Pass it on...the wonderful world of Viral Marketing

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As relentless as the common cold, a slew of brand new viral marketing campaigns are marching across the world entertaining recipients and creating new channels to market for those brave enough to give them a try. But what is viral marketing and how should your business be using it?When people think of viral marketing, it tends to conjure up images of email junk and underhand marketing techniques. Yet for all these negative connotations, it is a marketing tool that should not be ignored. With that in mind, I have taken a closer look at what viral marketing actually is and how it can benefit your business.

What is viral marketing?

First things first, it would make to sense to establish what exactly viral marketing is. In essence, anything that is distributed and shared on the Internet – whether it is an image, an email, a video or a flash game – is a viral. Although this can take many forms, the same intention remains: to get as many views as possible. How do you do this? Well, I’m afraid, you don’t.

The term ‘viral campaign’ is itself an oxymoron as while the word ‘campaign’ implies strategy and objectives, the moment it hits the web it ceases to be controlled by you. For a viral to be successful it needs to have momentum and this is something that can only be generated by the millions of Internet users. You simply publish the video, email, game or image and the rest is up to them.

It is therefore no surprise that with the advent of social networking sites, viral marketing has taken on even greater significance. It is now even easier to spread your message and the conduit in all this is often either Facebook, Twitter or, more likely, YouTube.

This itself brings some ambiguity as to whether something is simply a video or a viral. For instance, anyone can upload a video to YouTube but, for this to go viral, it would need the online community to pass this between themselves. It’s like a virus you can’t control…but more emarketing than Ebola.

So what started as an innocuous video to amuse your colleagues can rapidly receive thousands of hits, from Dundee to Dallas. You view it, you blog about it and then you send it on. And then that person does the same. Before you know it, you’ve got a viral on your hands.

A viral success

Although the success of a viral is ultimately at the behest of the public, there are still a number of factors that can give it a nudge on its way.

For example, it’s fair to say that we all struggled to see what a drumming gorilla and dancing eyebrows had to do with a popular chocolate bar but they have since become two of the most recognisable viral campaigns ever. The popularity stemmed from the fact that these adverts were quickly passed around via email, social networking sites and mobile phones. It was even getting parodied on television . They may not have set out with the objective to create a viral, but the nature of this campaign meant Cadbury had transcended merely television advertisement to also conquer the online world.

But even this success was nothing compared to a series of viral videos which really did take the Internet by storm, and all this on the rather intriguing premise of ‘will it blend?’. Blendtec , as you may have guessed, make blenders. Yet a few years ago they were finding the going tough, until CEO, Tom Dickson, had a bright idea. Realising the potential of viral marketing, he made one last attempt to rescue the company by creating a video of the Blendtec blending a variety of obscure household items.

The rest, as they say, is history. These clips became a viral marketing sensation with the blender episodes having now surpassed over 100 million views. Indeed, the fact that a search for ‘Blendtec’ or ‘Tom Dickson’ produces over 18 million results on Google says it all. Not only did the business survive, but the product now sells by the bucket load. All that from a viral…can’t be bad.

It may take some lateral thinking but maybe you have the next Blendtec sitting in your warehouse or on your shelf.

How can I utilise it?

A word of warning for those about to leave the office armed with only a camcorder and two drunken midgets. The Internet is a fickle beast and spending copious amounts of money on failed viral campaigns has already burnt many businesses. Just as bloggers and forum posters can be extremely useful in creating a buzz about a viral, they can be equally as quick to tear it apart.

As with all marketing, it is crucial to attract the right people. If the ultimate aim is to sell your products to men aged between 16-30, create a viral that will both interest this group and be seen by them. If the campaign is then going to take off, it will happen organically once this demographic distributes it between themselves.

A successful viral campaign is one that is interactive and gives the recipient a reason to pass it on. Like with the Blendtec example, a viral that encourages public response will have a greater chance of success. If you are going to spend money on a viral, make sure you have a novel and innovative idea first; don’t just try it for the sake of it.

Even something as basic as flash games are a fantastic way to drive traffic to your site. Give customers an incentive to play the game (discounts, special prizes etc.) and distribute it to as many people as possible, perhaps through a newsletter. You’ll be amazed at how many people spend hours a day clicking their mouse and banging their keyboard in an attempt to get on a leader board (or maybe you won’t…).

If you are going to utilise a viral in your emarketing strategy, make sure you create something that is intriguing enough to make people interact. You should then see the potential of it to increase the public awareness of your brand. You never know, maybe you’ve got the next Internet phenomenon up your sleeve…