Viral Marketing: Let The World Tell Your Story for Free

By David Meerman Scott
September 23, 2009

For marketers, one of the coolest things about the Web is when an idea takes off, it can propel a brand or company to fame and fortune. For free.

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For marketers, one of the coolest things about the Web is that when an idea takes off, it can propel a brand or company to fame and fortune. For free. Whatever you call it—viral, buzz, word-of-mouse, or word-of-blog marketing—having other people tell your story drives action. Many viral phenomena start innocently. Somebody creates something—a funny video clip, an e-book, a cartoon, or a story—to amuse friends or inform buyers, and one person sends it to another, then that person sends it to yet another, and on and on. Perhaps the creator might have expected to reach just a few dozen people. One of the first examples I remember was the “dancing baby” from the mid-1990s. It was grainy and low-tech, but it was cool. And it spread like crazy. Instead of reaching a few hundred friends and colleagues, dancing baby struck a nerve and reached millions.

The challenge for marketers is to harness the amazing power of viral. There are people who will tell you that it is possible to create a viral campaign that is guaranteed to be a hit, and there are even agencies that specialize in the area. But when organizations set out to go viral, the vast majority of campaigns fail. Or the viral component has nothing to do with the company and its products (“Free iPods!” will drive viral but probably not sales) Worse, some companies set up fake viral campaigns where people who are employed or in some way compensated by the company write about a product. The Web is hyper-efficient at collective investigative reporting and smoking out trickery, so these campaigns rarely succeed and may even cause great harm to reputations.

Often, a corporate approach is some gimmicky game or contest that just feels forced and advertisement-like. I think it is virtually impossible to create a Web marketing program that is guaranteed to go viral. A huge amount of luck and timing are necessary. A sort of homemade feel seems to work, while slick and polished doesn’t. For example, the Numa Numa Dance that was popular several years ago was about as homemade as you can get—just a guy with a Web camera on his computer—and it helped to popularize the song and sell a bunch of downloads.

Of course, it’s not just crazy dancing that goes viral. The formula is a combination of some great (and free) Web content (a video, a blog entry, or an e-book) that is groundbreaking or amazing or hilarious or involves a celebrity, plus a network of people to light the fire, and all with links that make it very easy to share. While many organizations plan viral marketing campaigns to spread the word about their products or services, don’t forget that something may go viral that you didn’t start (remember the Mentos and Diet Coke geysers?). And it may show you or your products in either a positive or a negative light. Monitor the Web for your organization and brand names so you are quickly alerted to what people are saying. And if a positive viral explosion that you didn’t initiate begins, don’t just hang on for the ride—push it along!

Technology and software companies: Create viral buzz by thinking like a venture capitalist

While I think it is difficult to purposely create viral marketing buzz, it is certainly possible. Technology companies and software companies should create viral programs the way that venture capitalists (VCs) invest in start-up companies and studios create films. A typical VC has a formula that states that most ventures will fail, a few might do okay, and one out of 20 or so will take off and become a large enterprise that will repay investors many times over the initial investment. Record companies and movie studios follow the same principles, expecting that most of the projects that they green-light will have meager sales, but that the one hit will more than repay the cost of a bunch of flops. The problem is that nobody knows with certainty which movie or venture-backed company in the portfolio will succeed, so it requires a numbers game of investing in many prospects.

The same goes for viral efforts. Create a number of campaigns and see what hits, then nurture the winners along. To create a viral marketing strategy using the VC model, brainstorm lots of ideas. To minimize poisonous internal groupthink, invite people from the outside to help. If you can recruit some teenagers to join you, you may end up with some great ideas. I’ve gotten involved with Facebook, which has started to go viral for me, and now have 100 or so “friends” as a result of my 14-year-old daughter’s help and encouragement.

Online video goes viral

I’m seeing more and more technology companies and software companies using online video for marketing purposes and as attempts to go viral. Prior to YouTube making video commonplace on the Web, you’d only see small forays into corporate video, and usually these efforts were mundane and predictable—things like a broadcast of the CEO’s speech at the annual meeting. Well, OK, some people might watch, but unless the CEO makes a dramatic gaffe, (picking his nose while talking would work), a video like that is unlikely to go viral.

The idea of companies using video for Web marketing is still new. Video follows both blogs and podcasting on the adoption curve at organizations that don’t have a service that naturally lends itself to video. Some companies are certainly experimenting, often by embedding video (typically hosted at YouTube) into their existing blogs.

When I deliver the new Pragmatic Marketing seminar, I often get questions or comments about video use by corporations. People say things like “But we’re a ____ company. We can’t put video on YouTube!” (Fill in the blank with “big” or “famous” or “conservative” or “business-to-business.”) The fact is, some of the best online video comes from unlikely sources. One of my favorites is a series of “mockumentaries” produced by IBM. The multi-episode “The Art of the Sale” is a terrific spoof on corporate training videos. Until the end of the video, you don’t even know who produced it. Tens of thousands of people have watched it, and the viral efforts are a success—my writing about it is proof that it has gone viral.

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About the Authors

  • David Meerman Scott

    David Meerman Scott is an internationally acclaimed strategist whose books and blog are must-reads for professionals seeking to generate attention in ways that grow their business. Scott’s advice and insights help people, products and organizations stand out, get noticed and capture hearts and minds. He is author or co-author of 10 books. “The New Rules of Marketing & PR,” now in its 4th edition, has been translated into 26 languages and is used as a text in hundreds of universities and business schools worldwide and has sold more than 300,000 copies. Scott also authored “Real-Time Marketing & PR” and “Newsjacking,” and he co-authored “Marketing Lessons from The Grateful Dead” with HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan.


Categories:  Go-to-Market


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