Press

Accidentally Stumbling on Viral Marketing

AdWeek
Sarah E. Needleman
March 3, 2007

Before leaving for a three-day weekend in June 2000, Adi Sideman emailed about a dozen friends a link to his latest creation -- "Dress'm Up Dubya." The Web page let users choose outfits, backdrops and audible quotes for an animated George Bush cartoon, selecting from a menu of options. For example, the character could, among other things, appear in a jail cell, wearing prison garb and holding a rifle, saying, "I believe that people who commit crimes shouldn't have guns."

The following Monday, Mr. Sideman found five messages from folks he didn't know who wanted to buy the technology. Tracking software showed that his link had been forwarded numerous times, he says.

Mr. Sideman had inadvertently stumbled on a marketing strategy for his company, Oddcast Inc., which makes interactive technology for online marketing and sales. "In our wildest dreams we didn't expect that," says Mr. Sideman, referring to the chain reaction. He had landed on "viral marketing" -- a word-of-mouth technique that harnesses online social networks, relying on people to pass on content they find interesting. "The entertainment value and cultural relevance really tipped the success," he says.

Now Oddcast distributes emails with its characters about five times a year to more than 10,000 prospective clients per mailing, which are usually tied to a holiday theme.

Mr. Sideman says the strategy has been effective for Oddcast for two reasons: The characters are fun pop-culture fixtures, and users can decide how they look and what they say. "People are prone to sharing their own creations," he explains. "They have a lot more affinity to something after they've invested their own creativity in it."

The New York start-up's next step was a planned marketing campaign in the form of email greeting cards, says the 35-year-old chief executive officer, who is a former computer game designer. With fall approaching, the company sent emails with links to audible greetings from animated cartoon skeletons, pumpkins and other Halloween standbys. (See the Halloween greeting card.) These went to an email list of mostly employees' friends and colleagues and invited them to send their own, choosing from 16 spooks and scripting their own typed-in greeting -- an upgrade from the previous technology.

By the end of September, Mr. Sideman says total sales for the then year-old venture jumped to more than $250,000 from $50,000. The company, which had two customers, added about eight, he says.

The company also helps its customers' marketers with a similar viral marketing strategy, says Mr. Sideman. A recent example is CareerBuilder.com's "Build Your Monk-e-mail" campaign -- part of a monkey theme that runs through the job site's other advertising, including its television ads. (See the CareerBuilder page.)

Oddcast has grown from a company of six employees, two products and a handful of clients in 1999 to 36 employees, five products and more than 4,500 clients. Its character products, also known as "avatars" -- in computer lingo, interactive representations of a user online -- are sold in annual subscriptions from $15,000 to $150,000, depending on their complexity. In 2002, the company added a feature enabling users to make a recording of their own voice for characters to deliver.

A failed campaign using avatars of ordinary-looking folks reciting poetry taught Mr. Sideman the importance of using pop-culture icons. Though users could manipulate them the same way as the others, he says, few recipients did and even fewer were forwarded. "It wasn't culturally relevant enough," he explains.

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