People talk. They talk about products. They talk about businesses. And they certainly talk about their experiences with both.
With the proliferation of social media, the Internet provides incredible leverage to help spread that word-of-mouth, or as Dr. Ralph wilson coined over a decade ago as “word-of-mouse marketing“.
Today, “viral marketing” has become so ubiquitous that the term has been added to our dictionaries and university’s business class curricula.
But the question is, can viral marketing really help your business? I’m not talking about simply driving traffic. I’m talking creating systems to leverage, manage, and profit from the buzz a viral campaign creates.
First, understand why word-of-mouth works so well.
For starters, it comes from a seemingly unbiased source, a peer or a qualified source other than the originator. People who spread the word around, usually based on their own experiences, seem more credible than that of some shameless self-promoter.
Next, it’s the power of the bandwagon effect. People tend to follow the masses, and give more weight and credence to something that has been widely accepted, used, or favored. That’s called “social proof”.
Those who get to know you or about you through a third party grant you a higher level of confidence, credibility, and loyalty. According to Dr. Robert Cialdini in his amazing book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, this is social proof in action.
A mentor once told me: “Implication is more powerful than specification.” If you tell people you’re the best or that your product is the best for their needs, your self-serving promotional bias makes it all suspect.
However, if someone other than you — whether it’s on a blog, in an email, on a social networking site, or in person — says to another that you are indeed the best or that you do have the best solution to their problems, how much more believable will that person’s statement be? How much more credible and trustworthy? Definitely more.
Accordingly, word-of-mouth is not only important because it creates an awareness of your business, but also it is important to the degree to which third party marketing indirectly communicates greater credibility, superiority, and value of the products or services you offer.
In his book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, Al Ries stresses the importance of leadership and how that leadership is communicated.
According to Ries, people never buy the best — they only think they do. They usually buy the leader (or what they perceive as being the best). And that perception is often molded by what they are told and by what others do, not by what is fact or by what is being advertised.
Consequently, if people hear about you from others, particularly from trusted peers or some recognized authority, and not some advertisement or pitch, this social proof will create not only a certain buzzworthiness about you but also an almost instant trustworthiness, too.
How do you do that? The most significant method is to be the first. If your business or website is unique, focuses on a niche, or is the first in some category, the knowledge of your existence will spread quite naturally, almost like wildfire.
It becomes viral in and of itself, in other words.
Now, I’m not saying you need to be new. I’m only saying you need to be unique. Or better yet, you need to be the first. Whether it’s catering an existing product to a new niche, or adding a new twist to an existing product, you become the first.
I said it before: don’t be the best, be the first.
As for viral marketing itself, it’s the process of implementing means or tools through which the knowledge of your existence can self-propagate. It allows and even encourages word-of-mouth distribution.
Like a virus, your visibility spreads throughout a network of people who refer you to each other. Notwithstanding the power of backlinking, traffic, and SEO, viral marketing is key for a number of reasons.
Success in the offline world is “location, location, location.” The Internet is no different. Your success depends highly on the number of locations you appear online — places on which your site, link, company or product name appear.
In essence, to expand your reach, you need to be prolific. You need to be in as many places as possible, talked about by as many people as possible, and be in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
With viral marketing, there are three ways of doing it:
- Create content.
- Create applications.
- Create systems.
The first is self-explanatory. Your content may be controversial or buzzworthy. It may create raging fans — or enraged foes. But best of all, it’s shared. And shared a lot. Many social media sites now meausure and rate their content’s “virulence” (take, for instance, Mashable.com’s velocity graphs accompanying each story).
The second is simple: you create an application — whether it’s a video, audio, file, software, document, etc — that people can pass around, which proliferates the knowledge of your existence on the web through other people’s efforts. PDFs are great for that (yours truly has release a number of ebooks that way).
The third and most important is creating a system.
Whether it’s content or applications, there are ways to use systems that will leverage the spread of your message, which helps to multiply your marketing punch. Such systems both simulate and stimulate word-of-mouth marketing.
Now, I’m not talking about sharing tools, embed codes, social buttons, syndication scripts, and the like. While these are undoubtedly useful, I’m referring to a more important tool: the power of people.
Networking systems, for example, include creating strategic marketing alliances, joint ventures, and affiliates promoting for you. And unlike the more traditional traffic generators such as paid ads, these specific tools are much more effective since they are used by third parties and not by the original advertiser.
In these cases, people don’t find you. Others find them for you. They are told who and where you are because someone told them about you — especially if that “someone” is a person whose opinion they value.
For example, email-based computer viruses are devious because, after opening an email attachment from a trusted (but infected) source, it sends more virus-infected emails to people in your address book without your knowledge.
While we are bombarded with spam and phishing attempts, and anti-virus warnings telling us to never open an attachment from an unknown person, how can we resist doing so when the email apparently comes from someone we actually do know?
Similarly, we can certainly learn the way viruses work — and, in the same way, apply that process to online marketing.
According to Jill Griffin’s wonderful book Customer Loyalty: How to Earn It, How to Keep It, we are more open, trusting, and loyal when doing business with, or being marketed by, people we know — and we refer them to others more often, too.
Networking grants you the ability to reach corners untapped — areas that would have been unreachable otherwise. I personally don’t advocate traditional networking (the simple, “I’m open for business” kind) because, in my experience, it hasn’t brought me anything substantial in return.
While it can be a fantastic marketing tool, the way in which networking is conducted is often the reason why it does not produce any favorable results. When you’re only networking, more often than not people will want something in return — otherwise, they will lose interest or stop sending referrals if you don’t take the time to recognize their efforts.
But a way to consistently reward others is to turn your networking efforts into systems — in other words, to develop strategic marketing alliances.
There are many ways to accomplish this. But the most effective forms of networking are those that are systematized.
A traditional network is one in which qualified leads that you can both share, or information about each other that is promoted to each other’s market, clientele, or subscribers. This way, you can effectively cross-promote or share markets with each other. As long as your alliance logically shares a same target market but without directly competing with you, it could be potentially rewarding.
On the Internet, this technique is one in which a systematized method of cross-promotion between you and your alliance through a unique, joint marketing effort is created. It is also often referred to as a “joint venture”.
For example, this includes the coupling of complementary products or services in a single bundled offer that’s exclusively marketed to each other’s market. While different, these offers are marketed under the banner of a single promotion.
People who may have purchased one product or have hesitated in the past may now be interested in buying the bundle. So ask yourself, whose product or offer can you bundle with yours to create an entirely new and distinct package?
In its simplest form, if your alliance sells a product to a market that matches yours (as their market as a whole may not be entirely compatible), they can add to their offer additional products, services, or bonuses from you, which may include an exclusive special offer for one of your products as an upsell.
But the best method I’ve found is when you create an entirely distinct product, amalgamating existing products from two or more strategic alliances into a single offer that’s sold simultaneously.
For example, you sell cookware online. You can easily team up with a publisher specializing in cookbooks and throw a book in the mix. While you raise the price and split the profits with the publisher, you instantly raise the perceived value of the cookware through a co-branded, combined package of non-competing products or services.
Best of all, each of you market the “new” product separately while sharing in each other’s traffic, leads, referral-sources, and affiliates, thus doubling the reach with the same marketing effort.
Then, you can create buzzworthy content or applications (#1 and #2 above) that will then be easy to pass around using those systems you’ve implemented. Plus, the content is not passed around just for curiosity sake, but also for fulfilling a need-based interest among peers.
In other words, its virulence is not derived from its controversial nature but from its potential to help others.
Ultimately, by leveraging the efforts of others, you not only propagate the knowledge of your existence, but also you create trust and credibility. And if you cater to a new market, offer a new product, give an existing product a new twist, or simply develop content that’s buzzworthy, you also give yourself an extra dose of trustworthiness, too.
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