Commentary

How Seeding Can Produce Viral Velocity For Widgets And Social Applications

Viral marketing has evolved from experimental guerrilla marketing to an essential element of any online branding campaign. Nevertheless, very few widgets and social applications "go viral," and most professional marketers now understand that viral marketing is something of an accidental strategy.

Ideally, there would be adequate time and budget to create, test, and iterate many widgets and social applications to find the magic combination for viral velocity. However, most marketers have neither the time or the competitive running room for this.

The best approach to attaining viral lift-off is an active seeding strategy. Seeding is the process of tapping people with a known propensity for sharing your content. Seeding significantly increases the probability that a widget or social application will find an audience, get installed, and be shared.

Why viral velocity is so challenging

According to Forrester Research, 25% to 40% of people who download content share it. The following formula describes viral propensity, or "R":

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R=P (% of people who share) * N (number of people they share with)

To achieve an R > 1, at which time a promotion is said to "go viral," 25% of the people who download content must share with more than 4 people, or 40% of the people must share it with more than 2.5 people.

In today's crowded marketplace, it is increasingly difficult for promotions to "go viral" on their own. That's why seeding is so important.

Methodical seeding programs drive viral distribution

These active seeding programs are particularly effective:

1. Pay-per-install. An individual downloading a widget or social application is asked whether he would like to download another. If he opts in, the developer of the "other" application or widget is billed for each install--typically one to two dollars. This seeding method is best done in moderation, and there are formulas available that advise how much distribution should be purchased based on the specific parameters of a promotion.

2. Targeted seeding. A widget is seeded with select influencers, typically bloggers or individuals with large social networking communities. Their blogs or profile pages should be carefully analyzed for their areas of interest and circle of influence, or "social graph."

Influencers are particularly valuable because they are typically "multi-communicators"; They use multiple social networks to communicate and have large, deeply entwined social graphs. One very effective approach is to create a cross-platform widget that can first be posted as a Web widget for select bloggers and later morphed into a Facebook or OpenSocial application. Some marketers create a regular widget for all vehicles, plus an enhanced widget with exclusive content seeded with less than 200 highly influential bloggers on a few special-interest social networks. They have separate tracking codes, and we anticipate different levels of viral transmission and engagement.

New tools help analyze the social graph across social networks and viral environments.

3. Formal or informal outreach. One example of informal outreach is having an internal team log on to a social network, install the widget or social application, and have their friends do likewise. Informal seeding may entail leaving the first set of comments on the wall (Facebook) or profile page (MySpace), or within a widget if it allows for dynamic, two-way interactions. Informal seeding is most effective when participants understand the market and are genuinely enthusiastic.

Word-of-mouth marketing agencies offer more formal programs. For example, Target Corporation hired "rounders" to talk up its Facebook page. Although these people were supposed to conceal that they were Target employees, the word spread quickly...with predictable results. Hiring people to talk up a Facebook page or other promotional vehicle is fine, as long as the activity is authentic.

4. Emailing or other low-cost demand generation. Existing email lists can be leveraged to drive customers to download a widget or social application. This works best if a company has an active and enthusiastic installed base.

Promotional strategies complement and enhance seeding programs

Other metbods help drive initial installations, even without a large customer email list. It's a good idea for companies to place widgets or mobile applications on their own sites for download--ideally adjacent to relevant content. Big entertainment companies are great at this. Also, pursue other low-cost promotional strategies, but don't expect them to deliver specific installation metrics. They are typically passive, and some are actually imprudent.

1. Directories. The iGoogle gadgets directory has about 40,000 listed; Apple's directory of dashboard widgets has over 4,400; and the Facebook application directory has over 10,000. WidgetBox provides a cross-platform directory just for widgets.

2. Search engine marketing. Since so many people discover new content through search, SEO makes sense. With the right platform, it's easy to produce widgets and social applications that are search engine-friendly.

3. Forced seeding. When Facebook debuted, marketers could insist that users invite 10-20 friends to share an application before they could install it. Forced seeding has lost favor on Facebook and elsewhere, and audiences often perceive it as spam. Companies violating Facebook's application developer guidelines could be barred from Facebook.

"Big Seed" planning: not new, yet controversial

Some marketers opt for the "big seed," investing more up front to increase the probability of exponential success.

Big seed planning can be controversial among those who believe that viral marketing is or should be free or very low-cost. Actually, major brands invest heavily in the videos they distribute on YouTube and elsewhere. Likewise, no one likes to talk about seeding, although it's essential if a widget-based promotion is to reach millions. According to Watts, Peretti, and Frumin, co-authors of "Viral Marketing for the Real World," for every install acquired via direct seeding, additional installs will increase by 10% to 100%, depending on the target audience, its propensity to share, and content quality.

Seeding. It's key, especially for widgets and social applications.

The academic paper cited on Big Seed Marketing is available on the Columbia University Business School site at http://cdg.columbia.edu/uploads/papers/watts2007_viralMarketing.pdf

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