• October 1, 2009
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

The Cure for the Common Virus

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You know you’ve got it made when you sit down to a meeting with executives from the largest consumer electronics retailer in the United States and before you can get through your corporate spiel, they say, “Oh, we know who you are.”

Credit the prospect’s due diligence but Michael Phelan, executive director of marketing for technology support provider PlumChoice, would like to think it had something to do with his company’s marketing transformation. Maybe it was the purple “Plumtinis”; or the “purple brick road” that leads to the best part of any conference, the cocktail event; or the models—both male and female—engaging passersby at the booth; or the purple stuffed monkeys to take home to the kids.

Whatever it was, PlumChoice was resolute on breaking out of the typical tradeshow monotony. “You can spend nearly as much money doing a bad job as you can [doing] a great one,” Phelan says. You can sink tens of thousands of dollars into an event, but if you don’t activate it, he says, you’re wasting your money.

Phelan doesn’t know exactly which portion of PlumChoice’s sales can be attributed to attendees who stopped by PlumChoice’s booth. What he does know is that when people do come by, they’re having a blast—and happiness is a good emotion to align with. “When two people are sitting at their booth using their BlackBerry, no one’s going to go near them,” he says. Your brand is being talked about, and getting good buzz has helped PlumChoice in everything it does—conversations are coming easier, the requests for proposals are getting bigger. Beyond that, he says, “You see it in a lot of different, subtle ways.”

Subtle—that’s certainly one way to describe viral marketing. “Word-of-mouth is interesting,” says Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen Digital Strategic Services. “Intuitively everyone gets it, but when it comes to weaving it into marketing mix models and [return on investment] forecasts, everyone struggles a little bit, even within Nielsen.”

Measuring the totality of viral’s impact is extremely difficult, if not impossible. After all, how do you measure emails forwarded from personal accounts? Or URLs copied-and-pasted into instant message windows? Or a remark passed over a fence? And yet, no one would argue that messages spread virally are extremely powerful. After all, consumers are far more likely to trust one another than any marketing pitch out there. (See “Who Do You Trust About Trust?,” page 17, and our interview with Trust Agents co-author—and 2009 CRM Influential Leader—Chris Brogan, in Required Reading on page 18.)

At each digital evolution, viral reach has only continued to grow exponentially. “If I tweet something, the network is just so much broader than a customer forwarding [an email] message to 10 friends,” says Elana Anderson, vice president of product marketing and strategy at marketing solutions provider Unica. “It breaks down the traditional expectations you have when planning a traditional campaign…you can’t control the numbers.”

According to customer experience company Satmetrix, and codeveloper of the Net Promoter score (NPS), word-of-mouth recommendations by promoters are increasing year over year in all industries. The uphill trend is not due to an increase in viral marketing–specific campaigns, says Deborah Eastman, chief marketing officer; rather, the Internet and social media have ignited a sharing frenzy.

As a term, Lisa Bradner, principal analyst at Forrester Research, calls “viral marketing” an oxymoron—how can a “virus” ever be contained as a “strategy”? As a practice, a marketer has control to the extent that she develops the campaign, unleashes it, then provides the tools for distribution. Its success is ultimately dependent on the consumer. “When it happens and works for you, that’s fabulous and means you’ve got something special, right?” Bradner says.

Forrester vice president and principal analyst Shar VanBoskirk calls viral marketing “contrived,” and says that marketers often make the mistake of attempting to create a “viral strategy” as opposed to a “customer-centric strategy.” If an offer is compelling enough, consumers will find a way to get it out. “Viral is less of a media category and more of a function that occurs when you have a strong message that resonates well with the audience,” VanBoskirk says. In that respect, viral distribution has the potential to be the byproduct of any and every communication channel. (See the “Viral Video: Now You See It” sidebar, below.)

“People often share content online for selfish reasons,” says Kristen Sullivan, online content and community development manager at direct marketing platform provider Dukky. “They want their friends to think they’re funny, hip, or just thinking of them.”

Customers don’t care if you want them to pass something along. Abandon the PR lingo and the corporate speak. No one wants to listen to it, let alone pass it on to their friends. “Share honest information,” says Tom Anderson, managing partner of Anderson Analytics. “What are you worried about—your competitors seeing it? Big deal. Everything’s instantaneous now.”

Each person’s quality filter may vary, but the underlying premise behind viral sharing is, “Will it make me look good?” The socialsphere, Bradner says, operates on the reciprocity of “you gave me something, I’ll give you something.” There has to be some social currency or utility value to be gained from spreading the message—consumers have to feel good about passing it down. (See the sidebar “Getting the Word on the Road,” below.)

The criteria for what deals are “compelling enough” to act upon or share, however, are getting more rigorous. If 30 percent off is the new list price—and our May 2009 cover story, “Selling Out,” counted that as just one of the retail sector’s many woes—companies have to weigh price integrity versus, well, selling out. Dukky is letting the customer break the news to marketers: As part of their personal profile, consumers are able to say, for example, that they only want to receive deals of 25 percent off or more.

But what discount is better than something that’s free? In his latest book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Wired magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson examined the psychological appeal of “free.” “Give a product away, and it can go viral,” he writes. “Charge a single cent for it and you’re in an entirely different business.”

Bradner sees this frenzy to lure consumers with “free” as taking the easy way out. “I think marketers resort to giving away something because they don’t know how else to ensure it gets picked up,” she says.

When the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain launched its “UNFry Day” campaign to promote its new grilled chicken this past April, the fast-food chain hadn’t anticipated the popularity, let alone the outcry that would ensue when stores began rejecting coupons altogether. It didn’t help that the offer was promoted by Oprah Winfrey.

In a report about the two-day campaign, Advertising Age cited numbers from interactive agency Zeta Interactive, which found that negative mentions of KFC decreased from 28 percent of all mentions on an average day to 11 percent during the promotion. When the chain abruptly cut its promotion, the rate shot up to 33 percent.

KFC isn’t the only one to fall prey to an offer that got carried away. Sandwich chain Quiznos encountered a similar backlash in February when it launched its “Million-Sub Giveaway.” Starbucks famously encountered this problem three years ago with its free-coffee coupon. (A customer’s sense of “betrayal” prompted a $114 million lawsuit—the cost of one cup per day for all those turned away during the 38 days the coupon was valid.) Though privacy issues were deemed the culprit, it’s possible that Burger King’s Whopper Sacrifice stopped abruptly after 233,906 “friends” were sacrificed because the promotion wasn’t paying out, even at 10 friends per Whopper.

“Viral giveth,” Bradner says, “and viral taketh away.”

Unless you’re giving something away for free, Bradner says, “a lot of viral is luck.” You can have a fantastic, creative idea but you never quite know why it is or isn’t going to catch on, she says. “Anybody who says they knew [Burger King’s Subservient Chicken] would be a viral success is lying,” Bradner says, of the campaign that debuted in 2004. She does acknowledge the fact that the still-famous campaign from advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky fit the target audience, and was “crazy, wacky, and fun,” all of which increased its chances of success. Therefore, marketers can’t skimp on creating solid, creative content.

Nevertheless, consumer adoption cannot be orchestrated. “People are realizing that it’s not realistic just to put something out there and assume it’ll get picked up,” Bradner says.

Moreover, these campaigns need to be supplemented with the right tools. Direct marketing platform provider Dukky encourages viral distribution by rewarding customers with additional discounts if they share offers with friends. Additional discounts are given to those who post offers onto their social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and Delicious.

Once the campaign’s out there, skilled marketers are learning that with viral, good things do happen when you least expect it. “We don’t go into something saying that it’s going to go viral,” says Corey Pilkington, an account supervisor at advertising agency Worktank. The objective, first and foremost, is to tell an emotionally compelling story that connects with the audience and ultimately drives sales. “Viral is more of a consequence,” she says.

Satmetrix’s Eastman concurs that viral can rarely exist as a campaign’s sole purpose. Beyond emotion, she believes in the viral effect of delivering a superior customer experience. (See “Viral Learning” sidebar, below.) Sparked by a growing demand from its clients, Satmetrix recently went beyond its standard Promoters, Passives, and Detractors, to highlight an even more influential group—the Net Worth Promoters. These individuals, Eastman explains, are characterized as the most influential and most vocal consumers within their social circles, even if they aren’t necessarily a customer.

“[Influencers are] more willing to recommend, they’re more connected, charismatic, credible, and more influential in the word-of-mouth process,” Eastman says. More important, she adds, “They have the ability and the interest in offering their word-of-mouth.” Identifying these individual—and the content they create—can clue marketers into what consumers are most interested in, even the silent majority.

NPS’ critics argue that consumers who merely say they’d be likely to recommend don’t necessarily ever make an actual recommendation, let alone make a recommendation that actually leads to a sale. (See Paul Greenberg’s August 2009 Connect column for how customer lifetime value trumps NPS.) Eastman understands that not every person who says they will make a recommendation actually does, nor does she deny that recommendations don’t always translate into sales. Even so, she defends that the more promoters marketers are able to garner, the more likely you’ll get the word-of-mouth effect associated with it.

To truly be able to measure viral, marketers would have to be everywhere, at all times, listening to everyone about everything. Contrary to what reality television might have you think, such vigilance isn’t possible. What is possible is maintaining a few long-established marketing practices. No one denies that the advent of new digital channels has drastically changed the marketing landscape, but instead of seeing it as another mountain to climb, experts say that marketing just became far more measurable.

“A fundamental misconception is that social media can’t have the same measurement rigor as other forms of marketing,” says Shiv Singh, vice president and global social media lead with digital agency Razorfish. In “Fluent: The Razorfish Social Influence Marketing Report,” the agency introduced its Social Influence Marketing score, which helps marketers calculate a brand’s share of online conversations and online consumer sentiment around the brand. “The market is mature,” Singh assures. “Agencies like [Razorfish] have the skills and experience under our belt. Frameworks are in place.”

Traditional marketing practices—metric and objective setting, spending goals—haven’t changed. “You have to think it through,” Unica’s Anderson says. Marketers have certain expectations around redemption and plan accordingly, but truly knowing what will happen goes against the very nature of viral.

“There are a lot of new things that break traditional molds,” Anderson says, “but a lot of the traditional logic still applies.” For instance, she says, when a piece of content gets picked up virally, marketers have a tendency to get caught up in the initial act of distribution without seeing how it connects to the overall brand message. Anderson suggests setting up a specific landing page that can connect the campaign directly to the company. With any viral campaign, as with any piece of marketing, there needs to be a call to action—what do you want your customers to do after they’ve interacted with your product?

Dukky tracks customer activity through the use of a personal URL, or pURL. Customers who receive coupons and discounts are required to sign in and activate the promotion. From there, Dukky can track where and when the offer is being used. When consumers pass the promotion to friends, they are given a “guest” URL. Friends can choose to either remain anonymous or enter their personal information to receive future discounts of their own.

You don’t need fancy software to have campaign management processes in place, though it may help as you get more sophisticated. Few of Unica’s customers are dabbling in social media and attempting to measure the viral effect, Anderson says, but from what she can tell, it’s not well integrated into the fabric of everything else her clients are doing.

Dianne Durkin, founder and president of training and consulting firm Loyalty Factor, says she’s only just beginning to work with her clients on viral marketing, but measurement isn’t even on the curriculum yet. “I can’t talk quantifiable because I haven’t gotten that far,” she says. Right now, it’s just about the hard hits.

David Raab, partner of Raab Associates and author of The Marketing Performance Measurement Toolkit, says that while measuring viral remains a huge challenge right now, there are two schools of thought currently in play:

  • Measure hard statistics, such as number of clicks, views, or downloads; or
  • Apply different objectives to different campaigns, which makes it more difficult to compare cross-program, but makes it easier to measure the relative success.

Both approaches, he says, are relevant methods, but when it comes to viral, many external factors come into play. If you launched a campaign for free ice cream on the same day the weather plummeted 30 degrees, it’s not your fault people didn’t want a cold dessert, nor should you throw your hands up in defeat. It’s a burden every marketer has to bear, but because of that, he says, “you’ll never get a precise number.” (See “Measuring Your Marketing,” Required Reading, page 23, for more with Raab.)

In marketing, uncertainty tends to always be an obstacle. “You do your best to make something that’s going to appeal to the public,” Raab says. But when it comes down to it, he says, “some things catch fire, some don’t.” 


SIDEBAR: Viral Video: Now You See It
For this issue, we tried separating video marketing from viral marketing — a decision, most experts argued, that would paint an incomplete picture. “I don’t think you can separate it. I really don’t,” says Elana Anderson, vice president of product marketing and strategy at Unica. “[Video] is a great way of illustrating and entertaining.”

Whenever clients ask about viral marketing, they’re talking about video, says Dianne Durkin, founder and president of training and consulting firm Loyalty Factor. “‘Viral’ doesn’t just have the words,” Durkin says, “it has the action associated with it,” a feature only video can adequately capture.

Worktank account supervisor Corey Pilkington says that while video may not be interchangeable with viral marketing, she sees it winning hands down compared to other media channels. Preroll video campaigns, she says, have blown away other types of rich media and online flash advertising, with a .88 percent clickthrough rate compared to .16 percent.

What it comes down to, of course, is that viral isn’t about one channel over another. “When you think about viral,” says Anderson Analytics’ Tom Anderson, “you have to include all forms.”


SIDEBAR: Getting the Word on the Road
Give away your products or services? For nothing? Whether it’s a white paper, a comedic video, or a slice of pizza, consumers aren’t going to do something for nothing.

Make it effortless: When David Meerman Scott, author of World Wide Rave, refers his readers to a piece of content or offer, he makes sure there’s no cumbersome registration necessary. Putting what he calls a “virtual gate” around your content just for the sake of some contact information, he says, “is precisely the wrong thing [to do] if you want your ideas to spread.” (See Required Reading, August 2009, for our interview with Scott.)

Provide social options: Whether it’s allowing consumers to email, post on Twitter or Facebook, or embed onto a blog, you should open as many channels of distribution as possible to accommodate the preferences of your audience.

Make an emotional connection: E-commerce solutions provider Bazaarvoice helped the skincare retailer Philosophy launch its 2008 Mother’s Day campaign on Bazaarvoice’s Stories platform (“Some Stories Never Get Old,” Real ROI, October 2008). The Web site YourMomsPhilosophy.com invited consumers and visitors alike to write and share personal stories about their mothers. The campaign resulted in a dramatic increase in Web visits, more purchases, and higher order values.

Provide high entertainment value: Humor is one of the most valuable components of a viral campaign. One report says the average child laughs 21 times a day, whereas the average adult laughs four times. Even for the most serious of brands, there are tasteful—and successful—ways to pursue humor.


SIDEBAR: Viral Learning
Nobody—and definitely no company—is perfect. You want people to talk about you, but what if it’s negative? “Excuses,” writes David Meerman Scott in his latest book World Wide Rave. “I constantly hear excuses…for why they can’t create a World Wide Rave.” Fear of losing the brand. Fear of losing the customer. Fear of simply losing control. But viral can be just as rewarding in a negative situation. When something goes wrong, companies are able to respond and hope the response, too, will travel far enough to restore their image.

Sons of Maxwell singer David Carroll released a song and video earlier this year about the mistreatment of his guitar by United Airlines baggage handlers. He hit all the usual channels to get the word out—uploaded the video to YouTube, sent the link around on Twitter, posted a detailed account of the events on his homepage. In just four days, the video had more than a million views. A day later, United Airlines’ Twitter page shows responses to inquiring twitterers about its efforts to remedy the situation. Whether United Airlines was actually able to restore its image is uncertain, but at least the company didn’t turn away from the thousands of tweets and what has amounted to more than 5.3 million views on YouTube as of press time.

Marketers, just like their customers, have the advantage of spreading and learning new information instantly through viral channels. The key is to be willing to listen so that the viral conversation is constantly being monitored and used to improve the customer experience.

Contact Associate Editor Jessica Tsai at jtsai@destinationCRM.com.

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