Viral marketing is a form of online marketing that uses a "word-of-mouth" technique to spread its message. The term "viral" refers to how quickly a message propagates via links in e-mails, e-newsletters, blogs and websites that point to a product or service people might find of interest.
The goal of a viral marketer is to generate a "buzz" about a product or idea, inducing users to relay the marketing message to others and create an exponential growth in the message's visibility and effect.
This form of online marketing is important because it ensures a high and rapid response rate. Comparatively less expensive than direct mailing, the main strength of viral marketing is its ability to attract a large number of interested people at a low cost.
However, its weakness is that it is hard to control. Like the "telephone game" that children play, the marketing message may become distorted as it passes from ear to ear.
Elements of a Viral Marketing Campaign
There are six elements that make up a viral marketing strategy. Although not all six are necessary, the more you can incorporate into your website marketing strategy, the more powerful your results are likely to be.
A classic example of a successful viral marketing campaign was the one done for Hotmail.com, the first Web-based, free email service. Hotmail automatically attached a brief message at the end of everybodys email, suggesting they sign up for this free service. After two years, more than 12 million people had Hotmail email accounts.
An effective marketing strategy comprises of:
Free products or services
Effortless transmission of the message
Easy scalability from small to very large
Exploiting common human behaviors
Using existing communication networks
Making use the resources of others
Free Products or Services
Most viral campaigns give valuable products away to attract attention. Free software programs, free ringtones, free e-books are just some examples. Although they may not profit today, by freely giving away these products marketers hope to create a surge of interest they can profit from later.
Free attracts visibility; this visibility also highlights other products that you are selling, and finally you end up making sales. This kind of attention can bring in valuable email addresses, advertising revenue, and e-commerce sales opportunities.
Effortless Transmission of the Message
The medium you choose to propagate your message must be able to easily transfer and replicate. Some examples include email, a website, discussion forums and free software downloads. Viral marketing works extremely well on the Web because instant communication is easy and cheap. The digital format makes duplication simple.
The marketing message itself must also be brief so that is can be easily be transmitted without getting distorted.
Easy Scalability from Small to Large
Scalability must be considered when developing your viral marketing campaign. The flaw in the Hotmail viral model was that it required its own mailservers to transmit its message. If the strategy was wildly successful, mailservers would have to been needed much more sooner than anticipated. A lack of mailservers would have ground the campaign to a halt.
Exploiting Common Human Behaviors
A good viral marketing campaign will take advantage of human motivations such as the desire to be cool, or the need to be popular. The urge to display and communicate this savvyness produces millions of websites and email messages.
Designing a strategy that plays on this type of behavior for its transmission has excellent chances of being successful.
Using Existing Communication Networks
Your potential customers, like in real life, develop relationships online. They collect email addresses and bookmark websites. Affiliate websites and programs, and opt-in email campaigns exploit these networks. By placing your marketing message into these existing communication channels, you can exponentially multiply its circulation.
Making use of Others' Resources
The most clever viral marketing campaigns use the resources of others to get their message out. Affiliate programs use of this strategy by placing links on other websites to drive web traffic. Authors who give away their articles, press releases, even banner advertising they use someone else's news service or webpage to relay their message. Someone else's resources are being depleted instead of yours.