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The siren song of viral marketing


How can we ensure that as many of the right people as possible know about this thing we sell, do, or believe?

This is the major question that faces marketers. There are a lot of other elements that enter into the equation, of course. Things like budgets, deadlines, profits must be factored in before you find the right answer, but the basic question remains the same.

“Viral Marketing” is built with desert water

In a perfect world, we’d be able to hit our entire target audience, and hardly spend a dime. We’d flick a switch or perform a magic trick and the cash would flow. This is the promise of viral marketing.

All around us the sirens are singing songs of Youtube smashes, retweet avalanches and Like Button bonanzas. After years of wandering the desert of traditional marketing, the viral power of the social media shimmers and glows like a pool of water just beyond the horizon. It looks too good to be true… but what if.. just this once… it works…

If in your travels through the desert, you encounter a weary marketer asking you to join them on a journey to the crystal clear viral marketing pool, there’s something you should know about people who against better judgment go for the oasis:

99 out of 100 times they end up dead with a mouthful of sand.

Solving the equation for value

There’s more than one way to solve any problem. Avoid the temptress that is viral, stare your marketing issues in the face and ask yourself: how can we solve this equation for value.

Here are some things that are valuable:

  • Helping to solve a problem that your target audience is facing
  • Enabling your audience to bring joy to someone else
  • Doing something good for society or the environment
  • Making someone smile or laugh
  • Providing a venue for your audience to tell you what they’re interested in or what you could do better.

See where this is going? This isn’t some sort of jedi mind trick. I just listed some hallmarks of ideas that spread really well.

Here’s the thing: Value is viral

By keeping your focus on useful, meaningful content; you build something that still works equally well if one or one million people hear your message.

How to win

You will soon be faced with the question all over again.

How can we ensure that as many of the right people as possible know about this thing we sell, do, or believe?

The usual variable will be stacked against you as they always are: achieve bigger profits with a smaller budget on a shorter deadline than ever.

You will have two ways to solve the equation.
a) Do something crazy, cross your fingers and pray for “viral marketing”.

b) Build a message that is jam packed with the kind of value that your target audience would expect from your brand. Present yourself as someone your customers will want to get to know better. Tell a story good enough that it would be retold if all technology were to disappear tomorrow.

What path are you going to take?

Photo Credit: Steve Rideout

Making content social: Copy, paste, share.

When was the last time you shared an article with a friend? How did you do it? There are lots of potential answers here… Did you tweet it? Share it on Facebook? Digg it? Maybe you found it absolutely delic.io.us with a social bookmark? All of these tools have made broadcasting articles to new audiences as easy as a few clicks of a mouse.

But what about the last time you wanted to share just a snippet of an article. Maybe a really interesting paragraph or quote. Chances are we’re all in the same boat here – using a command as old as the Macintosh – good ol’ copy & paste.

Making copy/paste more sticky

In terms of duplicating content, copy and paste gets the job done just fine. But when compared with the true “social sharing” methods mentioned earlier, it fails in one respect: context. As soon as a piece of text has been clipped from a web page and pasted into an email or instant message window, there is no guarantee that the recipient will ever know the original source; drastically limiting their ability to read more about the topic that might be of interest to them. From a content provider standpoint this naturally translates into fewer clickthroughs on interesting “shared” content, fewer page views, fewer ads served and taken to the extreme, less revenue.

On a visit to Sports Illustrated today, I stumbled upon evidence that through the magic of Javascript, copy & paste has evolved.

If a selection of text (interestingly, 6 words or more) is copied and subsequently pasted into another window, not only does the user get the text they wanted, but also an unexpected Easter egg.

Look closely at what’s happening here! The developers at SI are hijacking your copy and paste command, and inserting not only a link to the source content, but also an offer about subscribing to the magazine.

But they didn’t stop there. Upon clicking through to the site, the user is greeted with the original source text conveniently highlighted in order to provide context of that quote within the article.

It’s cute, but does it convert?

Any user experience that deviates from the expected is risky – coming with both benefits and drawbacks. How does this new sharing functionality translate in terms of real world user testing. Hopefully, the developers who implemented this are tracking analytics of the feature’s use.

  • How many of the URLs generated by this functionality actually deliver visitors to the site? (copy and paste clickthrough rate!)
  • How much revenue is generated by the advertising offer contained within the link? (copy and paste ROI!)
  • Does the clickthrough rate increase when the ad is removed? (copy and paste A/B testing!)
  • What percentage of users copy and paste again after seeing the new style in action? (return copy and paste visitors!)
  • Does the percent of users copying and pasting increase or decrease compared to average using this new technology? (copy and paste visitor trending!)

So what if you don’t sell content

Not everyone is Sports Illustrated, in the business of attracting eyeballs to look at flashy banners. Some of us have real products to sell, or leads to generate, or public service information to convey. How can the rest of us use this type of JS technology to improve the experience for our users?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Learn what quotes drive traffic – Its fairly straightforward to learn what words on your pages are driving organic search traffic, but this technology has the potential to provide insight into what words on your pages are driving social shared traffic.
  • Make your quotes tweetable – What if every time someone copied content that was 120 characters or less, and pasted it into a tweet, the source URL was appended to the end. One quick trip through a URL shortener and your content is instantly sourced and syndicated. Content longer than 120 characters could be spared this treatment, as it would only create a hassle for the user.
  • Remove the need to copy at all – What if you tweaked the javascript so that instead of appending a link to the information, it instead triggered a javascript event in your web analytics? I can see huge impacts here for B2B, higher ed and anyone else with potential information gatherers on their sites. Do you see people copying and pasting a particular page of product specs? Or maybe some pre-requisites for an academic course. Or maybe instructions about self-service support for a product.Can you provide that information in a downloadable PDF? Maybe this is a place to put a call-to-action where someone could contact a sales team member. Users are indicating an area of interest, how can you make this information as readily usable as possible.

What are your thoughts on what Sports Illustrated is doing? Does it disrupt your typical copy/paste pattern? What other applications are possible using this technology?

Skip the events, create the network

I’ve never really understood the verb “to network”. It always seemed like a frivolous thing to me, something people said when they wanted to sound like they were on the verge of going places, to explain their current status of standing still. I have always felt that a network was a noun, a thing; maybe not something you could wrap your arms around or take a picture of, but at least a tangible concept that represented real things that were interconnected by common bonds.

Networking is not a place – it’s the journey

I’ve never done anything with the intent of “networking”. I’ve always just done things; talked about things; researched things. Along the way, I’ve met some brilliant people full of brilliant and passionate ideas about their fields. Strong bonds are formed through collective experience – be it a struggle, a discovery, a failure or a triumph. If you go about your life with your goals in mind, you’ll find valuable, like-minded friends along the road. Skipping the experience means skipping the journey and standing in the white-walled room labeled “Networking”.

The networking event

In years gone by, finding like-minded people wasn’t as easy as it is today. A world without search meant we were limited to the true six degrees of separation of the physical world. If you didn’t know someone who knew someone, you were out of luck. Before social tools, geography was a limiting factor in communications. Staying in touch from a distance meant arduous phone calls, emails, or newsletters. The way to solve these two factors was easy – the networking event: gather as many individuals as possible together in a room, put out some crackers and allow them to mingle and exchange business cards and pleasantries.

Spontaneous vs contrived

These events can generally fall into two categories: grassroots events and marketing events.
The natural events are part of the journey. Groups of people on similar journeys decide it’s time to get together and share a space and weave their paths together for a period of time. A tweet-up is a great example of this. It just happens.

The marketing event is a different species. A person with a financial interest in a particular demographic has a goal of herding wearied travelers into their roadside stop, hoping to sell them something they need; a car, a vacation, an education, or the promise of a comfortable retirement. Positioned as outsiders, marketers are continually stuck with the difficult task of not just finding people, but also in convincing them to listen to a sales pitch. Networking events once had value; filling the same need as the local church: listen to the talk and share some crackers but most of all get to know your tribe.

Networking met social

We don’t live in that village anymore. Our village ran a wire to the next village. We added the ability to search and find others on journeys to similar destinations in life. We built social networks, and it is easier than ever to keep in touch with groups of any size; regardless of geography or any other physical limitation.

This has had a polarizing effect on the two types of networking events. Our increasing ability to find others and build ties before meeting in person, combined with the ability to quickly mobilize has made grassroots meet-ups more powerful and valuable than ever. On the other hand, the value proposition of corporate events is progressively weakened. Take the networking out of church, and you’re at least left with religion. Take the networking out of the event, and you’re left with a sales pitch. Now where’s the fun in that?

Be part of the journey – create the network

Photo credit: MV Janzen | Flickr
Photo credit: MV Janzen | Flickr

Put yourself in the shoes of Kevin Costner. You’ve been tasked with assembling a team of deceased baseball legends. What do you do?

You could buy billboards in small towns across the mid west, where barnstorming teams once ruled the summers. You could run classifieds in the obituary sections of newspapers in historically strong baseball cities. You could buy a list of leads from Cooperstown and cold call around dinner time.

Or you could build your own baseball field and give the players a compelling reason to come to you.

When he wanted to find other web analysts, Eric Peterson built his own baseball field. He created the Yahoo! Web Analytics Group, which has grown to be the most valuable source of information in the industry.

When she needed to communicate with incoming students, Rachel Reuben built her own baseball field. Cafe New Paltz is a network built on Ning that allows for all new students at her University to get to know each other.

When Gary Vaynerchuk wanted to reach wine drinkers, he built one field (Wine Library TV) and bought another (Corkd – a social network for oenophiles around the world).

If you build it…

Compared to the thought of building your own network, it seems easy to build a marketing plan, spend some money, get a pile of impressions and find a few folks willing to show up to your venue if the weather is good and the refreshments are better.

How do you keep in touch with these people after the fact, and how do they keep in touch with each other. What happens when you need to do your event again next month, next quarter or next year?

You have to repeat the process all over again, spending all the money all over again.

What if you started now, and created a community, building it one person at a time. What if you used your current marketing spend for your next event to encourage people to join a facebook or LinkedIn group? What if you put information about your tribe on your website and attracted a few new people every day.

Take the message of your two-hour event and deliver consistent value throughout the year. Participate within the group as an expert in your industry, answering the questions that arise amongst the conversations that occur. With a bit of patience and dedication, your next event won’t be a simply room of strangers sitting through a sales pitch, it will be a grassroots meet-up of friends. Maybe the next event won’t require your marketing budget, and will be organized by the group, who will understand your value and invite you along for the journey.