Leveraging predictive analytics in viral marketing

Viral marketing has long been regarded as something of a black art. Few companies understand what it takes to inspire their customers to open their Rolodexes and share a product, service, brand or offer with their friends and colleagues.

But nearly all marketers would agree that the most persuasive form of advertising is a personal endorsement from a trusted contact. They just don’t know how to get the ball rolling.

So where to start? The good news is that viral marketing has come a long way over the last decade or so, especially in the last year. Social media leaders such as MySpace and Facebook are offering new ad units that bring a social element to online brand experiences.

In 2006, leading brands started baking virality into their marketing mix by taking advantage of new technology that allows marketers to create, test, optimize and sustain viral marketing programs focused on real, tangible marketing objectives. Viral marketing goes way beyond buzz these days.

While the technology is more advanced than ever, the fundamental drivers that make viral marketing so effective haven’t changed.

A 2004 Yankelovich study showed that people are nearly three times more likely to trust a friend’s recommendation over an expert’s opinion. And get this: a Wharton study released late last year showed that people socially connected to your customers are three to five times more likely to take you up on an offer than people you’d target with traditional marketing messages.

Cede control to drive better results?  A few years back, conventional wisdom was that the more contrived a viral marketing campaign was, the less likely the campaign would succeed. To predict the success of a viral marketing campaign has historically been a hit-or-miss proposition. Back then, consumer tastes and behavioral patterns were not an easily predictable construct. So, to be successful, viral marketers had to guess at human nature and behavior patterns – ephemeral concepts at best. And not everyone had a brand like Google to leverage.

Not so anymore. Specialized Web publishing platforms and advanced, predictive analytics allow marketers to publish and optimize viral programs. Marketers can now measure, analyze, predict and optimize total viral performance for any consumer-facing brand.

In fact, viral marketers have created an entirely new language and set of concepts that sounds a lot like the language used by other performance marketing segments:

Seeds. The first or primary participant who is invited to share viral material with his or her social network is called a “seed.” This person typically hears about a viral program through seeding activities: customer e-mail announcements, post-purchase links or traditional online or offline media buys that drive a person to a viral program.

Offspring. Those prospective customers who hear about your offer, content, service or experience from a friend and opt in to the viral program. These are prospective customers or highly qualified and very valuable leads.

Virality. Refers to the rate at which new participants attract additional participants into a given program. Higher virality rates drive increases in brand impressions, registered users, leads and customers.

Viral conversion rates. The rates at which viral participants – those invited into the program by their social connections – take desired marketing actions. Research demonstrates that these rates are much higher than traditional conversion rates on offers made by the marketer directly.

Viral marketing opportunity. A prediction of the total number of people in the participants’ extended social networks. This determines the potential viral impact of any given program.

Marketers are no longer beholden to innovators and early adopters for successful viral campaigns. In fact, the notion that viral marketing campaigns must be offbeat or humorous is obsolete with the advent of new technology in the viral marketing space. Now that the guesswork has been removed, look for viral marketing technology to become the engine that drives word of mouth to new heights in the coming months.

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