marketing is directed. In other words, invitations are willingly sent by Google users. This method puts more of a burden on the person offering the service, as it has to be good enough to either get someone to invite a friend or to get someone to ask a friend to invite them. Google did just that - these days, nearly anyone who uses the Internet is familiar with Google, and we all know the secret to their success - simplicity. Google has always been known for their simple interfaces and lack of obtrusive image-based ads, substituting them instead with simple text links.

But, you say, are those text links as effective as the more eye-catching image based ads? Normally not, perhaps, but Google designed an ingenious method to make them more eye catching - it scanned the content of the email or message being viewed and designed its ads based on that. Its success in this case was uncanny - emails about dating, for example, would display text links to dating sites, while emails about politics would link to pundits and forums. This form of "intelligent" online marketing is related to viral marketing, and is very useful when used in conjunction, as Google demonstrated.

6. Example Three: Intrigue and Cloverfield

Web applications like Google and Hotmail are not the only sorts of products that can benefit from an online viral marketing scheme, however. The Internet has also made the field for "word of mouth" viral marketing a much more fertile one. A great example of old viral marketing ploys flowering in the new field of the Internet could be seen before the recent release of the film Cloverfield. The few trailers released for the film were designed specifically to inspire discussion: they showed only a few brief and chaotic scenes of a disaster caused by something large and alive, but never showed what that monster was. They gave just enough information to catch people's interest, but not enough to give them closure.

The scheme worked brilliantly. Within weeks of the first trailers, online forums had sprung up all across the Internet discussing the movie and what the trailers depicted, from general discussion down to detailed analysis of frames ripped from the online trailer. This mass intrigue, made possible by the Internet, was one of the main reasons behind the film's success when it finally appeared in theaters.

7. So How Can This Work For You?

Fine, you say, but you're not producing a movie or an enormous email system. How do you personalize viral marketing ploys to your own purpose? That, of course, is a very open ended question, but there are a few options you could consider. First, you'll want to take a look at what kind of product you have. Software, for instance, can make full use of the possibilities of viral marketing on the Internet, as can works of fiction (like Cloverfield) or art; basic physical products, like musical instruments or furniture, can be harder to market, but are by no means impossible. To start with, take a look at the possibilities available to you if you are marketing software, and see if any of these options can apply to your product.

8. Online Marketing Using Viral Marketing for Software Products

Software is a great product to sell online, as anyone who is on the Internet is already using a computer and, thus, already a possible customer. A particularly powerful form of viral marketing specifically tailored to software sales online is the category of software products known as shareware. Shareware products comprises software of which a trial version or demo is available for free online and which a payment must be made to activate the product's full capacity.

This makes for good viral marketing for the simple reason that one can try it free online - friends can tell friends, and those friends don't have to buy simply on that recommendation; they can simply download the free demo and try it for themselves. In other words, its classic word of mouth marketing, with none of the restrictions based on unsure buyers. While originally a mark of independent software publishers, especially games for the PC, shareware viral marketing has expanded in recent years to include a vast range of software from the classic independent RPGs and games to the titans of the graphics industry with Adobe PhotoShop and Corel Painter.

9. Viral Marketing for Non-Software Products

So what if you want to sell a product online that's not software, using viral marketing? Is that even possible? Of course! There are a number of ways to do this, but remember that the fuel that makes viral marketing run is discussion. The more merit your product has to incite discussion, the more effective its viral marketing campaign is going to be. It doesn't just have to be the product, either - any interesting details surrounding your product that could generate discussion are going to aid your viral marketing scheme. Try mentioning your product on forums where discussion of similar products might be held. Be careful, though - open proseletyzing is usually regarded as spam and will get you kicked off most marketing boards.

Another good way to incite discussion is to offer special deals or interesting sales techniques. A classic example of this can be seen in the release of Radiohead's most recent album. Radiohead, rather than going the normal route of burning CDs and selling them in normal stores, essentially released their album for free online - with a space in the order form for the "buyer" to enter their own price. While this seems at first like a foolish idea - you could enter $0.00 and download the entire album without paying - in reality it worked extremely well, and Radiohead made a fortune. This strategy was partially held in response to online music pirating. Radiohead figured that if its music was going to be downloaded for free illegally anyway, they might as well preempt the piracy with this offer. This novel idea alone generated publicity and viral marketing success for the band. In conclusion, then, the best way to provide great viral marketing for your product is to do things that generate discussion for it, to provide a product worth talking about and mentioning to friends, and to make full use of the Internet as grounds for advertising.
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