Viral Marketing: Surpassing Survival

by Michelle Wicmandy

Viral marketing is like [the TV show] Survivor - if you're not adding value to the community, you'll quickly find yourself voted off the island. It's a concept that only works when participants add value and provide authentic and meaningful commentary.
- Mitch Frazie, Corporate Communications Manager, ExactTarget

From the days of the pet rock to the latest technological innovations, marketers have achieved success using viral marketing techniques crossing all industries. Today, quality content spreads at a rate never before seen, largely due to the explosive growth of online social network participation. According to Nielson NetView, Twitter's popularity soared 1,382 percent from February 2008 to February 2009, reaching more than 7 million unique visitors. Facebook grew 228 percent, touching 65.7 million members.

These astounding numbers have major implications for marketers. Many of these people are sharing opinions on products and brands with friends and followers using video, e-mail, blogs and other media by simply clicking a button. It's an opportunity that must not be missed. And there are several ways to get your content viral.

According to Mitch Frazier, corporate communications manager for ExactTarget, e-mail marketing messages are employing new tools such as ShareThis and Social Forward (an ExactTarget offering). This enables subscribers to quickly share e-mail content with their social networks - a trend expected to grow nearly 350 percent in 2009, according to a joint study by Ball State University, Email Marketers Club and ExactTarget.

Message of Champions
Social e-mail messages entered the picture as a highly effective way to personally deliver content to subscribers and encourage recipients to share those messages. With an influx of new tools, those messages can then spread across various social networks with nothing more than a click. ShareThis and Social Forward are two such tools that can be incorporated into an e-mail message, facilitating sharing.

The foundation of online viral communication resides in delivering well-constructed messages that offer value. When a timely and valuable message is sent, it then has the best chance to spread throughout the community - your target audience.

For example, Papa John's posted a social success by sharing quality messages online with their followers. Within 24 hours of releasing their first Social Forward campaign, Papa John's added 130,000 Facebook fans and collected e-mail addresses and permission for ongoing e-mail communications from 975,000 members.

To ensure that messages reach their target audience, marketers must constantly evaluate their online efforts. Underperforming tools reflect a problem in the approach or a misalignment of corporate goals. It's really about the culture and the organization's objectives rather than the tools and technology, notes Frazier. Before deployment, each company should evaluate the reason for using social media and create a social media plan. "Maintaining a consistent message across all channels depends on the company culture, internal communications and whether the people managing the social media understand the company's mission," states Kelsey Ruger, vice president of technology and operations, Pop Labs. "Company cultures that allow employees to express themselves and actively engage with customers tend to build relationships that achieve results."

Survival of the Fittest
The subscriber-centric approach becomes more important as the socialsphere matures and influences consolidation among networks through aggregators such as TweetDeck, adds Frazier. Aggregators fuse data from multiple social sites allowing users to access information in one place. "Currently, TweetDeck is being used as a dashboard to filter content and update Twitter and Facebook simultaneously. As consolidation gains traction, marketers must provide quality content or quickly find themselves filtered out of customer's online social networks."

Dominating the Pack
An excellent starting point for viral marketing is video. Typically a short visual piece, video can quickly engage the viewer when it contains humor, information, entertainment or a combination of these elements, continues Ruger. In April 2009, Nielsen Online reported almost 117 million online video viewers in the U.S. Today, video outperforms blogging and social networking. Video is just as popular as network TV with 72 percent of U.S. Internet users watching video clips monthly, reports The Global Web Index. Strikingly, nearly 7 percent of U.S. Online Video Viewers forward videos to friends via e-mail and social networks.

Basic Needs
At a minimum, a company should make content linkable and sharable by using tools such as ShareThis, TweetDeck, Social Twist's Tell-a-Friend and ExactTarget's Social Forward. For example, adding a ShareThis button to a website enables visitors to easily distribute content; using Tweet- Deck combines social platforms for convenience; embedding Social Twist's Tell-a-Friend widget in a Web page permits sharing and broadcasting information over 70 channels; and communicating e-mail messages to more than 40 social networks is now possible with Exact Target's Social Forward, the first e-mail social sharing solution.

Tweet Now, Tweet Later
The only real problem twunkies (Twitter junkies) have with Twitter, besides the fail whale, is there are only a certain number of hours in the day to tweet. Web-based, Twitter-focused productivity tools like TweetLater hope to change that by enabling users to schedule tweets in advance so they can effectively tweet around the clock. But that's just the primary feature of this fully automated Twitter tool. From an integrated console, users can even track keywords on Twitter, send automated welcome direct messages, create a personal status feed, have a bird's eye view of the 20 newest @replies on your Twitter accounts and a whole lot more. But the best part for power users? Support for multiple Twitter handles, so get tweeting.

Andy Sernovitz, author of "Word of Mouth Advertising: How Companies Get People Talking" explains the art of viral marketing using the Five Ts. First, find people who will talk such as volunteers, customers, bloggers and influencers. Next, give people a topic to discuss such as a special offer, great service or product, silliness, neat ad or a new feature. Then, use tools to spread the message via Tell-a-Friend, viral e-mail, blogs, handouts, samples and online communities. Afterwards, take part in the conversation by replying to blog postings, discussions and e-mails. Finally, track comments by reading blogs, message boards and feedback, and implement advanced measurement tools.

Emerging as a leader in the online social spheres requires active interaction with your customers by providing viral-worthy content. You may need a force to help you win, but follow these techniques and you, too, may be crowned a survivor.

About the Author: Michelle Wicmandy has over 12 years experience in traditional marketing and roughly five years in Internet marketing. She is currently the webmaster for the Alley Theatre and a freelancer for SEO, PPC, e-mail marketing and traditional services. For 10 years, she taught marketing courses for the University of Houston Downtown.