Viral Marketing Needs DM Principles

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Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the latest installment of "Buzzword Roulette!" Our contestant this month: viral marketing.


But now, the real question looms: Will viral marketing become just another phrase in a long line of hype? Will it suffer the same fate as last year's contestant, push technology? Will it wind up alone and penniless, like last August's long shot, portal?


Or maybe, in a time where half the world still believes in stock options and the other half is jumping ship to the next great "pre-IPO company," we finally will learn to use some principles of direct marketing and apply them properly. A viral marketing campaign without any direct marketing principles is useless.


So what is viral marketing? I like Internet marketing expert Jim Sterne's definition: "Viral marketing is word-of-mouth on steroids." If someone sees an advertisement, maybe they'll click. More than likely, they won't. If someone tells someone how great something is, the percentages skyrocket. With a viral marketing campaign, a promotion will generally reward a customer to forward an e-mail with an incentive of a contest or a discount.


Viral marketing is an afterthought. People rarely realize that it has merit, and it usually comes to pass when companies notice that the largest amount of new users come from current users.


Afterthoughts rarely work. Viral marketing should be implemented as a staple in any good online or offline marketing plan. Viral marketing when managed properly is predictable, quantifiable and scalable.


The following are ways how viral marketing should work:


• Give your users a reason to spread the word. Regardless of how good the reward, people aren't going to recommend something that proves disastrous to them. Without a good customer-service-based foundation, your campaign won't make it off the ground. Provide your users with a good foundation, and add to that a localized call-to-action that rewards them for spreading the word (contests, points, T-shirts, etc.).


• Allow your users to add a personal touch to the e-mail. Remember, viral marketing works when your customers believe in what they're sending. They're not mindless drones doing what you tell them to do.


• Provide the recipient with a reason to respond (discount offer, etc.) and a clear path to follow. What's in it for me? If you can't answer that from the beginning, rethink your plan.


• Test, test and test again. Test to see which offer is a driver of referrals, and which drives the best response. Is it something as simple as a different subject line? Perhaps the first line in the e-mail is the clincher. Play with them. How are the results? Test again. Never assume that simply because one campaign is working, it will continue to do so.


• Quantify it. Measure number of referrals, number of responses to referrals and sales resulting from those referrals -- position against test offers and make sure that your numbers continue to climb. If they don't, do not wait to see if they will again; change the promotion, try something new.


Viral marketing is not a means in and of itself. It's one rung on the ladder of marketing success. But when used correctly, viral marketing can be a powerful amplifier of your marketing curriculum, lowering customer acquisition rates and increasing your sales.
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