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Nov 18, 2008

AOL’s ‘Shortcuts’ Built Viral Buzz through Peer Referrals: 8 Strategies

SUMMARY: Raise the volume on your viral buzz by adding peer-to-peer referrals to your marketing campaign.

A marketer promoting a new coupon service built on a little buzz with referrals, which now account for 25% of all registrations. Includes tips on using grassroots communities and viral seeding.
Buzz usually builds after you launch a new product or a service. People start talking, posting blogs, writing articles. But you shouldn’t sit back and relax; you can facilitate the spread of this buzz.

Sharon Baker, GM, Shortcuts, AOL, noticed some buzz around AOL’s coupon service. It lets consumers select coupons online and redeem them in certain grocery stores with a customer-loyalty card. The buzz started with a “very brief mention” on The Today Show about a month before the free service launched in March, she says.

“That generated a tremendous amount of inquiries. More than 20,000 people went to to check it out…And a great many of them decided to write to us…You can’t even use the product yet, and people are writing to me saying, ‘Please tell me about it and I can’t wait to share this with my sister, my friend, my mother.”

Based on that feedback combined with the slumping economy and the tendency for frugal tips to spread, Baker and her team thought Shortcuts was perfect for word-of-mouth marketing. A flurry of blog posts following the product’s launch supported their notion.

“That led us down the path to say, ‘OK, let’s get more of this. How can we create more awareness by proactively getting in front of these communities?’” Baker says. Three months later, 25% of Shortcuts’ registrants came from peer-to-peer referrals.

Head-of-household mothers have been the biggest coupon clippers. They still are, but a lot of other demographics use coupons, too, Baker says. Essentially, anyone who has access to the Internet and shops for groceries is their target audience. The broad audience gives Baker and her team a plethora of ways to reach potential customers, and they are testing almost every option imaginable.

Here is how Baker and her team turned up the volume on Shortcuts’ buzz using grassroots organizations and online communities.

Eight tips and strategies to boost viral registrations

Tip #1: Leverage existing online communities

o Seeding agencies

Baker and her team used agencies to help plant their viral seed. Companies, such as BzzAgent and SheSpeaks, organize consumers who like to try new products and services. If consumers like a product, they are encouraged (but not required) to spread the word about it. These communities are predisposed to word-of-mouth, Baker says.

“I’m a participant in [similar] viral communities…You do talk about them naturally to say, ‘Hey, I’m a part of this community, and you get to try these great products.’”

o Local shopping tips

Baker is leveraging services that offer local shopping tips in the regions that Shortcuts services. For example, DailyCandy sends free shopping-tip emails that feature offers in a range of metropolitan areas, and has mentioned Shortcuts. These alert sites are frequented by frugal mavens, or digital divas, people who love sharing shopping tips with friends.

Tip #2: Give an incentive

Consumers appreciate a good service – especially when it’s free. But they like additional incentives even more.

Baker and her team give registrants a $2 credit on their next grocery bill in addition to the coupon savings. The credit is an incentive to try the service and mention it to friends.

Tip #3: Reach community experts

Most experts specializing in specific areas have a website. Baker reached out to The Coupon Mom, Stephanie Nelson, a regular media source. She makes sure the experts are aware of Shortcuts and its mission.

Tip #4: Talk to customers at the point of sale

Shortcuts favors in-store promotions, reaching customers while they buy groceries. Customers can find brochures and trained clerks donning Shortcuts pins at the checkout. They also host in-store registration events, where customers can learn more about the service, sign up and receive the $2 credit.

“It resonates with consumers to be at the place where they’re actually doing their shopping,” Baker says.

Tip #5: Meet with social groups

Baker works with promotion agencies that target local grassroots organizations. She distributes Shortcuts brochures to groups, such as Parent Teacher Association (PTA) in regions with participating stores. The meetings are social events, prime ground for viral buzz, and are usually dominated by Shortcuts’ core demographic -- coupon moms.

Tip #6: Get on the news

Shortcuts considers itself newsworthy because the technology could replace an American staple – clipping coupons. It can be discussed also in the context of the struggling economy – a daily news topic.

Also, local community news is a great conversation starter. Baker and her team work to become part of the news. They have scored a lot of local print, TV and radio coverage through standard story pitching and press releases.

Tip #7: Balance viral with other efforts

Viral marketing is not the only strategy Baker uses. Word-of-mouth is a part of a larger marketing campaign that involves:
o Search engine marketing
o Online banner advertising
o Emailing AOL’s members

Still, viral marketing is important, Baker says: “Twenty-five percent of our existing users have come from hearing about [Shortcuts] from somebody else, a viral source, as opposed to a targeted marketing effort through paid media.”

Tip #8: Track your coverage

Looking for Shortcuts mentions, Baker’s team scans the Web regularly. You can track your company mentions through Google Alerts – a free service that sends immediate updates when Google’s spiders encounter your keywords.

A Shortcuts blog or a news mention usually means an uptick in registrations, sometimes as much as 30% to 40% higher than the previous week’s, Baker says.

Useful Links related to this article:

Daily Candy

Buzz Agent

She Speaks

Coupon Mom Stephanie Nelson

Google Alerts


See Also:

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