Technique: How to make your e-mail go viral

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Amy Chubbuck, senior account executive, Knotice

An e-mail becomes viral if the recipient feels compelled to forward it. Sometimes the recipient needs to have an incentive and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the content is so intriguing, compelling, shocking, or funny that people can't help but click the forward button. As we all know, some of our closest colleagues, friends and family forward e-mails way too often. But, just because something is viral does not mean it's doing anybody any good.

A good viral e-mail strategy does not focus on buzz-building as the ideal targeted outcome. Buzz is great, but if it's not ultimately translating into a sale or some conversion event, clients will not be happy. A good viral e-mail approach takes the form of a well-timed refer-a-friend program. 

When thinking about viral, a lot of effort is put into the content, the offer, and the incentive – which are all important. But timing is a critical, but often overlooked piece of the viral e-mail strategy puzzle. For instance, if a customer is happy, the likelihood they would participate in a refer-a-friend program is much greater than if they are unhappy. 

There are many indicators you can use to determine good timing. For instance, if a Web site visitor just gave a great product rating on your site, and you have their e-mail address, they are an ideal candidate for a refer-a-friend offer. If someone just completed a survey and gave you high marks, that's another example of a great opportunity for a well-timed refer-a-friend offer. 

On the flip side, timing can also work against you. If someone visited your customer support page a few times in the past week and gave a negative product review or have an open trouble ticket, perhaps its best to save your refer-a-friend offer for another day.

Approaching e-mail marketing in the context of the overall direct digital marketing strategy (e-mail, Web site, mobile, etc.) is also a good strategy. But remember, the quality of the data, combined with the ability to turn it into action, unlocks even more timing possibilities.

THE TAKEAWAY:
E-mail marketing efforts can be wasted if the timing isn't right


Ryan Deutsch, senior director of market strategy, StrongMail Systems

One of the great things about e-mail marketing is the constant push for optimization. Most of our clients are working daily to optimize their e-mail marketing programs. Nothing is a better example of this than the recent trend in viral e-mail marketing: sharing e-mail content with social networks.

As social media has become one of the hottest topics in online marketing, companies have invested more time in monetizing the new channel. Truth be told, this has been a challenging endeavor for many.  However, in the past several months a number of “widget-like” applications have been introduced that allow e-mail marketers to leverage the viral nature of social media within the e-mail channel, taking traditional forward-to-a-friend (FTAF) technology to the next level.

These new solutions enable e-mail recipients to share all or part of an e-mail message with their social communities. With a few clicks, recipients can post e-mail content to social networks (Facebook, MySpace, etc.), update their blog posts, append the e-mail content to Web sites and even directly access Web-based address books (Gmail, Yahoo, etc.) to add recipients. This is a huge improvement over traditional FTAF workflows, which usually require recipients to add their friends' e-mail addresses manually, one at a time. Furthermore, these new widgets make visits to the content from the social sites trackable, allowing companies to gauge true viral performance. 

While these benefits deliver a real improvement over today's viral e-mail technologies, the real value comes in the form of enabling online conversations.

E-mail marketers will continue to look for ways to optimize program performance. Many strategies like introducing RFM (Recency, Frequency, Monetary) Scoring or developing complex multi-channel campaigns take serious time and energy. Others, like introducing “social sharing” via embedded widgets, require much less work but can deliver tremendous results.

THE TAKEAWAY:
Social media widgets are quickly becoming the new ‘forward-to-a-friend'


John Doub, VP, technical services, e-Dialog

With today's menu of ways for consumers to get involved with a brand, successful viral marketing efforts don't have to be fortunate mishaps anymore. Viral marketing can be an untapped route to new customers as well as sales and brand recognition at comparatively little expense. And e-mail can serve a valuable role in these efforts by presenting recipients with offers, information, content or tools so compelling that subscribers will instinctively take it viral.

The first key to making viral efforts successful is the same as for making e-mail campaigns relevant: know thy audience. Are they young? Old? Male? Female? Married? Single? Do they appreciate a good laugh or are they serious about receiving good customer service? Do they open and click through on e-mails that contain links to video or are they more likely to respond to an e-mail if it contains customer reviews? Find out the answers to these questions and more by analyzing your customer and e-mail response data to see what works with each segment of your audience. And make sure you're asking questions that support your business goals.

Next, make your e-mail messages something your audience segments will want to pass along. Focus on making them captivating, valuable, fun, memorable, and remember, not all messages need to be promotional; sometimes people pass things along just because they're impressed by goodwill. Always test to see what works best.

Then, make your messages easy to share. While forward-to-friend applications are nice to have, they're not always widely utilized. So take advantage of social elements and voluntary engagement by adding SWYN (Share With Your Network) links to your e-mails. With one click, recipients can seamlessly post favorite messages on Facebook, MySpace, or any number of social networking sites. We currently work on some very successful campaigns with clients, where replacing forward-to-friend links with "Share This" is already opening doors to hundreds and thousands of extra viral views.

Last but not least, a few more words of advice. Don't forget to include a subscription link in every e-mail, and a single-field opt-in form on every landing page, or you'll miss the opportunity to capture new subscribers. And remember to leverage the learnings from these campaigns to refine future mailings and your overall social media strategy.

THE TAKEAWAY:
Understanding your recipient is key to making your e-mail viral


Joel Book, Director of eMarketing education, ExactTarget

E-mail is obviously not new. But we're beginning to see e-mail 2.0 in which we can give people the opportunity to interact with a brand by using new technologies. Integration is happening between e-mail and other channels like SMS text messaging or voice. This integration of multiple forms of direct contact is really designed to make a cumulative effect, which can make the e-mail extremely viral.

But you can't rush into it. To quote a friend of mine, when it comes to direct marketing, take the time to think it through rather than just think it up. The wonderful thing about new technologies is that they're very compelling in their own right. But the real magic and effectiveness in using these technologies comes about when you really take the time to think about how this will really make it easy for the customer to share their feelings with other perspective customers. Just asking someone to forward an e-mail just for the sake of forwarding isn't as smart as really making it easy at their own choosing to do so.

To make it easy, there are three hallmarks to think about when using this new movement towards advanced technologies. The first is integration. Integrating SMS with e-mail and voice is definitely compelling for recipients. The second is automation—the ability to design a campaign where you can actually automate the execution and based on how someone responds (or does not respond), you can then automate the execution of the follow-up communication. Third is optimization: if I know you're high value customer, for example, I may want to reward you for your loyalty. So I can optimize both at offer level and channel level.

Consumers don't like to be dictated to. The more successful brands are making it easy for customers to interact from brand standpoint and to interact with friends and colleagues. From a sharing and viral aspect, if you can harness that energy and integrate the right technologies and deliver a compelling value proposition or capability to a consumer where they see something they definitely want to share, that's very powerful.

THE TAKEAWAY:
Adding new technologies to e-mails gives recipients more reason to pass them on



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