Why Viral Marketing May Not Work For You

September 3, 2008


Almost every new or budding business owner I talk to seems to be obsessed with viral marketing. And many of them hope it is going to “happen” to their business. And that’s great - trouble is, I’ve seen very few successful viral marketing campaigns. And they rarely just happen - they’re engineered.

A viral marketing campaign just wouldn’t work for most types of business, at all because they’re missing a special ingredient. And it’s not that their business isn’t good enough. In fact word of mouth marketing would work well for most of these businesses. But to me, there’s a huge difference between word of mouth marketing and viral marketing and it has a lot to do with the special ingredient I mentioned before.

Word of mouth marketing is where some of your customers recommend your business to one or two friends. And this really does help your business grow. In fact, I have heard of business who claim that after a few years of trading, they began to survive completely on word of mouth marketing. But, those who do make that claim usually stay small, in comparison to those who do additional marketing activities.

On the other hand, a viral marketing campaign doesn’t just cause steady growth - it causes explosive growth. And that doesn’t just happen because some customers tell one or two friends about your business. It’s caused by most of your customers persuading all their friends to become your customer. Then they in turn tell most of their friends too and so on, so your customer base multiplies, like a virus.

I’ve heard many opinions on the difference between a viral marketing campaign and a word of mouth campaign. And some folk claim there is no difference at all. But, I believe the one thing that sets a viral marketing campaign apart is the reason it actually becomes viral. Because in the most successful viral marketing campaigns I’ve seen, people tell all their friends about the great product or service because it is beneficial to themselves if others join.

Some of the more successful social networking groups would fall into this category, as the customer experience is better if more people join. So it makes sense that people would encourage everyone they know to sign up.

Can you think of other businesses who have ran a successful viral marketing campaign? Or any types of business that could pull one off? What else do you think is needed, for a viral marketing campaign to be successful?

Or do you believe that there’s no difference between a viral campaign and a word of mouth campaign?

Please share any thoughts and opinions you have in the comments section.

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23 Responses to “Why Viral Marketing May Not Work For You”

  1. Exit 78 » Shout Out for August comments…, and then some! on September 3rd, 2008 5:35 am

    [...] Cath Lawson [...]

  2. Al at 7P on September 3rd, 2008 6:08 am

    Hi Cath,

    I’ve heard of viral marketing from Seth Godin back in the 90’s. It’s a great phenomenon for marketers, but I’ve realized long ago that most viral marketing has poor conversion rates (kinda like Digg & StumbleUpon traffic). Businesses ultimately succeed when marketing converts into sales, and most successful viral marketing I’ve seen fail to do this.

    The marketer will say they succeeded in grabbing attention, but the business owner will only care about the bottom line.

    Al at 7P’s last blog post..The Criminally-Minded Approach for Achieving Goals

  3. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 6:52 am

    Hi Al - that’s a great point. Social networks themselves are viral because folk join in large numbers.

    But I’d never really thought about viral marketing as using social networking to drive traffic to your site. That is a good point and I guess you’re right about the poor conversion rates. A few will buy something or subscribe but I guess the vast majority quickly move onto the next site.

  4. Alex Fayle on September 3rd, 2008 8:58 am

    Most viral marketing that I’ve heard about is for free stuff, like cute apps, YouTube videos, or FaceBook etc…

    So, if I can create some free content on my blog that brings people in by droves - yay! That will mean my sales funnel will have more people in it which means more sales, but I won’t rely on that as one of my strategies for making sales.

    I’ll stick to a slow build - it’ll take a lot of work, but hopefully I’ll hit a tipping point sometime in the next ten years and I’ll achieve the success I’m aiming for.

    Alex Fayle’s last blog post..Practicing Flexibility to Remain Steady

  5. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 9:10 am

    Hi Alex - I know what you mean. Things like Skype also come to mind.

    I can understand a lot of people going for the slow build. Fast growth often sounds great until it happens. Trouble is, a lot of businesses don’t have the resources to deal with that growth.

    A ten year plan sounds good - too many people seem to want everything at once and they don’t create a realistic plan to make it happen.

  6. Alex Fayle on September 3rd, 2008 9:17 am

    A friend of mine owns a very successful pastry shop in Toronto: The Queen of Tarts - http://www.thequeenoftarts.ca - after ten years of working her ass off, she started to regularly appear in magazines all over North America and even ended up on Martha Stewart’s show for her Poncho Martha gingerbread.

    And it wasn’t her first business, which was a restaurant that lasted two years before she folded it and switched to the pastry shop.

    And looking around, that seems to be the true model of business success, not the overnight successes.

    Alex Fayle’s last blog post..Practicing Flexibility to Remain Steady

  7. Scott McIntyre on September 3rd, 2008 9:43 am

    Viral marketing does seem to be the ‘Holy Grail’ of promotion nowadays, Cath.

    I find it interesting to read articles about what constitutes such an advertising phenomenon.

    While many elements can be boiled down and built up again from one viral campaign to the next, I don’t think there is any sure-fire formula for success.

    If there was, every business would enjoy a viral hit- and this just doesn’t happen.

    The changing variable in each case, of course, is the audience, as you suggest.

    People who want or need something from the ingredients of your offering are most likely to be ‘triggered’ to respond when some ‘magical’ element catches them.

    I think that, if the marketer can ‘infect’ enough susceptible consumers, and these ‘infected’ consumers are equipped (e.g. they are provided with an ebook or a Youtube video) and are then able to pass this on (i.e. they are internet savvy), then this is the key to a viral explosion.

    Perhaps, businesses which are seriously investing in market research can best spot trends in the needs of their consumers.

    They can exploit these trends as nothing before has quite ‘hit the spot’.

    After that, as much as marketers would deny it, I’m sure that there is a great deal of old-fashioned luck involved for a campaign to really go viral.

  8. Kathy on September 3rd, 2008 10:55 am

    Viral Marketing is definitely the “holy grail” for most business owners. I would define “viral” marketing as “word of mouth marketing on steroids”.

    The appeal is apparent. You, as a business owner, don’t have to spend time, energy or money on promoting your business (other than the creation of the campaign). In the case of a campaign going “:viral”, suddenly you have tens of thousands of people freely distributing your marketing message. That’s the “ideal”…. however, in practice it often doesn’t play out like that.

    The “problem” with a word of mouth campaign gone viral is that you, the business owner, have no control of how that word of mouth plays out.

    Take a feather pillow outside on a breezy day. Cut it open and watch the feathers fly. That is word of mouth marketing. If you take that feather pillow outside during a hurricane - that’s viral marketing.

    Smart business owners will hoist a sail and use other marketing methods to make sure that when those word of mouth marketing winds blow, you are still actively directing your marketing message. That way, when the winds of viral marketing start to blow, you can make sure that they take you where your business where you want it to go.

  9. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 11:49 am

    Hi Alex - that is a brilliant story and also an excellent name for a company. It’s very true that most success don’t happen overnight.

    Even the guy who sold Bebo for million after 2 or 3 years, had other businesses before that, which gave him the experience he needed to grow Bebo at a phenomenal rate.

    I think sometimes folk read stories and assume some of those business owners were overnight successes, when they actually worked hard for many years, before becoming an overnight success.

    Hi Kathy - I love the way you used the feather pillow to explain viral marketing. As you pointed out, that loss of control is a definite downside. But as you explained, this can be controlled by actively directing your marketing message. I guess - having a simple message that explains your business and is easy to pass on, could help.

  10. Brad Shorr on September 3rd, 2008 11:50 am

    Kathy’s definition of viral marketing is perfect. I don’t think scoring a viral hit is something you can plan. Nobody has a foolproof method of predicting response to any kind of advertising or marketing campaign. If that holds for highly measurable disciplines such as direct mail, it’s 10 times true for viral marketing. The name “viral” suggests something unplanned, uncontrolled, uncontrollable. One thing that may improve the odds is being or having access to influential personalities active in social media.

    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..10 Ways To Free Your Business Writing, by Joanna Young

  11. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 11:54 am

    Hi Scott - That’s true - what works for one business, won’t necessarily work for the next one. And there’s certainly some element of luck involved.

    I’m guessing those who are most successful actually build their business around their viral campaign, rather than build a business then work out what to do to make it viral.

    That’s a good point you made about folks passing the message on being Internet savvy. I’m wondering if these campaigns work best when they’re targetted at experienced Internet users?

  12. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 11:57 am

    Hi Brad - her example is brilliant isn’t it? And as you said - it would be impossible to predict just how well your campaign is going to do. As you know, a lot of testing and measuring is needed in any regular marketing campaign and a lot of ideas do flop.

    Social media influence is a good point. And having access to active and influential users could easily make the difference between success and failure.

  13. Scott McIntyre on September 3rd, 2008 12:14 pm

    I’m thinking that the most effective campaigns do target internet- experienced individuals, Cath.

    This probably works best because this demographic likes to be first on the scene with something new… there is a kudos attached to being the ‘discoverer’.

    Appeal to this aspect of the first few individuals you want to ‘infect’, and I believe you’ve created a successful viral campaign.

  14. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 1:29 pm
    Hi Scott - these are great points. And it does make sense that these early adopters are Internet savvy.

    I wonder how a company hoping to create a successful campaign could appeal to those individuals?

  15. Urban Panther on September 3rd, 2008 2:22 pm

    Okay, first I had to look up what viral marketing is, so clearly I’m not using it. I see one very real risk with viral marketing: it might work! In other words you double your customer base over night and then double it again. Is your business prepared to handle a fourfold increase in volume? If not, you just ticked off a whole whack of people, and they aren’t going to tell 2 friends, they are going to tell the entire world!

    Urban Panther’s last blog post..They are my Boyz and I love them

  16. Mark Dykeman on September 3rd, 2008 3:58 pm

    Personally, I’d love to start an ideavirus, but I haven’t had a lot of success so far.

    The rate at which the idea spreads, and the number of spreaders per iteration, seems to be what distinguishes WOM from viral marketing, as you’ve indicated above. It’s a fascinating phenomenon and I wish I knew how to do it!

    Mark Dykeman’s last blog post..Social media magicians give away their best tricks

  17. John Hoff - eVentureBiz on September 3rd, 2008 4:05 pm

    The problem with “viral” stuff is usually if something becomes “viral” it’s more about information.

    In other words, my web hosting page won’t become viral, it will be an article from my blog, say something about SEO.

    Now I can mention my company, but it’s not the hosting aspect that’s viral, it’s the SEO article.

    Therefore, viral marketing and word-of-mouth I believe are definitely two different animals like you say.

    John Hoff - eVentureBiz’s last blog post..Securing Your WordPress Blog: Post 6 - Protecting The wp-config.php File

  18. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 5:57 pm

    Hi UP - sorry, I should have put a definition on there, as I’m guessing that maybe a few folk didn’t know.

    That is a really good point and certainly one which would worry me, if I started such a campaign. As you say - if you can’t cope with the sudden explosive growth - your reputation and business could sink fast.

    Hi Rita - I’m lost - what does “is” stand for?

    That is absolutely brilliant that you got all those enquiries. So, obviously, being unique is definitely important too.

    Folk can be funny when it comes to networking can’t they? I guess they were thinking that because your goals weren’t as huge as theirs - they wouldn’t benefit so much from you.

    Talking of jewellery - I’m just reading an autobiography about a jeweller - The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Gerald Ratner. It’s brilliant.

    Hi Mark - it would be a lot of fun wouldn’t it. The idea kind of scares me and appeals both at the same time.

    Hi John - that’s a good point. Often it’s not the actual business that becomes viral. I’ve had a couple of viral articles on here and all they did for me was cause my website to crash.

  19. Barbara Swafford on September 3rd, 2008 6:30 pm

    HI Catherine,

    Although I’ve heard of viral marketing, I haven’t a clue of how one would start a viral campaign. Any suggestions? Or maybe you could write a “how to” post in the future?

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..Charity Starts At Home

  20. cathlawson on September 3rd, 2008 7:28 pm

    Hi Barbara - I would love to, but it would be theoretical. It’s something a lot of businesses don’t try or don’t manage to achieve. I’ve never tried it - even if I managed I think I would be too overwhelmed by the uber rapid growth.

    LOL Rita - so he needed a definition of “is” and his wife can’t count.

  21. cathlawson on September 4th, 2008 1:12 am
    Hi Rita - I guessed she meant that. I think it’s was just unfortunate for her that “work” is actually a four letter word.

    It must be awful to have all your foot in mouth stuff in the papers and on the Internet though.

  22. cathlawson on September 4th, 2008 6:52 pm

    Hi Rita - that’s true. But that’s all the media has ever given us. As you know - most of the time we’re reading stuff that is untrue, or things that have been embellished.

  23. Viral Books And Other Things I Like on September 9th, 2008 5:33 pm

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