May 19, 2009

Viral Marketing

Viral marketing is nothing new; it’s been around and used my marketers for years. However, with the relatively quick ascent of the Web 2.0 social media scene, the use of and influence of viral marketing has dramatically swelled in the last few years. In its simplest form, ‘viral marketing’ is the attempt to reach a large number of people within a specific segment of the population by having your marketing message distributed by the public themselves (i.e. like a virus) – your marketing campaign could start as an email, then get tweeted and told to a neighbor across the fence as gossip.

I know for many people, their first exposure to viral marketing came with the mainstream use of computers and email: chain letters, signing virtual petitions or receiving an email about a “buy one get one free” from a retailer. And often times we would participate in this viral marketing by forwarding the email to a group of friends in your email address book. Now with social networking websites like Twitter and video websites like YouTube, viral marketing has taken on a whole new life.

Because the topic of viral marketing is so large, I am going to focus this blog on two subsets of viral marketing (Company Generated Content [CGC] and User Generated Content [UGC]) and give some examples of how some companies have capitalized on this expanding frontier in marketing.

CGC is originated by you and your marketing team, however for this type of marketing to take hold it must resonate with a key group of socially influential users so they help it gain marketing momentum within social networking websites or on YouTube. To give an example of CGC, let me tell you about Stacey Westfall, a horse trainer and competitive rider that can steer and operate a horse with no equipment whatsoever (i.e. saddle or bridle). She had a nice website with video clips of her amazing riding ability, but only after she posted on YouTube did she receive any real attention.

Incredibly, in only a matter of days she was getting 200,000 web hits per day! She was getting non-stop requests for clinics, and being offered fees to come to shows to perform her riding routine. Not only that, but Ellen DeGeneres had a huge segment on her show about Stacey after being alerted to her horse riding abilities via viral marketing. By proactively utilizing YouTube and it’s viral marketing nature to reach out to the public, her business exploded and she was able to go from locally known, to being on the national scene!

When the content is not generated by the company (CGC), but by the user (UGC) there is no oversight into what is being created and/or how it’s being used. UGC is made by your ordinary computer user tweeting their thoughts in Twitter, ‘Digg’-ing a webpage or someone placing a video on YouTube. To help illustrate UGC, let me tell you a personal, family story: Our family loves Guitar Hero! We had two guitars and we were thinking about getting the drums and microphone for the full Partridge Family feeling. Instead of going to the official Guitar Hero website, we went to YouTube and watched real people having a great time.

Just look at them having fun, we were sold! Go RedOctane, the makers of Guitar Hero, because we purchased the additional instruments based on the positive UGC we saw.

However you must be ever vigilant about UGC viral marketing because it is a double edged sword – there are no rules about who can make it, or what they say about your product. So as quickly as I found a positive video, I could have just as easily stumbled upon a negative video. With UGC, a company has no direct control over what is put on You Tube, so for good or bad, the content is out there for everyone with a computer and internet access to find. But just because you didn’t initially create the content doesn’t mean you should ignore it.

In fact, some companies are now beginning to recognize that these negative experiences that users are placing out on social networking websites like Twitter and free for all video websites like YouTube could be impacting their business. To combat this, they are starting to proactively address these negative posting. Here is an interesting article on how Qwest is dealing with this new marketing frontier.

Viral Marketing has come along way in the last twenty years, becoming a much more sophisticated mechanism then simply telling a neighbor about a new restaurant or receiving a catchy email then forwarding it on to your friends. With the vast number of social network outlets at our disposal, ready or not, viral marketing has transformed in to something too big to sweep under the rug and ignore. And though sometime it’s content we create while other times the users themselves make it, it is up to us to stay diligent about what is being said about our companies; encouraging the good and counteracting the bad.

As a testament to the growth in viral marketing and social media, major universities like UCLA (actually colleges and universities of all sizes) now have classes on these subjects. If you are feeling a little lost, but do not have the time for a 9 week course, there are also day seminars on both social media and viral marketing. I will end by saying this is just the tip of the viral marketing iceberg, but hopefully it gets you thinking about the subject and the power it can wield