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Why ‘Viral Marketing’ Is Catching On

Hear word of anything ‘viral,’ and our first response is to cover our mouths and wash our hands. In the case of viral marketing, however, companies of all sizes are embracing this burgeoning advertising tactic and learning how to leverage it, and thus fostering a healthier bottom line.

The term ‘viral marketing’ might conjure up images of haz-mat suits and facemasks, but marketing and advertising professionals say it need not be so scary.

“One way to explain viral marketing is to step outside the commercial arena,” said Michelle van Schouwen, president of van Schouwen Associates (VSA) in Longmeadow. “It works like a rumor or an urban myth. It’s also like gossip — it spreads through the willing involvement of many people.”
By definition, viral marketing refers to any type of marketing that propagates itself by encouraging people to pass the message on to others. This could refer to word-of-mouth or ‘tell-a-friend’ campaigns, but in today’s technology-driven world, efforts are most often carried out online and via E-mail.

Companies looking to expose their brand or message to a large audience are turning more frequently to E-mail campaigns that will foster high pass-along rates (free gifts or offers of online activities are one way to boost the forwards), video and photo sites like YouTube or Flickr, social networking portals such as Facebook or Twitter, and to the blogosphere, hoping visitors will see something they like and send it to a friend or colleague.

Take, for instance, Excel Dryer. Based in East Longmeadow, Excel developed and now manufactures and sells the Xcelerator hand dryer, which delivers a high-powered, and much more effective, blast of air to get the job done in restrooms across the country. It’s proven to be a successful business gambit, but also a source of wonderment for many a restroom visitor since its launch.

van Schouwen, whose company serves as Excel’s public relations and marketing partner, said viral marketing has been particularly beneficial for the company — a surprising development for its CEO.

“The company didn’t create the word of mouth,” she said. “The Xcelerator dryer pops up frequently on blogs, in words, and in pictures, and generates incredible enthusiasm and funny comments from users. It’s an amazing phenomenon.”

Ill Communication

Indeed, a search on YouTube for ‘Xcelerator hand dryer’ returns videos posted by tourists, diners in restaurants, and giddy teenagers who discovered the dryers and felt they were cool enough to film and post for millions to view.

“This is the craziest hand dryer I’ve ever seen,” says one amateur videographer who posts under the screen name ‘Poppytoad.’ She then pans to the dryer — pausing briefly on the brand logo — before demonstrating its capabilities.

Another poster, ‘lavalencia,’ reports from a bathroom in Mexico.

“There’s a dryer here called the Xcelerator,” she says, again panning to that logo. “For specific reasons. Watch!”

van Schouwen said that once VSA and Excel realized there was a groundswell of conversation happening online regarding the Xcelerator, they began tracking it more formally. The existing and continuing online presence of the product is a perfect example of how viral marketing works; it lies in wait, starts to spread, and eventually, it’s everywhere.

“One doesn’t have to be a corporation to do this kind of marketing,” said van Schouwen. “An individual can create a huge impact if the message is compelling, and YouTube provides powerful examples of viral campaigns. There have already been several examples from the current presidential race. For better or worse, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons on race and America, when propelled forth on YouTube, drew the attention of the nation, and forced Barack Obama to address tough issues and eventually to leave his church.”

Michelle Abdow, president of Market Mentors in West Springfield, said viral marketing can work — and, therefore, is gaining acceptance and use — because it relies on creating or identifying common ground and connecting people.

That video of a man putting his face under the Xcelerator to puff out his cheeks? A viewer will send that only to friends he knows will be intrigued by a title such as Trey v. the Xcelerator, and therefore the audience has already been pre-qualified.

“You can think of viral marketing as a type of marketing that spreads, not through traditional means of advertising, but by shared experiences,” said Abdow. “Viral marketing describes any strategy that encourages people to pass on a marketing message to others, which will then hopefully evoke enough emotion for the message to continue being spread, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence.”

She added that, due to this somewhat grass-roots approach, viral marketing is also attractive because of its potential for low overhead and high returns.

“Viral marketing can be inexpensive and can allow for high frequency,” she said, “and it’s a a growing segment for all kinds of companies. It’s also an effective tool for companies that wish to target a younger audience.”

Hair Apparent

While Excel’s online presence started inadvertently, other firms have used viral marketing in similar ways and very deliberately, with intriguing results.

In 2007, for instance, multi-national corporation Unilever made headlines after it was discovered (or intentionally leaked) that a popular YouTube video of a bride having a pre-wedding, post-hair appointment meltdown was actually a staged production devised by Unilever’s marketing firm, Capital C, to promote the company’s Sunsilk line of hair care products.

In two weeks, the video was viewed 2.8 million times; that number later rose to more than 12 million, and Sunsilk moved into a more traditional ad campaign using a tag line from the video’s title — ‘wig out.’

David Goff, president of Goff Media in Northampton, said low-budget productions like Wig Out are proof that creating an initial murmur online is becoming the first course of action for many companies and marketing firms, which will use the viral pieces as a jumping off point for other modes of advertising.

“Due to the growth of the Internet and E-mail forwarding between users, this type of marketing has gained tremendous acceptance as a methodology to grow a product through Internet buzz and referrals,” he explained. “Marketers have made efforts to create interesting E-mails and video files that recipients will find enjoyable or interesting to view, with the hope that these recipients will pass it along through the E-mail chain, or refer people to their Web site.”

Viral marketing isn’t effective only through light-hearted videos and pranks, however. van Schouwen said one of the most successful viral campaigns to date was launched earlier this decade by the Internet-based E-mail service Hotmail, prompting other free E-mail sites to follow its lead.

“In business, these E-mail sites are classic examples of successful viral marketing. Companies like Hotmail give away accounts, and include a message about ‘free Hotmail’ with every E-mail a user sends,” said van Schouwen. “The user ends up spreading the message that Hotmail offers free accounts without doing anything, and Hotmail thus continues to grow rapidly.”

Abdow agreed that Hotmail’s tactics have become one of the hallmarks of viral marketing, largely because they were so effective and yet so simple.

“Hotmail’s viral marketing was really when viral made its first really successful debut online,” she said. “What did Hotmail have to gain? More page views, which was a selling feature when looking for companies to advertise with Hotmail.”

A Shot in the Arm

Of course, like any developing marketing or branding tactic, viral marketing does have its pitfalls.

There’s the potential for creating a bad or offensive experience for some members of an audience, for instance, or for changes or shifts to the core brand or message as a viral piece spreads through various channels (not unlike when kids play the telephone game).

And, there’s that four-letter word for World 2.0: spam.

“Some messages can be annoying and fill up pages with nonsense; spam is often seen as part of this type of Internet marketing,” said Abdow, noting that spam is an extreme example of some of the kinks that still need to be worked out of viral marketing. These kinks, in turn, are one reason why most companies are still a long way from relying solely on this genre to promote themselves or a service or product.

“When you rely on word of mouth and someone has a bad experience with a company’s product or service, the experience is multiplied significantly and could have a substantial negative impact,” she said. “Viral allows for inconsistencies, and marketing initiatives need to maintain a level of consistency. It’s an inherent fault, which can spiral out of control.”

van Schouwen agreed, and conveyed this sentiment another way: “it’s iffy,” she said of viral marketing in its current form. “For one thing, like gossip, a viral message can take on a life of its own and change meaning as it spreads. Also, it requires real creativity, and it’s difficult to determine if a campaign will take off.

“Imitating another viral marketing campaign typically doesn’t work,” she added. “The Million Dollar Homepage sold ‘Web real estate’ at a dollar a pixel (in 2005) and paid for its creator’s college education many times over. But attempts to create similar sites have bombed.”

Passing It Around

But there are some measurable positives that suggest that viral marketing is going to continue to evolve. Goff said that, in addition to its use as an advertising vehicle, viral can also help companies get a better handle on their ‘CSI,’ or customer satisfaction index.

“Viral marketing can also be viewed as traditional word-of-mouth advertising, where a happy customer refers your business to several more customers,” he said. “Many companies invest regularly in customer-service training, quality reviews, and measuring their CSI. Some large companies, like General Motors, actually bonus their franchises that score high in their CSI reports.”

Goff went on to note that Wikipedia, the largest free-content encyclopedia online, reports that a satisfied customer tells an average of three people about a product or service he or she likes though basic word-of-mouth referrals. Through viral campaigns, however, the average individual will reach out to 11 people.

There are other signs of progress in this arena, despite the unhealthy ring ‘viral marketing’ has to it. The first, said Abdow, is its natural fit with technology and the increasingly ubiquitous access to that technology.

“Eventually, all companies will jump on the viral marketing bandwagon if they are not on it already, and some won’t even realize it,” she said. “In today’s day and age, we are all connected by our fingertips, through BlackBerrys, iPhones, PDAs or just regular cell phones that allow texting and Internet access. This connectivity is in itself a viral network, as it is how we share our interests with one another.”

van Schouwen agreed that as viral marketing progresses, more companies and individuals will use it either to identify products or services they need or to introduce them to others. Traditional marketing is far from being replaced, she cautioned, but the role viral is playing in the marketplace at large is creating a new, interesting option to consider.

“Viral marketing often works best when paired with really engaging, daring concepts,” she said. “It’s usually not a first choice for a conservative company whose strategy doesn’t involve taking unnecessary risks or chancing that a campaign will fizzle. It’s tough to guarantee that a viral marketing campaign will succeed, but many do succeed wildly.”

That said, van Schouwen concluded with a few hopes of her own for the future of viral marketing. For one, she hopes to see savvy entrepreneurs using innovative concepts to create successful campaigns, and in general would like to see viral maintain its offbeat, risk-taking identity.

One thing she’d love to see change, though, is the name.

“Of course, I hope marketers will try to rename it,” she said. “Perhaps as social networking, or word-of-mouth marketing … anything that doesn’t sound like a head cold.”

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