Ten Steps To Success With Online Viral Marketing Campaigns

Adi Sideman
May 7, 2008

There are no guarantees when it comes to planning a viral marketing campaign, but that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to improve your chances of success.

Here are 10 things to keep in mind when it's time to begin your next project.

  1. It's all about the creative idea. Just like Hollywood movies and video games, which live or die based on consumer affinities, the success of an online viral campaign hinges on an intangible "secret sauce": the ability to entertain, inspire, and engage a mass audience. When embarking on a viral campaign, run your concepts by your professional colleagues and your non-industry friends. Make sure it's easy to communicate, entertaining, and captures their imagination. Is it high concept enough to attain mass appeal?
  2. Viral outbreaks don't happen by following a formula. Viral campaigns need to capture users' attention in an innovative, often unorthodox, way.
  3. Personalization is key. It has been repeatedly proven that online, one-to-one communication is more effective than one-to-many. The value of a personal message (with my picture, voice, or text) is much higher than that of a generic communication. The most successful online viral campaigns, and literally every engineered viral outbreak since the dancing baby in 1996, are driven by an application that allows users to personalize and share their message. Simply put, the applications at the center of successful viral campaigns are first and foremost a means to facilitate user communication.
  4. Keep it simple: Simple to understand, simple to personalize, and simple to share Don't ask the users to do too much. Good, streamlined UI goes a long way. Let your parents test the application during beta; if they can't figure it out, it's time to simplify. A clear call to action helps. Encapsulate this simplicity and the call to action with a good name.
  5. Leverage existing brand equity. If you have a popular brand asset, take advantage of it. A different agency or corporate division often controls the asset, mascot, or spokesperson you want to leverage, but it's worth getting higher-ups involved in securing them. Consumer recognition and affinity can only help when you're trying to get users involved. You're also looking after the best interests of the brand as a whole: consistent, integrated marketing across platforms.
  6. Nobody wants to be marketed to. Consumer perception is one of value, not of blatant brand advertising. While open rates on corporate communications to end-users average only 15%, user-generated viral campaigns average over 65%. It's communication from a friend, and most recipients will open it. Let the users market for you and don't flaunt the brand. Keep it authentic and keep it useful.
  7. Users don't want to work hard. The best applications require very little creative input (or talent, for that matter). Users can "create" a well-produced piece of media by making a simple choice, inputting a word, or uploading a file. If the beginning and the end are properly produced, and the rules by which the users contribute are well-planned, very little user talent is required to create an effective piece of personalized media.
  8. Get all your people involved. Brainstorm openly with your marketing and advertising folks and think outside the box. No idea is too crazy. Have your smart technology folks participate in the brainstorm so they can introduce new dimensions to the concept: it is, after all, an interactive/media technology campaign you're planning. Get your boss(es) involved so they're inspired to take creative risks and don't shoot down your crazy idea.
  9. Execute with love. A strong concept has a way of inspiring everyone on the team. There is additional magic to be created by those who "merely" execute, so spend time with the execution team and listen to them. If there are holes in your concept, they'll be the first to know and it is they who can do something about it. Inspire the execution team and allow them some room to improve and innovate during execution. Surprise users with aesthetics: texture, movement, and detail that go the extra mile.
  10. Deliver ROI. There are two main things to watch. First, make sure the goal of the campaign--whether brand exposure, conversion, or lead generation--is clear from day one. From concept to execution, and reflected in the UI, make sure you're setting the stage for achieving your goal. Second, seed the campaign with good traffic. If you build it, they will not necessarily come. Give your app the best chance for success by crafting a strategy for how users will initially hear about it. Even the best Hollywood movie needs to get the initial word out. Plan to do so for your viral campaign.

The most effective tactics include providing access to it from the brand's home page (there's no better group to spread the word for you), including it in your newsletters, having the top brass at the brand, agency and even vendor(s) proudly send it to all their employees and contacts, and doing basic PR. Note that these four methods are all grassroots and do not need to include huge media buys. It's also best to do them for a period of time, not just on launch.

Sideman is the CEO of Oddcast. Oddcast is the developer and distributor of speaking avatar products for enterprise ( and small and medium businesses ( as well as the consumer ( marketplace.

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