Viral – How does it work?
I have been in the online Marketing game now for a number of years. I have seen successful and unsuccessful viral campaigns. I have probably been involved with a few (I won’t say which end of the spectrum mine were). But how does it work? The whole point of viral marketing is that it spreads. People either reference your material by sending e-mail to their mate or just telling others about it.
How it used to Work
When I first started in online advertising there were no social networks. No social bookmarking. Very few blogs. So how did it work? Well creativity was absolutely crucial (remember people didn’t have broadband then and they were in the main still paying by the minute), what you had produced wither had to be thoroughly entertaining or have an ultimate payoff (generally simple games or competitions). Very few were visually arresting as the connection speeds were too slow for video or extended sound files.
Your material would then get sent via your e-mail base, if you had the budget you would support with a display advertising campaign and if you were particularly clever you would do some seeding in forums or chat. rooms (the early social networks). Some worked some didn’t.
The distribution was still with the end game to get your message out to as many people as possible. However it was potentially more difficult to do it in a cost effective manner. Later came areas such as FHM and Lycos where you could get your viral listed in their Viral Charts. If you made either of the Top 10 you normally had a relative success on your hands. There are many more routes nowadays which I will expand on later in this post.
Six Degrees of Separation
There have been many articles written on this subject (so I won’t try to explain the concept in detail) and it has even inspired numerous plays, books and films. The concept basically centres around the notion that everybody is connected to everybody else in the world by a maximum of six degrees of separation. So what? Whether you believe the theory or not the concept links intrinsicly with social media. You often see on sites such as LinkedIn – you are connected to this persons network by x level. Social sites such as Friendster also play on this concept. The social sites use it as a way to help you expand your direct network, i.e. if Serena Privett knows James Booth, Serena is shown in my network even though I don’t know her myself. I may never have come across Serena if James wasn’t in my network and now I can make contact if I wish.
This was an example on a professional site. Imagine this same scenario on Facebook. You know Joe Bloggs, Joe Bloggs is friends with …. and so on and so forth. That is the whole premise of social networking. You know Person A, they know Person B that has similar interests, you see this and conenct to Person B, you have now made a connection. In theory you can connect to any other person in the world through only six steps. Obviously the Facebook and LinkedIn scenarios are limited to the fact that people need to be members of those sites for the theory to be applied.
Taking this into consideration, I am connected to anybody who reads this blog within a maximum of six degrees of separation. Taking it to the extreme, I am linked to anybody in the world within six degrees of separation, whether that is former Countdown presenter Carol Vorderman or US President Barack Obama. A social networking site call SixDegrees.org has been launched by Actor Kevin Bacon with this theory in mind. This started with celebrities showcasing their charities and now anybody can showcase their good cause.
Just to add further credence to the theory, over 4m people have downloaded the 6degrees app in Facebook and at present the average degree of separation is 6.12.
OK but what relevance does this have?
Distributing your message
Well we have all heard the phrase “Its a small world”. The 6 Degrees theory is an illustration of that saying. So social media hasn’t told us that it has merely highlighted it in a visual and practical way.
What it also allows marketers to do, is to track those relationships. While in the good old days we relied on pure creativity, contact lists and good fortune. We can now target much more precisely the type of people we want to get our message across. Social networking presents these opportunities because of the depth of data on people’s interests, hobbies, relationships and most importantly networks. We can target people if our message is broad e.g. we’re Coca Cola or if the message is niche, e.g. replacement parts for Mitsubishi Evo cars. If one person engages, then their entire network picks up on it. If one of them engages, their network picks up on it. You then in theory can reach mass audiences extremely quickly.
Social networking sites are just a component of distribution though. Social bookmarking can be a great tool, use sites tools such as Del.icio.us and Digg, make sure you load your bookmarks with tags people will associate with your message. The same theory of six degrees could come into play.
Send it to your e-mail base and ask them to refer it on to their contacts. There is nothing more powerful than a direct referal from somebody you trust. Seed on forums, chat rooms and on specialist sites, the old tactics are still as relevant today as they were back in the beginning. Remember, just because people are used to engaging with brands online through social than perhaps they were in the past. Do not, start mass seeding your material everywhere. Be open and transparent. If you find a relevant forum, ask the forum administrator for permission to post a link. Obviously if it is a forum you are active on already, you will know if its right or wrong.
However, I would recommend you don’t just rely on, build it, they will come and they will forward it. You need to put some money into it as well. Support with some advertising spend, maybe a PPC campaign or reward affiliates on new sign-ups. Work out who the influential bloggers are in your areas and try to get them to blog about your activity.
Making it work
So it sounds easy. Create something. Put it on some social sites. Chat in a forum about it and do some PPC. Bang, it is viral. No! If it were that simple every single marketer in the land would be doing it. The magic of viral is still in what you are actually saying.
Your viral has to be entertaining or informative but above all engaging. No matter how successful your distribution strategy, there is no guarantee people will look at it or respond favourably. Don’t seed in out of context environments, and make sure your viral has something to offer the recipient.
Remember if your viral is good they will recommend and refer it to friends. If it is bad, at best they won’t do anything with it, at worse they will tell everybody how hopeless it was an tarnish all your efforts. The best chance of referral is to offer them something they probably haven’t seen before or something with a money can’t (generally) buy reward.
If you examine any SEO texts or read any social networking commentary you will know that they are always referencing influencers and super-users. I call these people super surfers. They are the ones that engage with numerous tools and in theory are as important as traditional media sources such as ITV or The Sun. They are the active people on YouTube, regular forum posters and bloggers. They may only have a direct influence over 100-300 people, but those people are normally engaged. They can be talking about very niche subjects such as Ex-Battery Hens, but if you are marketing a range of hen food, this is a perfect audience. There may be only a few hundred on that forum, however they are bound to know others, who know others etc etc
That was a specific example, but there are many others, if you want to attract teenage girls to a new line of make-up you may target a forum for girl band The Saturdays. If you were trying to promote a traditional corporate venue to professional people you may want to influence a Freemason forum. Just remember there are sources there for every walk of life, with these super surfers who have the acorn of influence over a wide array of people.
- Identify super surfers
- Get your distribution strategy right
- Create an engaging viral that offers the audience something they haven’t seen before
Has it worked?
Something a number of people neglect when creating viral campaigns is the review of has it been a success. At the brief stage, be very clear about what you want to achieve. Don’t forget that objective throughout the process. Is it mentions in the press, e-mail sign-ups, increase in brand consideration or just views? Whatever it is make that guide the process and don’t get carried away by the creativity. Make the creative process support your end objectives.
Above all, ensure you have the correct mechanisms on place to track behaviour and performance against your KPIs. Otherwise you may be able to provide anecdotal evidence to say it has work, but there are no hard facts. Otherwise you may have to wait a while until you can do another viral campaign.