Beginner's guide to viral marketing

24th Jul 2012 | 09:17

Beginner's guide to viral marketing

Creating a marketing buzz for next to no cost

Viral marketing is all about encouraging people to spread information on a product by voluntarily sharing that information with people they know.

In the old days this would have been called 'word of mouth', and would have been a useful if undramatic complement to regular marketing. If you can get kids talking about your fizzy drink in the playground, lots will go and buy it.

Viral marketing on social media

What makes viral marketing such an exciting modern marketing phenomenon is that the 'people we know' no longer just means our immediate social circle, but everybody in our social media universe, and then multiples of people in multiple universes beyond that.

A viral campaign, if it comes off, can achieve dramatic results in days, even in hours, thanks to the exponential growth potential offered by exposure on the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Learning from the big business successes

The most successful viral campaign ever was for men's aftershave Old Spice, which until two years ago was the very embodiment of a moribund and unhip brand.

Its manufacturer Procter & Gamble asked ad agency Weiden+Kennedy to give the brand new life. The results changed the rules of social network marketing.

The campaign began with a televised ad shown during the 2010 Super Bowl, introducing a 'brand character' called Old Spice Man played by former American footballer Isaiah Mustafa. With a humorous twinkle in his eye, Old Spice Man promised women he was 'the man your man could smell like'.

The simple but crucial next step was to put the ad up on YouTube where its cheesy but accessible humour attracted over 13 million views in a matter of days. To date it has been seen over 40 million times and has spawned hundreds of copy-cat videos that have extended the viral effect even further.

Weiden+Kennedy bided its time for a few weeks and then posted a message on Old Spice's Facebook page, and on Twitter, inviting people to fire questions at Old Spice Man. A team stood by to post back near immediate video responses, all in keeping with the original character and its by now trademark tongue in cheek 'manliness'.

Over 180 of these videos were knocked out in a two day blitz, as a furore of enthusiastic participants jockeyed to get their question answered by the character, and then chat with each other online about the results.

A host of celebrities got sucked up in the frenzy, feeding the fire by involving their own legions of social media friends and followers. This was no accident. Celebrities known for their huge social media following were specifically targeted.

What are the lessons for small business?

At first sight, this does not seem like a trick that could be repeated by just any business and brand. Not everybody has the marketing power of P&G, and that kind of lightening doesn't strike every day in any case, does it?

But if one drills down into the essentials of the campaign, there are important elements that could be used by any small business wanting to get its brand in front of tens of thousands of potential buyers.

The most important lesson of the Old Spice campaign is that basic viral marketing does not have to cost a lot of money because you are harnessing people power to voluntarily promote your brand.

Building the idea for the viral

You need to start by coming up with a personality or persona that in some way represents your brand positioning. This could be a real person on video, or perhaps some kind of animation. The main thing is that it needs to be a character that people – the kind of people who buy your products - warm to and want to interact with. Is there a big personality on your staff? Or a local stand up comedian who could do with a few extra bob?

The campaign can be based around humour, like Old Spice, but don't feel pressured to make it funny. It can be a character that conveys other qualities instead, like empathy, honesty or trustworthiness. It really just needs to be a likeable character that can be sustained.

Use YouTube to host and promote your campaign

You can start the campaign with a video of some sort on YouTube. Remember, this is the most democratic form of marketing there is, and it lends itself to a bit of DIY amateurism too with no need for a major Madison Avenue agency coming up with the creatives. Film it yourself, and have a bit of fun doing it.

Creating the initial buzz to kick off the campaign

You'll next need to spend some time going around social networks inviting people to interact, perhaps in the form of a contest, or by offering some free advice, or just asking people to talk to you.

This is where the magic kicks in, if you're lucky. If you ask enough people to join in, many will ignore you but some, inevitably, will take you up. It's human nature. They tell their friends, and then – well, who knows? Maybe people will end up competing to get on board with their own witty contribution. The unpredictability of what happens next is part of the joy.

It will of course help if you theme your campaign around the interests of your target market, perhaps offering them the chance to contribute their opinions on a topic relevant to that community. You can use your chosen persona to answer with your own opinions, and interest and intrigue will build further.

Getting the right subject for your campaign

The trickiest bit for a smaller business to pull off is involving a celebrity of some sort in the campaign, one who perhaps has a big Twitter following. We're not necessarily talking Stephen Fry, but is there perhaps someone local to you of minor notoriety, and of some relevance to what you do? Or can you get a well known blogger to talk about you? This would spread links to your website, which over time will increase your ranking with search engines.

But really you're just after anyone with a following you can leverage – for free. And that doesn't have to be a real-life person. One website created a promotional video for its site with an interactive Angry Birds birthday cake, the video attracted 8.5 million views.

Remember, you don't need to reach the millions that Old Spice did to be a success - just reaching a few thousand people, a hundred of whom might go and buy your product, could make it all worthwhile.

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