April 29, 2004
How To

Top 10 Ways to Sabotage Your Viral Marketing Program (Yes, You're Probably Doing One of Them)

SUMMARY: Almost half of the sites we surveyed are making big honking mistakes with their viral marketing system - you know, the one that lets visitors forward an article, offer, or product info to a friend?

Find out what the top 10 most common mistakes are, and how you can fix them (today if possible). Plus, we include a few samples of marketers who are using viral email tell-a-friend messages right.
By MarketingSherpa Editor Janet Roberts

Two key factors in creating a successful viral marketing message -- who sent the message and which company is being promoted -- were missing from nearly half of the Web sites, according to an informal MarketingSherpa survey.

What else did we find?

1. About 20% of the 134 Web sites that allow users to forward a page, article, item for sale or other either to themselves or to friends didn't list privacy policies stating what they would do with the sender's or the recipient's addresses.

2. Six companies sent email messages to an address that was supposed to be on their do-not-email lists.

3. 82 of the 134 sites (62%) that use forward-to-a-friend showed the email coming from the sender's email address rather than the sender's, company or brand name.

Nobody denies how a good viral-marketing program can build lists and boost business at low cost, but the email climate has changed since the late 1990s, when Hotmail built its base fast using free refer-a-friend messages inserted into each user's email:

-- Consumers may permanently block your email send address using Outlook's blocking feature, or use their "report as spam" button at AOL, because they get a viral message they mistakenly think was sent by a spammer.

-- Major email viruses now come embedded in messages that look like forwards or referrals from friends. The latest is the "Osama Bin Laden Captured" message, which sends a Trojan horse along with this text:

"'Hey, Just got this from CNN, Osama Bin Laden has been captured! Goto the link below to view the pics and to download the video if you so wish: 'Murderous coward he is'. God bless America!'."

-- The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is considering rules that would require tell-a-friend messages to meet CAN-SPAM requirements.

Although the FTC hasn't posted proposed rules yet, it said in its request for comments that it is considering rules that would make the company that facilitated the forwarding responsible for making sure they comply with CAN-SPAM.

In other words, if you provide the forwarding form, you are considered the message sender, even if the sender's email address shows up in the forwarded message.

Together, these factors mean you could be your viral-marketing program's biggest enemy if you haven't updated it recently.

Subject Line Pop Quiz

Which of the following four subject lines is an authentic spam message, and which came on messages sent using a Web site's forward-to-a-friend program?

-- "Sending you an interesting link"
-- "Introducing Yves Rocher's latest anti-age breakthrough"
-- "A message from your friend"
-- "Take a look at this catalog"

What kind of world are we living in where only the spam message actually lists the company name?

A good viral-marketing message tells a recipient up front who sent the message and what company the message promotes.

But our survey found that only 38 percent of forwarded or referral messages include the sender's, company or brand name. The sender's email address should be a clue, but you can't count on the recipient recognizing it as quickly as a name.

Top 10 Ways to Sabotage Your Viral Marketing Program

#1. Use a vague message to autofill your subject line: "A message from your friend" or "Take a look at this catalog" or "A friend thought you might be interested in this article."

#2. Format the message so your publication or company name never appears in either the "from" line or the subject line.

#3. Send emails to people who are on your internal DNE list. (Solution: Run all forwarding requests through your DNE list before they go out.)

#4. Ask your regular newsletter readers to send it to their friends, but use a link that directs them just to your Web site, not to the page on your site that allows them to create the forwarding message.

#5. Throw some errant code into your forwarding program, so that when somebody hits the "send" button, it throws up a 404 Error page.

If it's a genuine error, you'll anger your referrers, because they'll have to try two or three more times (if you're lucky) or abandon your site in disgust (more likely.) If it's a false alarm, as it was on one site in our survey, the recipient ends up with multiple messages. That's an automatic trip to the bulk folder on some email services, such as Yahoo!

#6. Send only the barest minimum of information, with nothing to explain who sent the message, why or even who you are.

Example from the Web site of a popular lifestyle magazine:
"Recipe from Kitchen Assistant: Icebox Rolls"
followed by a link.

#7. Use a horrendously long link to the material at your site, that breaks in text-only email. From the previous example:


#8. Allow users to send your link to an unlimited number of people. Helllllooooooo, Internet harassment squad!

Steven Boal of Coupons Inc., which creates Web-site and email coupon programs for major consumer-goods manufacturers, says his company's new Bricks Tell-A-Friend service gives users a form with a maximum of six forwards.

Most forward messages to no more than three, he said, and offering more than six forwards is "overwhelming."

#9. Neglect to address privacy issues, such as telling either the referrer or the recipient what you plan to do with their email addresses.

Most of the sites whose forwarding services we used told senders their email addresses would not be retained. However, only a few messages reassured recipients that they had not been added to mailing lists against their will.

#10. Don't let the original sender know if the message didn't go through. This is the main reason referring Web sites give for asking for a sender's email address. However, 23 of the messages sent to the test address didn't show up. Only one site sent a bounce message, reporting that the recipient's ISP had blocked the sender.

#Bonus: Forward the whole message as is, including the subscription-management information that tells the forwarded person he/she is receiving the email because he/she opted in to it.

Three Examples Of Good Messages

Sure, we found some stand-out messages among the dreck.

Here are three:

-- From Proflowers.com:
From: Proflowers
Subject line: "(Sender Name) thought you might want to
save $20 on your next Proflowers order!"
(See the resource list below for a link to the actual message in our Sherpa Library.)

-- Ebates:
From: Sender Name
Subject Line: Hey! Look what I found at Ebates!

-- Lands' End:
From: Lands' End
Subject Line: Hi Mom!
Message in the body: "Your friend Sender Name has requested that we forward you this week's issue of the What'sNew@landsend. com e-mail newsletter. Your name has not been added to any mailing list and you will not receive additional e-mails from Lands' End unless you request them. If you would like to sign up to receive your own free subscription to this newsletter, please visit our signup page."

Useful links related to this article:

Sample of ProFlowers viral friend-tell-a-friend message:

Coupons Inc.:

Proven Tactics in Viral Marketing (paid)

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions