Imagine getting thousands of visitors to your site, or logging in to YouTube and seeing the number of views of your last video climbing into the millions. What might that kind of attention do for your business? Would you earn more sales? Gain more customers? Make more profits?
What if I told you all that is possible with just a little effort and a nifty little marketing tactic known as Viral Marketing?

ViralThink for a minute how a real virus spreads, and youll get a sense of what a viral marketing campaign looks like. It starts with one person, who passes it on to several more people, who each pass it along to several more people, and before you know it, you have thousands – or maybe millions – of people all continuing to spread the virus to their friends, family, colleagues, and customers.

Now thats not so nice when it happens with the seasonal flu, but when its your brand thats spreading at an exponential rate, it can be pretty good for the bottom line!

Definition of Viral Marketing
Web Marketing Today defines viral marketing like this:

Viral marketing describes any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the messages exposure and influence.

What does that mean, exactly?

Basically, the goals of a viral marketing campaign are to

Get readers/viewers/customers to share your content via social networks, email, or any other communication network
Extend the reach of your message through this sharing, and provide exponential growth of your customer base
Increase your brand recognition
And do it all without a huge advertising budget – thats the magic of viral marketing
Theres something else to remember, though: Just because its viral, doesnt mean its marketing. A funny video of your cat fighting with itself in the bathroom mirror might very well go viral on YouTube, but so what? What good does it do you? Did it get your brand out there? Do all the millions of people who love funny cat videos care about your brand? Remember the big marketing rule about finding a targeted audience, because lots of traffic doesn’t mean anything if theyre all just passing through on their way to somewhere else.

Viral2In this post, were going to look at some examples of great viral marketing campaigns, and examine what works and what doesnt when creating a viral marketing strategy for your business. Well talk about the parts of a successful viral marketing campaign, and Ill provide examples you can use in your own business, whether you work online or off. Finally, well look at how different business models can use viral marketing to make more sales and improve their bottom line.

Ready? Lets start a stampede!

History of Viral Marketing
Even though youre probably most familiar with the term as it relates to Internet businesses, viral marketing has been around for as long as marketing has existed. Before computers before the invention of the television, even people relied on word-of-mouth advertising and viral campaigns to bring in sales.

Think of the barnstormers that roared across the United States just after World War I. Theyd fly low over a small, rural village, catching the interest of the locals, then set up makeshift air field at a farm outside of town and wait for the crowds to arrive. And the crowds almost always did. Why? Because the news and excitement of the flying machine spread like a virus, even without the help of modern communication.

Now you can see that even though the old barnstormers used a form of viral marketing to bring hoards of curious onlookers and wannabe stunt pilots to see them perform (and spend their money), this virus had a limit. Rural towns and villages are small, and travel at the time was slow, so the crowd size was naturally limited.

Heres another example you might be familiar with: The Grateful Dead.

At a time when record labels and bands were searching fans at the door to make sure they werent carrying any recording devices into a live show, the Dead actually encouraged it. They wanted their fans to enjoy the show, and to share it with their friends and family. Whether on purpose or not, the Grateful Dead were utilising a viral marketing strategy that built their fan-base quickly, and that continues to work today, 25 years after Jerry Garcias death.

Today, advanced technology has made it possible for viral marketing campaigns to spread across the globe in a matter of hours. Unlike the barnstormers limitation of playing to just the local crowd, or the Grateful Deads reliance on physical cassette tapes passed hand to hand, marketers today have the advantage of an enormous web of interconnected computers. Even the smallest marketer in the tiniest corner of the Internet has the potential to reach millions of potential customers, all without leaving their office.

Viral21Some of todays largest companies have their roots in viral marketing campaigns – although in this case its called network marketing. Amway Corporation – ranked by Forbes as one of the largest private companies in the United States – relies heavily on network marketing to recruit new partners and keep their business growing.

Whether you call it network marketing, viral marketing, or something else, the practice is sound, and can work for virtually any business model. Lets look at some viral marketing examples that have performed well online.

Examples of Viral Marketing Online
Blair Witch Project

Back in the early days of the Internet, an independent movie studio called Haxan Films, with a budget of just $25,000, produced a movie that would become a legend: The Blair Witch Project.

The film made more than $240 million worldwide, largely because of Haxans unusual marketing techniques. Without the big budget of a corporate studio, Haxan had to get creative, and the strategy worked well. So well, in fact, that you could say the film went viral.

Haxan developed an elaborate backstory to go with the movie, built a website dedicated to the history, and recorded interviews with local police and residents, making it appear as if the events in the film really happened. Then they leaked the story, building interest and driving traffic to the films website. By the time the movie was actually released, the public was clamouring to see it.

Of course, movie studios have been using viral marketing strategies for years. It doesnt take a master marketer to figure out that promoting your animated movie with free toys stuffed into a Happy Meal is a great way to build an audience. But the Blair Witch creators took it a step further by using virtually free advertising techniques available on the Internet, and thats something any business owner can do, whether you work online or off.

Will it Blend? is a highly successful viral marketing campaign for a line of expensive blenders. The campaign consists of a series of infomercials that demonstrate the power and durability of the Blendtec home and professional blenders. The commercials are distributed through YouTube, with more than 300 thousand subscribers signed up to see the latest installment.

So far, the slightly geeky, grandfatherly Tom Dickson – CEO of Blendtec – has blended over 100 items, and propelled his company into Internet marketing history. And its not hard to see why this viral campaign has taken off. All you have to do is look at a sample of what Dickson has put in his blender.

Will it Blend? videos have featured blended glow sticks, chicken and Coke floats, powdered vuvuzela, and even pulverized iPhones. Whether you want to see the merely interesting, the slightly disgusting, or take out your virtual frustrations against an irritating noisemaker, Blendtec has the answer. And if none of that appeals to you, surely youd tune in to see the hottest gadget in town take a beating. You arent alone, either. More than 16 million viewers have watched Dickson destroy everyones favourite cell phone.

What makes Will it Blend? so popular? First, the videos are entertaining. You cant help but be amused when Dickson accidentally blends his new iPhone instead of the old one. Second, theyre easy to share. YouTube videos can be embedded on web pages and Facebook, links can be sent via email and Twitter, and theyre great for social bookmarking sites like StumbleUpon.

Will it Blend? videos are just the right length for bored Internet surfers looking for a fun distraction

Lastly, Will it Blend? is unusual. Its not a copy and paste job of someone elses campaign. Its not a me too site looking to ride on the coattails of a more popular product. Tom Dickson found a unique and entertaining way to get the word out about his company, and judging by the number of views his 101 videos have had, Id say hes created a stampede.

Hotmail

Viral5At a time when email was relatively new, Microsoft launched one of the first web-based email services, and one of the only free services available at the time. Their advertising plan was simple – a link at the bottom of every email sent through their system promoted the service with a link to get your own Hotmail account.

The plan was viral right from the start. Every single email contained the link, so no matter who you sent a message to, they saw the link. Users didnt have to do anything special. There was no need to ask them to embed the link, pass on the information, or even discuss their email choices with anyone. In fact, if you asked most users, they wouldnt even be aware the link existed.

But the result was spectacular. Hotmail was launched in July of 1996, and by December of 1997 had more than 8 million subscribers. That – and the fact that Hotmail was a fantastic and innovative product – was enough to make it worth $400 million dollars when Microsoft purchased the service in late 1997.

Without the work of the marketing virus, Hotmail may have drifted off into Internet anonymity, but as it is, we still use Hotmail today (now called Windows Live Mail), more than 15 years later.

The Viral Marketing Common Denominator
What do these examples of real-life viral marketing all have in common? They are all a quality product. Barnstormers provided great entertainment for the bored rural population at a time when they had money to spend. The Grateful Dead made every single show unique, and encouraged their fans to share their enthusiasm through recordings, ultimately bringing in new fans by the thousands. The Blair Witch project was a great movie, filmed in an unforgettable and unique way. Even those who dont like horror can appreciate the style. And finally, the will it blend guys make a fantastic blender.

If you want your marketing campaign to go viral, keep this in mind. Its much easier to do with a fantastic product your customers will love. Remember, its possible for a viral campaign to be negative as well, and if you put out a bad product, thats much more likely to happen. So the first step to any viral campaign is quality.

Something else these campaigns all have in common is their unique product and style. None of these campaigns had been done before. Their creators all made an effort to come up with a quality product, presented in a unique and unforgettable way, and its paid off for them. It will work for your business, too, once you know how to build your viral campaign.

Viral Marketing for Your Online Businesses
The Elements of a Successful Viral Campaign

When youre planning your viral marketing strategy, its important to keep in mind the basic requirements of every viral campaign. Without these, your stampede might turn out to be more like a leisurely stroll.

To build a good viral campaign, make sure your plan includes

A free product or service
The product has to be easily transferable to another person
It has to be able to scale easily
It has to take advantage of other peoples resources
It has to be unique
Over the next few pages, we’re going to take a look at each of these elements, and examine how you can use them to design and launch your own viral campaign. Dont worry. Its not as complicated as it looks!

There is a Free Lunch, and Youre Serving It

Every single viral campaign begins with giving something away. Every one. It could be an ebook, a piece of software, an instructional video, or even a few laughs, but it has to be free. And when we say free, we mean free. Not free with an opt-in or a free trial. It has to be really free, because youre going to encourage your customers to share it with their friends, and no one wants to tell their sister she has to sign-up for your list to get the cool thing youre giving away.

Now that doesnt mean youre giving away the farm. But you do need to give away great stuff. Theres lots of ways you can do that, while still leaving your customers wanting more.

For example, if you build and sell a software package that helps bloggers find free photos for use on their blog, you could offer a free version of the software that only searches one database instead of several. Or if youve written an ebook, you might release one chapter for free.

One thing to remember, though, is that the free product must be useful all by itself. Youre not releasing a free trial, youre essentially building two products. One which youll give away and one which you will sell, and they both need to be valuable to your users. Free software that is so limited as to be worthless is not a good candidate for a viral campaign. The same is true for a chapter of an ebook that ends with a question.

Some marketers pull just this sort of trick to force customers to upgrade, but very often it will backfire. Customers are savvy, and they dislike being manipulated this way, so dont make the mistake of thinking youll lose sales by giving away too much information, because the opposite is actually true. Youll gain sales by giving away great stuff. Especially if your great stuff is easy for your users to share among their friends, family, and colleagues.

Share and Share Alike

The second element of a fantastic viral marketing campaign is the ability of your customers to share your product with their peers. Think about the hundreds of email forwards you get in a year. Thats because people love to share great stuff. Good marketers know this and take advantage of it by providing their customers with what they want, and then they sit back and watch it spread.

Social Networks

Viral campaigns thrive on the Internet largely because of the social networks that exist. Ten years ago marketers had to rely on telephones and email (maybe) to get the word out about a new product or a great service. You can imagine the results were unpredictable and slow to materialise.

Today, we have hundreds of social networks to use to get our message to the masses. But for some, that means having the opposite problem: where do you start?

For an online marketer, the first place to start is with your very own email list. These are the people who already know you, like you, and buy from you. Theyre your biggest fans, and theyre the ones who are most likely to pass your great products on to their family and friends and social network. So make sure youre keeping them informed about the latest products youre developing, any contests youre holding, or any other thing thats going on that they might want to share.

You probably have an account with several of the more popular social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. But for viral marketing to work in these venues, you have to be hanging out with the right crowd. If you use Facebook primarily for friend and family interaction, trying to launch a viral campaign there is probably not a good move.

The same goes for Twitter. Do you follow those in your niche, or those who are other marketers? If its the latter, your niche campaign wont have very good results here either. Instead, make an effort to follow those who share your passion for your niche, instead of those who are simply marketing their own online business. Now if your niche is internet marketing, then you should be following other marketers, but thats the only exception. Concentrate on following – and being followed by – those who are in your niche, but who are not necessarily selling in your niche. In other words, you want to be hanging out with the buyers, not the sellers.

For strictly social interaction, Facebook and Twitter are your number one choices. If your target market is other business owners, though – say for example you sell a product aimed at accountants – you need to get on LinkedIn. If youre not familiar with it, LinkedIn is basically a database of business professionals in all areas of expertise. Its similar to Facebook, but without the games and other social activities.

LinkedIn allows you to network with other professionals in your area of expertise, form groups, organise meetings, and develop a vast network of colleagues you can reach out to through private messaging or by posting status updates. You can automate your LinkedIn updates just like you can with Facebook and Twitter, and even link your other social network accounts so everything is up to date. If your product is geared toward professionals, LinkedIn is the social network of choice.

For viral campaigns built around funny videos, great photography, comic strips, or other visual media, StumbleUpon is the social network of choice. A combination of a social application and a bookmarking service, StumbleUpon is where you go when youre looking for new stuff on the Internet. Just click the button on your toolbar, and youll be transported to the next interesting thing as determined by the choices you made when you signed up. Like animals? StumbleUpon will serve up a random cat video or heartwarming dog story. Into sports? You might land on a video of Tiger Woods hitting a hole in one, or an ad for a new kind of practice ball.

Of course, getting your content to go viral on a social network involves more than just putting it out there and hoping for the best. Later on well discuss how you can give your campaign a virtual push to get it started, but for now, just be aware of the options available in the social networking world. Each has its own purpose and followers, so pay att