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Viral Marketing

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Author: Adrian Mullan

We understand if the name 'viral marketing' conjures up all sorts of evil and sinister connotations.

The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Viral Marketing simply refers to a marketing message that spreads quickly from one person to another.

Like the offline world, the idea is to get your message to reach as many people as possible. Viral Marketing adds fuel to the fire by exploiting the speed and reach of the Internet.

In the music world, an artist can go from being an unknown to having his or her song played on radio stations all around the world within a week.

A good viral marketing campaign works just as quickly. It can start with just one person and quickly spread to millions via email.

Example 1

Started in 1996, Hotmail is considered the grandfather of viral marketing.

Although free web-mail is now commonplace, back in 1996 the idea of getting a free email account that could be accessed by anyone was a groundbreaking concept.

In its first 18 months of operation, Hotmail signed up over 12 million users giving it the fastest growing subscriber base in history.

The genius behind Hotmail was the viral marketing effect of the service.

When the two founders, Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia approached a venture capitalist firm to raise money, they also got some good advice.

The venture capitalists suggested attaching a small message at the bottom of every outgoing email to promote the service. And that's exactly what they did.

Attached to every outgoing email was a message that read:

'Get your own free Hotmail email address'

This meant that just by using the service, every new user was in effect endorsing and promoting Hotmail. Starting with a small amount of users, the ripple effect quickly grew Hotmail into the largest email provider in the world!

The effectiveness of this idea is highlighted by the fact that Hotmail spent less than $500,000 on marketing, while a competitor (Juno Online Services) spent over $20 million on traditional marketing to gain a fraction of the users.

Example 2

Amazon also implements viral marketing by encouraging their customers to send gifts to friends.

When the receiver gets the package, they also get a discount flyer promoting and encouraging them to visit the website.

Example 3

French car maker Citroen recently released a viral marketing campaign with a video that features one of their cars transforming into a dancing robot.

The video clip is very entertaining and has spread throughout the world via email.

You can view the video clip here:

Citroen Media Release

Viral Marketing Techniques

Obviously not all of us have access to the funds required to hire a professional animation studio to build a dancing robot.

The good news is that there are many cost effective ways to take advantage of viral marketing.

1. Start a 'Tell-a-Friend' Program

One simple way to encourage viral marketing is to add a 'tell-a-friend' link on your website.

If a reader finds something interesting - they simply click on the link and enter their friend's email address to forward them the web page link.

2. Encourage readers to forward your Newsletter

If you publish an email newsletter, the best way to build up your database is to encourage existing subscribers to forward your newsletter to friends, family and colleagues.

You can add something like this to the bottom of your newsletter:

'Help your friends out!

Forward them this newsletter so they can stay up to date on the latest developments on Widget manufacturing'.

3. Offer a Free Service on Your Website

Offering a useful service for free on your website is a great way to generate repeat visitors to your site.

For example, if you run a website on overseas shipping, offer your customers a free currency conversion tool from

If you're a business consultant, you can offer a free downloadable business plan and so on.

4. Create an Entertaining Game or Video

This option takes a little more work, but when implemented correctly, it can generate a ton of traffic to your website.

Insurance giant Zurich recently created a little Flash game called 'Parking: Battle of the Sexes'. The aim of the game is to answer the age old question 'who's better at parking, men or women'.

Players have to use their keyboard arrows to successfully manoeuvre their vehicle into the parking spot without hitting the other cars.

These types of games or funny video clips tend to circulate through the Internet very quickly. If you do a search on Google, you can usually find a Flash designer who can produce something for you starting at a few hundred dollars.

Ingredients of a Successful Viral Marketing Strategy

- Offer an incentive

When online payment processor PayPal launched their service, they offered you a free $25 credit when you referred a friend to sign up. Offering an incentive answers that question we all have - 'what's in it for me?'.

- Make it funny, entertaining or controversial

If you want your message to reach as many people as possible, it has to be catchy in some way. It has to get attention, make people laugh or generate controversy.

Search engine Lycos publishes a list of entertaining email campaigns at:

- Encourage recipients to forward your message

Once you've done the hard yards of creating your viral marketing piece, you need to encourage users to forward it via email.

You need to include some form of call-to-action like 'click here to email this to your friends'. Don't rely on your users to do it of their own accord - most people respond better when they are prompted to do something.

Final Thoughts on Viral Marketing

All marketing mediums have one thing in common - they're all competing for our limited attention.

Because consumers are now being bombarded with hundreds of advertising messages a day, we simply filter out a lot of conventional advertising.

Viral marketing works because it relies on a relationship between two people. When you receive a message from a friend, you're much more likely to give it attention then an unsolicited promotion (i.e. spam).

Another bonus is that compared to traditional advertising, the costs of implementing a viral marketing campaign are very little and the snowball effect can be huge.

About the author

Adrian Mullan is the author of 'The Internet Demystified' and founder of - a popular Internet marketing resource for small business owners.

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