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 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 Institute 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.

Another fascinating example of a viral video comes from Tubes by Adesso. Tubes is an online desktop file-sharing service designed to let anyone create instant personal-sharing networks of friends and colleagues. The marketers at Tubes have created a number of tongue-in-cheek viral campaigns. For Mothers Day, they released Tube Your Mom, a campaign to give away the Tubes application as a last-minute Mothers Day gift. The campaign included a YouTube video, a press release, and a landing page. “Not going to make it home for Mother’s Day? Send Mom a Tube. She’ll be able to enjoy photo memories all year.”

Sometimes a series of videos works well as a mechanism for people to download additional videos from the marketer. For example, a small company called Blendtec makes household blenders. They created a huge hit with their series of YouTube videos called “Will It Blend?” These videos each have been seen more than a million times:
Will It Blend? iPod
Will It Blend? Golf Balls
Will It Blend? Marbles

Organizations of all kinds are now busy posting video content on YouTube and sending people links to the content (or hoping that it goes viral). Creating a simple video is really easy; all that’s required is a $300 digital video camera—or even a mobile phone—and a YouTube account. There are all sorts of enhancements and editing techniques to make video more professional, but some organizations go with the grainy and jerky “homemade” look. Other companies create a regular series of video content that might be delivered through a video blog (vlog), an online video channel at a company site, or a “vodcast” (a video series tied to a syndication component with iTunes and RSS feeds).

Ten tips for using YouTube for viral marketing

Tip #1 Creating a video is easy, and posting on YouTube is free
Copy the video to your computer, and then either upload your video as is or edit it with such software as iMovie or Windows Movie Maker to add titles and special effects.

Tip #2 Homemade is just fine
You don’t need to hire a professional. A homemade-quality video can work well. But plan ahead and shoot several takes to get it right.

Tip #3 Your video should be no longer than two minutes (preferably less)
Think very short. Although YouTube will accept a video that is less than 10 minutes (smaller than 100MB), try to make the video between 30 seconds and two minutes.

Tip #4 Make your description clear and specific
To best promote your video, create an accurate and interesting text description. Use descriptive keywords and language that people will use when they search for videos like yours. And use the correct categorizations on YouTube so people will find it.

Tip #5 Don’t attempt “stealth” fake customer insertions
Some companies attempt sneaky, stealth insertions to YouTube of corporate-sponsored video in a way that makes it seem like the video is consumer-generated. A typical case is happy twenty-somethings at a party doing fun things while using a certain brand of technology. The YouTube community is remarkably skilled at ratting out inauthentic video, so this approach is likely to backfire and cause harm to a brand.

Tip #6 Consider inviting your customer communities to submit video
One of the most effective ways to use video to drive viral marketing is for companies to develop a contest for people to submit their own video, which then is made available for others to see. Would-be directors are given prizes, and the best videos are usually showcased on the company site. In some cases, the winning videos are also played on TV as “real” commercials.

Tip #7 Try a series of similar videos to build interest
Sometimes a series of videos works well as in the case of “Will It Blend?”.

Tip #8 Tell everyone about your video
When you upload your first few videos, you are likely to hear a deafening silence. You’ll be waiting for comments, but none will come. You’ll check your video statistics and be disappointed by the tiny number of viewers. Don’t get discouraged—that’s normal! It takes time to build an audience. When you’re just getting started, make sure people know it is there and can find it. Create links to your video from your home page, product pages, or online media room. Mention your video in your email or off-line newsletters, and create links to your video as part of your email signature and those of other people in your organization.

Tip #9 Make sure bloggers know about the video
Sending bloggers a link to the video or commenting on other people’s blogs (and including a link to your video) is a good way to build an audience. If you comment on blogs in the same space as yours, you might be surprised at how quickly you will get viewers to your video.

Tip #10 Experiment! Try it! Have fun!
Video content on the Web is still very new for marketers and communicators. But the potential to deliver information to buyers in new and surprising ways is greater when you use a new medium. And while your competition is still trying to figure out “that blogging thing,” you can tap into the world of video and leave the competition behind.

E-books go viral

Web content sells and has the power to go viral. An effective online content strategy, artfully executed, drives action. Organizations that use online content have a clearly defined goal: to sell products, generate leads, secure contributions, or get people to join. And they deploy a content strategy that directly contributes to reaching that goal. Content on the Web takes many forms besides video, including an effective content-centric site, Webinars, blogs, podcasts, and Wikipedia entries (wikis).

I’ve been fascinated recently by the power of e-books. My own e-book, The New Rules of PR: How to create a press release strategy for reaching buyers directly, has been downloaded a remarkable 250,000 times since it was released in early 2006. Imagine how much you would have to pay to get an equivalent number of people to download something via such traditional marketing as an advertisement! Millions of dollars, perhaps.

E-books have a bit of intrigue to them. People instantly see the value in what they have downloaded for free. In my opinion, e-books are things people want to read, compared to white papers, those things that our buyers feel they should read (but often don’t).

I recommend that e-books be presented in a landscape format, rather than the white paper’s portrait format. Well-executed e-books have more white space and interesting graphics and images. And the copy is typically written in a lighter style than the denser white paper. In my view, e-books (as viral marketing tools) are always free and there is never a registration requirement.

Tips to make your e-book more compelling

Think like a publisher by understanding your audience. Consider what market problems your audience has, and develop a topic that appeals to your readers.

Write for your audience. Use examples and stories. Make it interesting.

  • You will need a great title that grabs attention. Use a subtitle to describe what the e-book will deliver.
  • Hire a professional editor to do a second draft, and a proofreader to finalize the copy.
  • Have the e-book professionally designed.
  • Put a Creative Commons license on the content so that people know they can freely share your copyrighted material .
  • Create a landing page from which people can download your e-book. For an example, check out the Pragmatic Institute, Inc. e-book The Secrets of Market-Driven Leaders: How technology company CEOs create success (and why most fail), by Craig Stull, Phil Myers, and David Meerman Scott.
  • Promote the e-book like crazy. Offer the e-book on your site with easy-to-find links. If you have a blog, write about it there. Add a link to employees’ e-mail signatures. Get partners to offer links.
  • To drive viral marketing, alert media, bloggers, and analysts that the e-book is available and send them a download link. (Don’t send a PDF document directly.)

This is a new world for marketers and corporate communicators. Never before has a medium allowed an idea (or a product) to spread to millions instantly in the way that the Web does. E-books are true examples of thought leadership at work and hold the potential to influence many thousands of people in ways that traditional marketing cannot.

Monitoring the blogosphere for viral eruptions

Every day, bloggers, podcasters, and vloggers promote and pan products. Consumers tell good and bad tales in which products and services play a starring role. For example, nearly 200 bloggers wrote about my book The New Rules of Marketing & PR: How to use news releases, blogs, podcasting, viral marketing & online media to reach buyers directly in the space of just a few months of release—propelling it for many weeks to the number one position in the Public Relations and Marketing category on A blogger writing about books is free advertising for the author, while the cost of launching a number-one best-seller by using traditional marketing and PR techniques would be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But there’s another aspect of viral marketing people sometimes forget. It can go the other way! People can pan your products and services online via blogs, forums, and chat rooms. Sadly, most companies are clueless about what’s going on in the blogosphere. At a minimum, marketing professionals need to know immediately when their brand names or executives are mentioned in a blog. Beyond mention-counting, analysis is important. What are the significant trends in words and phrases currently popular in the blogosphere as they relate to your organization, product, and industry? At the least, you should learn the reason for any spikes in blog mentions about your company and products and should alert executives. When the Wall Street Journal calls for comment about your failed product, “Huh?” is not the savviest response.
As a starting point, all marketing and PR people need to go to blog search engines and run a query on your organization’s name, the names of products and services, and other important words and phrases such as executives’ names. Technorati is an excellent blog search engine. It allows you to instantly see if any of the 77 million blogs that it tracks has information you need to know. I can’t imagine an organization that wouldn’t find value in knowing what’s being said on blogs about it or its products or the industry or market in which it participates.

Such interactive forums as blogs, chat rooms, and message boards are often seen as insignificant backwaters by PR and marketing people—not worth the time to even monitor, let alone participate in. I’ve heard many marketers dismiss online forums with disdain, saying things like “Why should I worry about a bunch of geeks obsessively typing away in the dead of night?” But as many marketers have learned, ignoring forums can be hazardous to your brand, while participating as a member reaps rewards.

On October 31, 2005, in a post on his blog called “Sony, Rootkits and Digital Rights Management Gone Too Far,” Mark Russinovich detailed an analysis he conducted about characteristics of the software used on Sony BMG music CDs to manage permissions for the purchased music. Russinovich argued that shortcomings in the software design created security issues that might be exploited by malicious software, such as worms or viruses. He also showed that both the way the software is installed and its lack of an uninstaller utility were troublesome.

The reaction to Russinovich’s post was immediate and dramatic. In the next several days, hundreds of comments, many harshly critical of Sony BMG Music, were posted on his blog.

Hundreds of other bloggers jumped in with their own take on the issue, and chat rooms and forums such as Slashdot were abuzz. Many people expressed frustration that the music industry disapproves of music piracy and sues music downloaders, yet treats its customers poorly (which reflected negatively on the entire industry, not just on Sony BMG). Soon, reporters from online news sites such as ZDNet and InformationWeek wrote their own analyses, and the issue became international news.

So where was Sony BMG during the online hullabaloo? Not on the blogs. Not on the message boards. Nobody from Sony BMG participated in the online discussions. Nobody spoke with online media. Sony BMG was dark (not participating in the communities at all), which added to the frustrations of those who were concerned about the issues. Finally on November 4, 2005, Sony BMG’s global digital business president Thomas Hesse went on NPR’s Morning Edition to defend the company. The choice of NPR (radio) as a forum to react to a storm of protest on the Web was a poor one. Had Hesse immediately commented on Russinovich’s blog or agreed to speak with a technology reporter for an online publication, he could have gotten his take on the issue onto the screens of concerned people early in the crisis to help diffuse the anger.

Online debate intensified. On November 18, 2005, Sony BMG reacted with the announcement of an exchange program.

Unfortunately for Sony BMG, the exchange program didn’t end the issue. On November 21, 2005, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sued Sony BMG under the state’s 2005 spyware law. California and New York followed with class-action lawsuits. Soon after, law student Mark Lyon started a blog to track Sony BMG XCP rootkit lawsuits. Several cases have been settled since, and Lyon continues to cover all the action on his Sony Suit blog.

Of course, we will never know what would have happened if someone from Sony BMG had quickly jumped into the blogstorm, apologized, stated Sony’s plan of action, and offered the exchange program immediately. The negative effect might have been substantially diminished.

What’s important for all organizations to take away from this incident is that it is critical to respond quickly to situations as they unfold on the Web. Reacting quickly and honestly in the same forums where the discussions are taking place is essential. You may not be able to completely turn a negative situation around, but you will instantly be seen as a real person who gives a name and a personality to a large, seemingly uncaring organization. Just by participating, you will contribute to making the situation right. The Web’s power of linking should ensure that participants who see your posts on one forum or blog will link to them from other forums and blogs, so you don’t have to worry about contributing to multiple places.

Viral marketing—having others tell your story for you—is one of the most exciting and powerful ways to reach your audiences. It’s not easy to harness the power, but with careful preparation when you are sitting on news—and with clever ideas for what has the potential to create interest—any organization has the power to become famous on the Web.

Categories: Go-to-Market
David Meerman Scott

David Meerman Scott

David Meerman Scott is an internationally acclaimed business strategist, entrepreneur, adviser to emerging companies and public speaker. In addition to Fanocracy, he is the author of 10 previous books, including The New Rules of Marketing & PR.Follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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