Viral Marketing Techniques You Can Use

Do you remember that old commercial in which a woman in love with her shampoo tells two friends, who tell two friends, who tell two friends? Within seconds, your TV screen is filled with happy women with shiny, manageable hair.

It’s the old word-of-mouth method of marketing, and it works better today than ever, thanks in large measure to the Internet. In Web marketing, word-of-mouth is known commonly as viral marketing because, as with a virus, it spreads quickly.

Viral marketing is a term coined by venture capitalist firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson to describe a unique referral-marketing program created by Hotmail, one of the first free e-mail services. Hotmail was nothing short of brilliant when it included a promotional line for its free e-mail service at the bottom of every message. Users of Hotmail were automatically promoting the free service to their friends and colleagues every time they sent an e-mail message. The free service spread like, well, like a virus.

Hotmail received 12 million new subscribers within 18 months of its launch from this simple technique. Draper Fisher Jurvetson reports that Hotmail spent less than $500,000 on marketing, advertising and promotion during this period while its nearest competitor, Juno, spent $20 million for a fraction of the subscribers.

Today more than ever, consumers are bombarded with advertising messages. You need to find innovative and cost-effective ways to rise above the noise, to create a sense of trust and to elicit action. Viral marketing does all of these things because it uses your customers as the marketing channel. When your customers spread the word to their friends, family and colleagues, there’s an implied — and at times, stated — endorsement.

So how can you implement viral marketing?

Viral marketing works best with communications products and services that require more than just the purchaser to make them work. Examples include e-mail, instant messaging, secure data transfer and community building sites.

With these types of services, there’s a built-in motivation and mechanism for customers to bring in new customers. However, viral marketing works with just about any kind of product or service. You just need to think creatively.

Start by thinking of your customers and what would motivate them to spread the word to their friends or colleagues. Is it cost savings, free products, valuable information, being cool? Once you have an idea of what motivates them, you can put together your plan. Here are few suggestions to get you started:

Win something. One of the most successful techniques I’ve used is to build viral marketing into a contest or sweepstakes. Run a contest and give entrants a chance to increase their odds of winning every time they send a promotional e-mail on your behalf. You can program your Web-based contest so that every time one of your customers sends the special promotional e-mail to a new address, he receives an automatic, additional entry. Because the winner will be drawn at random, the more entries a person has, the greater the odds of winning. With so many contests on the Web, be sure to offer a prize that has a high perceived value by your customers. A free T-shirt will get you nowhere.

Information, please. One of the most effective methods of viral marketing is so simple that everyone should use it. Place “Send this page to a friend” buttons on your site. If your site includes valuable information for your target audience — which it should — then offer your customers an easy way to forward it to their friends and colleagues. This information can include articles, white papers, photos, audio or video files and survey data. You also can find sites that will want to publish your valuable content. Pursue these arrangements and make sure they link directly to your site. Many niche media publications drive a lot of qualified traffic. Why not drive some of it to your site?

Trial this. Offer to give away a free trial to customers who pass along a promotional message to their friends and colleagues. You can set this up on your site easily with a simple Web form. Your customers provide you with the e-mail addresses of a certain number of people, and you take care of the rest. Be sure to include a statement that assures your customers that you will do nothing with these addresses other than send the message they’ve agreed to send. This is extremely important if you are to build trust and a network of happy customers.

Let’s play. You may have the kind of product or service that could best be promoted via a game or other interactive device. Offer free downloads from your site and build in ways for customers to forward them to their friends. If stunning graphics help sell your business, like travel, art or nature, then consider using e-cards to spread the word. When your customers send e-cards, their friends receive e-mail notification, but they must visit your site to retrieve their card. These new site visitors are highly qualified prospects because they were hand-selected by their own friends.

You know from your own experience that word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing vehicle. Why not use the technology that’s available today to facilitate what you know works?

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