Viral Marketing: How To Make It A Healthy Practice

We all love the idea of viral marketing and the concept of our database organically building itself through loyal customer affinities. We also love the idea of a Web site that is self-advertising through viral messaging, using the Send to a Friend feature. There is much debate about what acceptable practices are, and what falls in the gray areas specific to the e-mail side of this equation. What impact can it have on your reputation if you relinquish control of the “send”? Here are two commonly used viral methods and my reflections about each.

E-mail --Send to a Friend. Reputable marketers use this device in e-mails to enable subscribers to forward an original e-mail through the marketer’s delivery system. It typically involves a Web form that captures basic information, and in some cases allows the user to insert a custom message. The resultant e-mail is sometimes addressed from the subscriber, and sometimes it carries the “from” address of the marketer.



Novice marketers usually ask whether they can e-mail the friend in a separate initiative later. Let’s be clear: you do not have rights to this referred e-mail address. That person has not given you permission to e-mail them. Take caution: some E-mail Service Providers won’t do business with you if you don’t have proper opt-in practices.

However, there are some clever ways to introduce your brand to the friend in the forwarded e-mail. The referral message can be substantially the same as the original message, but with an added introduction to your company. This provides needed context for the recipient. For instance, a cataloger could include a catalog directory, which they would not normally send to its current subscriber base. A brand marketer could compose the referral message with a stronger brand voice or additional information on the current promotion. You can even introduce a “new member” promotion in the message.

One program my company supported had a viral rate of less than five percent, but the effective subscriber rate of those who received referral communications was well over 70 percent. In sweeps programs, we often find that the referrals register at two to three times the rate of original recipients. Sometimes the viral program makes the difference between success and failure, but often it is poorly infused into a program, done more as an after-thought than a creative execution.

The negative side of Send to a Friend e-mail is the harm it can cause your brand if the program is too successful. We’ve seen many clients  who run great viral programs, then find out they were close to being blocked by AOL because of SPAM complaints from the referrals. You should take this into account in your risk-to-reward ratio. I see more brand and b-to-b marketers doing this, while ecommerce-driven businesses shy away from it.

We should remember that there is a finite population of consumers who will forward your e-mail to like-minded consumers, and if you don’t give them an easily identifiable forwarding mechanism, they might use their own e-mail software to forward it. This puts the integrity of your e-mail at risk because it can be mangled in a number of ways, intentionally or unintentionally. You only get one chance.

Web site--Send to a Friend. Many Web sites use this technique to enable visitors to share content, usually delivering a simple text e-mail carrying a link to the Web page.  Technology limits us from sending the whole Web experience by e-mail (see my July 3rd column, “Rich Media E-mail—Alive or Dead?” for a full explanation). In terms of best practices, I’d recommend reserving the Send to a Friend function for sites that support rich or affinity-valued content (for example, CPG, entertainment, automotive). Create a theme for your Send to a Friend button that relates to the site experience, such as “Share this with your college friends.” A new tactic I’ve seen used is a notification to senders that their friends have received their e-mail. I’d include a brief thank-you message to senders, to show that you value their interest.

If you think this type of viral marketing is a one-hit wonder you may be seeing it through the wrong looking glass. The best way to find the value of these efforts is not with one campaign at a time, but over time. You’ll find certain programs, content and segments respond well and others don’t, but the net effect is organic growth to your marketing reach.

We are given the responsibility of bringing people into our programs through a faceless channel, and we need to create the most value at these points of interaction. Referral or viral messaging plays a key part in this success

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