Stronger Viral Marketing Campaigns

Viral marketing campaigns are not easy, but here are a few tips that can help yours find success

We wrote a few weeks ago that many marketers are planning a viral marketing campaign, even though only a few marketers said theirs worked.

Why are marketers having such a hard time with viral marketing? Why can’t they seem to trigger a word-of-mouth epidemic?

Columbia University Sociology Professor Duncan Watts attempts to answer that question with some mathematical analysis in an article in Harvard Business Review.

Watts argues that all viral marketing campaigns start out as a “seed” of individuals with a reproduction rate, R. The seed people are the first to get the marketing message and the rate at which they spread it is R.

If R is greater than 1, then each seed person is “infecting” more than one person with the message. The recently infected also “infect” more than one person, and so on, spreading the message exponentially.

If R is less than one, then each seed person is telling less than one person, and the message will burn out faster.

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“Purely viral campaigns, like disease outbreaks, typically start with a small number of seed cases and quickly burn themselves out unless their R exceeds the epidemic threshold, or tipping point, of 1,” Watts said in the article.

The initial reaction is to think “alright, we need to get that R up. Let’s give people more incentive to pass the message along.” Watts, however, says that it might be better to start with a bigger seed.

“Companies, unlike diseases, can use standard advertising methods to create potentially enormous seeds. If the initial seed is big enough, then even if R is less than 1, the burnout process will persist for multiple generations, thereby reaching many additional people,” according to the article.

So if your company is planning a viral campaign, do so while leveraging your “traditional” online marketing channels, like PPC ads, email and search marketing.

You can, of course, strive to increase your message’s spread rate, R.

Watts suggests “providing social-sharing tools that are easy to use.”

There is also a New York Times article that says many marketers are trying to spark a viral response with funny video ads. (The end of the article, however, cites a survey from Adweek Web where 43 percent of respondents said the advertisement-entertainment based portals like Very Funny Ads are “too limited and doomed to fail.”)

We also had an article earlier this month that cites a Pew Internet & American Life Project report that says online video has viral properties, with 57 percent of online video viewers sharing videos and 75 percent of viewers receiving shared video.

What does all this mean?

Viral marketing campaigns are risky. If you’re still planning on trying one, make sure you leverage your marketing channels to build your “seed” and then use tactics that will increase the rate your video spreads, R.


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