Commentary

Virally Yours

A few years ago plenty was being written about the potential goldmine that viral e-mail marketing offered online marketers who learned how to take advantage of it. At the time it was generally acknowledged that viral campaigns were generally a stroke of luck rather than a stroke of genius. To have a message that somehow was deemed worthy of getting passed from one person to another was the thing of dreams, and plenty of pointers were offered to help e-mail marketers reach the heights.

Now that we've had a few more years to ponder the value of viral e-mail as the end all in online marketing I ask the question: "Is it possible to design a successful viral e-mail campaign or is it still just luck of the draw?" Add to that the question, "Is it possible to plan out a branding campaign that people will actually want to pass along even if it's not associated with a game, silly video clip, nudity, or an animation spoofing presidential candidates?"

Certainly we've seen successful examples, with the Burger King Subservient Chicken being the latest example. But other contenders in the past few years have been the 2-minute "Cog," the Honda car commercial from the UK that showed that people, despite what TiVo detractors would say, will not only watch a long form commercial but will pass it along as long as the creative is outstanding.

(Speaking of which - and I'll take a little sidebar here: I've never understood why advertisers, instead of fighting the TiVo trend, don't start embracing it with ads that NEED a TiVo to be seen in their entirety. For instance, how about embedding a secret code in a frame or two of a commercial that would give you a discount or a just provide a funny Easter Egg which could only be seen by TiVo users who have the ability to freeze frame on a specific portion of the commercial. Buried treasure is always a high motivator for getting people to slow down and view the message.) It is interesting to note that the folks at JibJab have begun selling downloads of their famous candidate parodies for $2.99 a pop. One wonders, as a revenue generation tool it might end up being a case of too little too late. In fact, now that the election is over, it might be a bit painful for some of us to watch.

In most cases, the viral e-mails that we receive are unformatted links to Web sites that offer a video clip or some other interesting indulgence. However there have also been a good number of commercially formatted e-mails that we may or may not see. Fortunately the folks at Viral.3dge.net have created a huge repository of viral e-mails and other 'shared experience' documents that have made the rounds. Spending some time in their stacks should give you an idea of what seems to work best. No surprise that humor and sex lead the pack.

The success of viral e-mail marketing has its basis in the sharing of experiences. We like to share things that amuse, shock, intrigue, and anger us with others whom we feel will have a similar experience. Not every message has to have great meaning: sometimes it's nothing more than a really good ad.

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