Viral Marketing Online I: Start with Value

Online advertising costs are orbiting. The rules for maximizing your online advertising efforts change faster than the wind direction. Optimizing your search engine rankings requires careful attention to the evolving algorithms, and you have to dig deep and persevere to “own” the critical keywords that improve your visibility.

You simply can’t ignore this stuff if you want to succeed online. But what wouldn’t you give for a nice, inexpensive, adjunct strategy that gets your customers marketing for you?

Enter the age-old standby: word-of-mouth referrals.

The enduring fact is, people talk with each other about the things that matter to them – discoveries, horror stories, shared interests. Typically, these conversations took place over cups of coffee or across backyard fences or when folks brushed up against one another in the grocery store. They still do.

But with the World Wide Web at your disposal, you needn’t confine yourself to fences and coffee – today it’s clicks that help you capitalize on the human propensity “to share.” To make viral marketing work for you online, all you need is:

  • A persuasive, delightful experience

  • A clear call to action

  • Optimized design and placement of viral marketing features

  • A simple method for transacting the referral

  • A backed-by-integrity point-of-action assurance

The viral marketing caveat: if you can’t delight your audience, forget soliciting referrals

According to Keith Bates, formerly of Keith Bates & Associates, “viral marketing is the concept of seeding your market with a great, often quirky, idea that gathers a life of its own and spreads through audience interaction.”1 The viability of your viral marketing strategy rests on a single element: the online experience of an individual customer interacting with you. The essential ingredient to your success is not the sale (however you define that term within the context of your business objectives) - it’s providing an experience that builds loyalty and cultivates the long-term relationship.

Viral marketing allows you to expand the outreach of the long-term relationships you are cultivating. The numbers are powerful: 64 percent of us will try something if a friend recommends it, and someone who has had a good online experience tells an average of 12 people (five times as many people as they would tell offline).

But viral marketing carries risk. When your conversion entities are ill-considered, poorly designed and fail to persuade, viral marketing can backfire spectacularly. For all the good press happy customers can spread, unhappy customers will spread considerably more bad press. And oddly, complaints seem to plant themselves in peoples’ minds far more intractably than praise.

You first must delight your audience, through which you lay the foundation not only for loyalty, but also for referral. Your ability to delight depends on identifying and delivering an experience jam-packed with relevance and customer-focus:

  • It understands exactly what matters to your audience (as opposed to what matters to you)

  • It communicates personably in the language of your audience (as opposed to “company-speak”)

  • It acknowledges the demographic, psychological and topological dimensions that comprise your audience’s buying decision process, so that it allows each individual to “buy” in a manner that is comfortable to them and meets their emotional needs.

For word-of-mouth marketing to work well, you have to start with something of merit and value. Only when people perceive these qualities are they willing to make the effort to talk about them. You don’t want people remembering you for the wrong reasons, and the last thing you want is to provide a dissatisfied audience with a venue for bashing you.

So, before you consider incorporating viral marketing, tidy up your shop. When you’ve developed an online experience that is worth raving, then you’re ready to give your audience some tools with which to rave.

1“Word-of-mouth marketing gets people buzzing.” Richard Karpinski. BtoB: The Magazine for Marketing Strategists. June 13, 2005.

Volume 114: 7/1/05

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