Viral E-mails: Dress Right For The Party

As Paul Beck wrote in last week's EEC "E-mail Insider" column, "E-mail is back, and ready to party." But if you want to keep your dance card full, you have to dress for the party.

The other day I received an e-mail from a good friend of mine. It was forwarded from his GMail account, and the subject line was nothing more than: "HAHA - Fw: Your friend Janet has sent..." As the day wore on, my "good friend's" impersonal e-mail moved further down my inbox list and remained unopened. Elvis had left the building.

"Hey did you see the awesome viral message I sent you?" his IM read later that day. Upon retrieving the forwarded message from my trash and clicking through to the site-based flash movie of a baby in a tuxedo, I let out a soft chuckle (and then deleted it). I noticed the original e-mail only said "Forward this viral message!" Makes you wonder what happened to the brand in this viral e-mail.



There's more to viral success then just the call-to-action to pass content along, yet so many marketers today struggle with defining the key elements of a successful viral e-mail strategy.

The most important element of a viral strategy is the way the sender behaves as the advocate. Wikipedia says: "Viral marketing and viral advertising refer to marketing techniques that seek to exploit preexisting social networks." These preexisting social connections are core to successful viral marketing.

In Unleashing the Ideavirus, author and permission marketing guru Seth Godin reiterates the notion that successful viral ideas are all about the viral passers, often enhancing their power or reputation. Like my buddy's "awesome" viral message--it's about how the spreader spreads; the content is second.

So how do marketers create viral e-mail strategies that target the spreader?

  1. Know your advocates. At MediaPost's E-mail Insider Summit in May, a panel of marketers discussed viral marketing strategies and e-mail. One notion we knocked around was identifying viral advocates at the time of opt-in. Actively recruiting advocates helps marketers focus on the "spreader." Preference Centers that manage e-mail subscriptions and offer additional sign-ups for viral advocacy programs can identify segments with a high chance of sending messaging on to friends and family. What are you doing now to identify top prospects for viral passing?

  1. Leverage your advocates. These same passionate volunteers might be a key source of viral content. They can be gathered in simple communities (online site-based groups like, for instance) and exposed to viral ideas. They can endorse and create your next viral content strategy. Since they created it, they'll surely pass it along. Do you ask your best customers to talk about you with their best friends?

  1. Keep it simple. Despite the importance of advocates willing to spread your viral content, the format of this content must help motivate them. Elaborate flash engines with lots of steps might take too much time to get passed on. (On the other hand, flat material and content, easily available at sites or in open newsletters, might not be "special" enough to make them feel powerful.) Can your existing content be repackaged for an advocate's network?

  1. Explain yourself. Tell your advocates how important their endorsement is! "Forward to a Friend" is not that special. We're not doing our passers as much of a favor as they do us when passing our content along to friends. Do your advocates know how much you depend on them?

My buddy is important to me. The content he forwarded wasn't. But when I got a personal endorsement from him, that all changed--and I gotta admit, that baby was pretty cute.

Do you want to take part in the coolest viral e-mail around? If so, click here and tell us what you think the right spelling of e-mail actually is: email, e-mail, Email, E-mail, eMail, e-Mail? Don't forget to send this link to your friends and colleagues.

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