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How to make viral marketing work for your business

Viral marketing is another term for word-of-mouth marketing that spreads like a virus. If people talk about you to their friends or pass along your newsletter or marketing campaign to their e-mail list, and they in turn send it to others, you've successfully spread your message. If it happens too slow, your message fizzles.

Hotmail.com, the free e-mail services started back in the 1990s, is widely known as the leader in viral marketing. Within a short time, people had forwarded the information about Hotmail to their friends, who signed up for the service, who then e-mailed other friends, and so on. Millions of people signed up, without Hotmail having to spend an enormous amount of money in advertising and promotion. People came, saw what they liked and spread the message.

Other significant viral campaigns include the movie "The Blair Witch Project," Google, and the dancing baby (this one became so popular it ended up on Ally McBeal in a dream sequence).

There are no magic potions to make viral marketing work. Some of the best-laid plans wilt, while sudden inspirations for a campaign can turn into folklore. When thinking about your marketing strategy, there are some tips to follow when planning your efforts:

  1. Don't focus on the message as much as focusing on the business. Think of the campaign like an entrepreneur. What makes your business successful and why would people want to pass along your message, your service and what you're offering? Write down all your possibilities and examine each before deciding on your messaging.

  2. Ensure your Web site or e-newsletter is built to allow forwarding and encourages it. If your message isn't meant to be easily forwarded, or it loses its structure en route, your message gets lost in the tangle. Your viral campaign just fizzled.

  3. Offer an incentive, entertainment or service they can use. An article that I read on clickz.com discussed a women's clothing retailer that rewarded message recipients with a free T-shirt and a $1 donation to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation when an individual sent the special e-mail message to five friends and three of those friends opted in to the retailer's catalog or e-mail list. The campaign was tremendously successful, driving a click-through rate three times higher than normal, an e-mail newsletter sign-up rate of over 30%, and a catalog subscription rate of nearly 70%. Meanwhile, cost per sale decreased by 89%.

  4. What appeals is honesty and authenticity. There are different types of viral marketing: entertainment, utility (offers something the reader can use), palpable reward (instant gratification) and uniqueness (something they have never seen before). Whichever campaign you choose, be sure that you're realistic and truthful. People will only forward something they believe is worthwhile. The saying goes, if they like your message, they will forward it to 12 people. If they don't like your message, they'll either delete it or tell 12 people not to listen to it. Bad publicity never works favorably for small businesses.

  5. Personalize the subject line in the referral e-mails. When your message is forwarded, ensure your infrastructure can support personalization in the subject line. For example, "Brandi Logan thinks you will like this offer." In turn, each person who forwards it to others has their name in the subject line instead.

  6. Track the results and analyze the data. How are people responding to the message? Are they forwarding it or is it staying within the group you originally sent it to? Is it more popular with one target audience than others? Ensure you track your campaign and make tweaks to the messaging to help its success.

  7. Continually promote friendly referrals. Every time you send something out, study your incentive success (based on the data analysis above) and repeat it with a slight twist to mix it up.

Viral marketing is perceived as an art instead of a science. The beauty is in the minimal costs (perfect for a shoestring budget) and the high rate of success if done properly. Start small and try it on a select target group. Analyze it and build future campaigns on what works for you. As with all word-of-mouth, if handled properly, it can reap huge rewards.

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