If you’ve been reading marketing advice online for very long, you’ve probably come across the word “viral.” Viral marketing is talked about like it’s the holy grail of building web audiences.
What is viral marketing exactly, and do you really need it to succeed online? If so, how do you create viral marketing? Read on for a definitive answer.
A Changing Definition
That word viral gets tossed around a lot and apparently means different things to different people. Our friend Glen Allsopp started his viral marketing blog ViperChill just last year, but the term viral marketing has been around since the mid-1990s.
Over the past decade, the term viral marketing has become so common as to describe almost any popular marketing campaign. But in it’s purest form, viral marketing does have a more specific definition.
Essentially, a viral marketing campaign is one that spreads on its own from one person who learns about the idea to another. The creators of the viral campaign release it to a seed group of people, and then the campaign spreads wildly until the group it targets has been saturated or exhausted.
This is sometimes also called a “viral loop.” The key is that every person who comes into contact with the idea or marketing message spreads it to at least one other person. Once that happens, the idea is self-replicating.
The rate at which the “virus” spreads depends on how many people on average each preceding person shares the idea with (a viral coefficient, if you will), and how long it takes until that next person also shares the idea.
Any sharing of a marketing message from one audience member to another might be considered viral marketing, whereas sharing by each member to at least one other member is known as a viral loop.
Think of viral marketing as a multiplier on your marketing efforts. If you achieve a viral loop, then that multiplier becomes as large as your total target audience.
Viral Marketing in Practice
All of the big social networks have been built using viral marketing. Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and any other social network you can think of wouldn’t be so huge without viral marketing.
Each person who signs up for a social network like that ends up inviting at least one other person. The networks then grow organically almost without any advertising spend.
Beyond the social networks, any online service that encourages you to invite other friends is relying on viral marketing for growth to some degree. It’s a simple principle really, like referrals in the offline world, but with the ease-of-use and huge potential to spread enabled by social media and email.
Individual content can also spread virally. You probably witness this to a small degree whenever you publish a blog post or see one shared on Twitter or Facebook.
A piece of content is shared with an initial group of audience members (usually blog subscribers and Twitter followers), and then a certain portion of those people also share the content with their followers, who in turn do the same. Some pieces of content will spread more rapidly among your target audience than others.
This is viral marketing, just with a smaller viral coefficient.
Advertisers now take advantage of viral marketing to multiply their efforts (or reduce their cost per impression, depending on how you look at it) as well.
Ads often take the form of online video or games or quizzes that can be easily shared from one person to another. Those ads are created in a way that encourages sharing (often with built-in “email a friend” or “share this on…” type features.
Do you need viral marketing to succeed online?
Do you need viral marketing to succeed online? The answer depends on which market and niche your business is in. In many cases the answer now is yes, unless you have deep pockets.
Chances are, your competitors are relying on viral marketing principles to lower their overall cost of advertising. In many cases, entire businesses are built with almost nothing spent on advertising. This is especially true of online services and startups.
So unless you can outspend your competitors, your business will probably need some degree of viral marketing to compete for customers. Lucky for you it doesn’t necessarily have to be as sophisticated as the recent Old Spice campaign.
For most businesses, simply creating compelling content that helps your audience will give you some viral marketing benefits.
By putting effort into helping your potential customers through your content (and encouraging or making it easy for them to share that content), they will likely reward you by sharing that content with their friends. Put some extra effort into learning how to create popular content, and your viral coefficient will increase.
Can viral marketing be engineered?
What about engineering viral marketing? Can you build a system that guarantees virality?
The short answer is yes. And there are plenty of examples to prove that you can engineer a viral marketing campaign.
In fact, there are marketing firms who work entirely on engineered viral campaigns. Mekanism (based in NY and SF) caught my attention recently with their Fast Company Influence project. You might have seen the project spreading around Twitter lately. Basically, it’s a popularity contest that encourages you to bring other people into the project to boost your own influence rankings. Useless really, but viral. The entire project is detailed in a recent Fast Company article about the firm.
So yes, virality can be engineered, but the effectiveness of this engineered form of viral marketing is a more important consideration. Sure, I might like the little game or quiz you sent me enough to share it with my friends, but does that mean I care about the brand or product you’re hawking? Maybe not.
Here are a couple of potentially more useful forms of engineered virality.
First, consider the recent work by internet marketer Frank Kern. Frank built and released something called the Good Karma List Machine a few months ago. The premise is simple. A visitor is given a free piece of content, and a second piece of content is available only after the visitor shares the first piece of content with X number of friends (via email).
Frank was using the system to grow his email list. How effective a system like that would be for you depends on the quality of your content (and probably on the reputation of your business or personal brand).
Second, there are SEO applications to viral marketing as well. But with SEO, the goal isn’t to gain direct traffic necessarily. The more important goal is to gain links.
Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal (formerly of SEOMoz) is a master of viral linkbait. Basically, he creates a quiz or utility application in widget form that other websites can install and share with their visitors for free. The widget contains a link to the website he’s doing SEO for, along with the keywords being optimizing. Then, as his widgets spread virally, his link popularity increases and ultimately results in dominating the search rankings.
The fundamentals of viral marketing always remain the same: create something that people will share with other people. The goals and methods however, change from year-to-year, depending on what’s working, and possibly depending on what’s legal or allowed by the search engines.
Have you had luck with viral marketing?
Have you used viral marketing with any of your online projects? Do you need to use viral marketing to be successful? What do you think of the advanced “engineered” virality techniques?
Let’s talk it up in the comments. If you have any questions about viral marketing, I’m happy to answer them.
photo by Whole Wheat Toast