April 06, 2005
How To

MarketingSherpa Special: Viral Advertising in 2005 -- Top 7 Tactics, How-Tos, and Measurement Data

SUMMARY: Viral ads are super cool right now -- but do they really work? In Part I of MarketingSherpa's Special, you'll discover: -> Top seven viral ad tactics how-tos -> What's *not* a viral ad (and what is) -> How to measure viral campaigns. Includes exclusive data from 2,431 marketers and viral ad agencies (thanks, guys).
Viral advertising is the red hot tactic of 2005 ... but the lack of practical how-to information on the tactic is astounding.

Viral ads are online promotional campaigns that (hopefully) spread "like a virus." One minute nobody's heard of it, next minute, it's everywhere. The term's been around for almost a decade now, and it's been the online ad tactic de jour at least three times.

Time #1. In the mid-90s when Hotmail went from zero to 30 million users with a then-revolutionary viral email ad.

Time #2. During the worst days of the 2001-2002 dot-com bust when no one could afford any other kind of online advertising.

Time #3. Today, now that advertisers want to break through increasing clutter while appealing to "cool" consumers who otherwise hate ads.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this history, most marketers are increasingly confused about what viral ads are, how they work, what they should cost (loads of confusion there), how to measure results, etc. So, we've created this two-part Special to help you out.

First, here's what viral advertising is not...

Three (great) tactics that are *not* viral advertising

#1. Evangelism marketing -- A focused direct response tactic

Your customers love you so much that they will tell others about you, especially if prompted with the right direct response campaign. Highly profitable and targeted, but also fairly focused and controllable.

#2. Influencer marketing -- A focused brand perception tactic

Tightly targeted campaigns, often conducted offline, to get a very small, highly-influential demographic/psychographic to use your product, hoping the masses will then copy them slavishly. (Celebrities, ultra-trendy youth, and urban gays are often launch pad demographics for these campaigns.) Sometimes the users themselves are planted models.

#3. Buzz marketing -- A broad brand awareness tactic

A type of PR whereby you engage in either publicity stunts or plant content (blogs, articles, message board postings) hoping to get a "buzz" generated about your brand. Generally doesn't involve a specific landing page with an offer. Often used as part of the "seeding" campaign to help get the word out about a new viral ad.

How are viral ads different from the three tactics above?

Key: Unless you're actually marketing a related entertainment or charitable brand, most viral ad campaigns aren't focused on the brand itself.

Campaigns may raise sales or otherwise help your brand as a byproduct. But the main focus of the campaign is on the creative -- the thing that's so neat-o that people feel compelled to spread the word. They can't help themselves (just like sneezing when you pass a virus around).

The heart of a viral ad campaign is the content. People don't spread the ad because they love your brand, they spread it because they can't help but adore your content. They're not evangelists serving you, they are self-serving. So, all successful viral ad promos appeal to any one (or all three) of these basic human motivators:

Appeal #1. Entertainment: Fun, humor, games, quizzes, videos, songs ... anything to pass the time not working.

Appeal #2. Greed Sweeps (entries and other free offers. You can be more creative than you think -- one site reported offering free (temporary) tattoos, "The buzz moved and in three days we were out of stock; but, the tattoo requests kept on coming in for weeks after that and our sales jumped significantly."

Appeal #3. Charity (and/or fear): You can help save the world. Ask all your friends to sign this online petition/buy this item/visit this Web page daily,etc.

Best Practices in viral ad strategy and goals

Instead of being the central message of the campaign, the brand becomes the sponsor of the viral ad campaign. Why would you want to invest in an ad campaign where your brand isn't the central message? Three reasons:

Reason #1. Because consumers are fed up with advertising

It's the same reason why product placements in movies, TV, and videogames are so hot right now. It's a way to put your brand in a context that consumers feel good about (instead of an ad they want to zap).

As Adi Sideman, CEO Oddcast, told us, "One of the most important aspects of any viral campaign is to create a compelling reason for your target constituents to forward along an offer to their friends without looking like the ad hoc marketing arm of the company that is really behind the campaign."

(That said, unlike some buzz marketing efforts we've heard of, a viral advertiser must be explicitly up-front about the fact they're the sponsor "behind" the cool content.)

Reason #2. Standing out in a cluttered world

Uniqueness catches the eye, but is your product really truly unique enough to stand out?

As Justin Kirby, co-founder Viral & Buzz Marketing Association explains, "The reason you focus on the creative agents is because the product normally doesn’t have an uniqueness that can be leveraged to amplify and accelerate word of mouth. So you make the creative agent/communications sticky because the product isn't necessarily."

Reason #3. The possibility of outrageous reach

If your campaign is a viral hit, you'll reach far more people than you ever dreamed possible on a fairly moderate budget (more on costs below). As the word "viral" indicates, your campaign can "go viral" -- exploding to hundreds of thousands or even millions of viewers.

However -- and many marketers find this scary -- you have almost no control over how many people your campaign will reach or what demographic they'll be in.

Plenty of viral ad campaigns:

-> Never really take off.

-> Take off at an unexpected velocity (too fast, too slow, too lingering), causing havoc with related hopes, offers, and systems.

-> Take off in unexpected directions such as other countries or outside your target demographic.

It all depends on the quality of your creative, the expertise behind your seeding campaign, and a walloping dose of luck.

Example: MarketingSherpa's own viral ad test -- an online game called TortureASpammer.com -- launched in fall 2001 resulting in almost a million plays to date. However, 95% of them were far outside our target demographic of professional email marketers. (In fact, the game is very big with Czechoslovakian teens.)

Plus, of the 5% on-target players, most were either already good customers who received our initial seeding campaign, or they had lousy lifetime value as SherpaStore.com shoppers when tracked further.

Result? Despite high traffic, the campaign ROI stank.

What's a reasonable goal for a viral ad campaign? "Many clients don't really understand what viral advertising is all about and have extremely unrealistic expectations about what a viral campaign can and can not do for them," notes Catherine Winkler of award-winning viral agency Switch Interactive.

We asked 2,431 participating marketers and viral ad agency execs for their opinion in our March 2005 Viral Advertising Survey.

GOAL................Newbies....Experienced Viralers
Grow email list....15.7%.......24.2%
Direct Sales.........31.6%.........22%
Site traffic...........15.5%......14.2%
Offline sales*...........4%...........4%

*Offline sales are defined as redemption of a coupon or sample offer delivered online.

As you can see, newbies who've never done a viral ad campaign themselves have unrealistic expectations about direct sales. Experienced viral advertisers who've conducted at least one campaign ratchet down their direct sales expectations and go for the email instead, hoping to sell through relationship later.

But do experienced viralers really know what they're talking about?

Although 95.5% of experienced respondents said they measured something (thank goodness), the actual metric they watched often had no relation to their stated goal. Here you can see what experienced viralers actually track in campaigns (as opposed to their stated goals above).

Site stats/visitor counts 58.4% New email opt-ins 54% Direct sales 32.6% Value of new email opt-ins 21% Brand awareness/perception 13.9% External site links, news items 13.5% We didn't 4.5%

MarketingSherpa's 5 best tactics for measuring viral campaigns

It's not rocket science. And, unless your brand is insanely broad in appeal, it's not about overall site traffic. (It's also not about whether your pals in the advertising world have seen the campaign and how creative they think you are.)

#1. Cookie your resulting visitors and track them as a segment using basic Web analytics (or cheap affiliate software) as long as the cookies last. Sure, a lot will be wiped, but enough should remain to indicate stats for the population as a whole.

#2. Flag all incoming email names to your file with a "where it came from" code, and then track resulting relevant activity (opens, dead addresses, clicks, conversions) by that segment on a regular basis in future.

#3. Survey site visitors to discover brand perception and segment results by whether they saw the viral campaign or not. Or simply do a before and after survey to a slice of the population of any relevant site in your demographic to see if you've moved the needle.

#4. Track blog and RSS mentions at Feedster.com, incoming site links at Google, and email discussion group chatter at Google Groups. (Yes, there are also more formal online buzz measurement services you can engage.) Be sure to remove colleague links and trade press mentions from your final count.

#5. Ask your email service provider for reports tracking "unique" versus "total" open and click rates. This will help you begin to see if your email is forwarded, and if the forwards are reacting to it. This isn't a super-tough metric for most email systems to track.

Top seven viral ad tactics: data and tips

-> Viral Tactic #1. hoping email will be forwarded

49% of experienced viralers have tried with "moderate" results, 21% got "dismal results" and 14% got "great results."

Worked like crazy in the 1990s. Loads of emailers added "forward to a friend" tools to their emails, which almost all recipients completely ignored in favor of forwarding the regular way.

You'll get more forwards if you ask for them -- especially if you do so in the body of the message instead of on a nav bar or footer. However, it's also seen as slightly spammy, so be careful.

-> Viral Tactic #2. Offering ecards

Of the viralers who've tried this tactic, the vast majority got either dismal or moderate results. Not an easy home run. Only 17% plan to use the tactic in 2005.

Again a red hot tactic of the late 1990s. Consumers still love ecards to the point that AmericanGreetings.com has millions of customers who pay to send cards.

Spammers also love them -- high open rates -- and send enough mock cards these days that many innocent permission cards are filtered by mistake. Plus, card offers tend to mount up over key holidays -- so standing out is next to impossible.

According to Michael Herman, Online Promotion Manager ChristianityToday.com, "There was a short-lived window of opportunity a few years ago where a strategy of using ecards to gather email addresses worked like a charm. But times have changed. eCards have been around long enough that most people gravitate to the ecard big dogs (Hallmark, Blue Mountain, etc.).

"We've pulled way back on our promotion of ecards in favor of promoting other, more effective, strategies. Today isn't the day to leverage custom-branded ecards on your website."

On the other hand, if you create a super-personalized and interactive ecard campaign -- effectively treating the ecard offer as though it's an interactive game with a "send results to a friend" tool stuck on the end -- they can still work gangbusters.

Recent example: For April Fool's Day 2005, Canadian job site Workopolis offered all MSN.ca home page visitors the chance to send their friends fake press releases announcing their new job as a CEO, supermodel, TV news anchor, or rock star. (Link to creative samples below.)

The MSN ad got record clickthrough rates, plus as ad agency head Daren Trousdell of Mindblossom.com told us, "In terms of overall viral uptake, we had some unbelievable results -- exceeding our expectations (and the clients) by almost five times."

He adds, "We were looking at an average of about four press release sends per person (sent to four unique email addresses). From our experience, this is very good in terms of what we call 'first-level' virility. From that point we had another 35% of viral activity (the recipient sending it along to their friends). This is where the real viral success is seen."

(By the way -- at 34.1% the supermodel job was the top choice, while hardly anyone wanted to be a TV news anchor.)

-> Viral Tactic #3. Online games or quizzes

Hugely popular with experienced viralers, 37% of whom report great results if they tested the tactic. 29% definitely plan to invest in this tactic for 2005.

Unlike common myths, the demographic that loves games and quizzes the most are ... adult women. So, you're not limited to 16-year-old boys. Plus, many marketers report game interaction time of up to 20 minutes per play. That's a lot of time for your brand to hover friendly-like in the background as sponsor.

This tactic is not limited to B-to-C either -- we've seen loads of targeted B-to-B games take off in their niches. (Example, a murder mystery game for forensic scientists sponsored by a forensic toolmaker.)

Three things to watch out for: First of all, many of the top sites to seed your game offer on are in Europe and Japan. Even if you're targeting US-only, seed globally because American game bloggers surf internationally seeking cool links.

Secondly, be aware that many viral game agencies are run by people who really like to build games. They may know a lot about the technical aspects of building a game but very little about what's compelling to your target demographic or what ads really work. They just wanna build games and you're financing it.

Thirdly, don't test a golfing game. Seems like every B-to-B marketer on the planet tried that with limited success in 2001. It doesn't reflect your unique brand personality and it doesn't reflect what "business" is about anymore, either.

-> Viral Tactic #4. Video clips

Fun to produce, but not a sure thing for results. 31% of viralers who reported testing video clips had "great results." 52% had moderate results.

Loads of video campaigns have launched in the last six months due to the killer combo of cheap-n-easy streaming tech and high US broadband penetration (at last). We expect the trend to continue as 54% of experienced viralers said they are hoping to test this tactic in 2005. However, video is more expensive than most tactics, and we all know repurposing a TV ad won't work. So, if you're going to try it, use a team who've gotten measured results to prove it worked. How should they measure video? Three specific tips:

Tip A: Track video views (and links from video clips' endframes to the campaign sponsor's site) *after* the clip has been downloaded from its initial seed site(s) i.e., while it is being passed from user to user. Seeding the clip as downloadable files then tracking ongoing views avoids the high cost of streaming video and broadens the uptake ability (versus simply making a clip available to play in a browser window on-site).

Tip B: Use specific viral campaign URLs linking back to the campaign landing site when seeding buzz or viral links "out there" (inside video clips or as news postings). This helps you to be more precise in differentiating landing site visitors and their ongoing actions (tell-a-friend, brochure requests, downloads, trials, etc.) that have been driven by viral activity versus any other marketing activity.

Tip C: Calculate a snapshot of brand exposure from seed routes that provide unique visitor stats.

Worth noting -- you'll need extra help with the seeding campaign. Unlike games, email, and music, which have long-established pass-along activities associated with them, video is simply harder to get the word out about. You may need to supplement with paid advertising and pay to place the video on other content sites.

-> Viral Tactic #5. Audio clips

We believe this tactic has great potential and it's VASTLY underused. 77% of experienced viralers answering our survey said they had not tested an audio clip campaign -- by far the largest percent of non-tries in any category.

Plus, only 14% said they definitely were planning audio tests for 2005. Again, the poorest showing of any tactic.

However, offline ad research labs have shown audio has an enormous emotional impact and can turn your brand blahs around. If your campaigns are all geared to the visual only, you're missing out.

We suspect the problem may be a generation gap. If you're under 25, you're audio file sharing like crazy. If you're over, it's a foreign land. Guess what age most ad execs are?

Now that podcasting is poised to be the next gargantuan wave (think blogging, plus RSS, plus satellite radio, plus personal Web sites) and the pod-buying demographic is a bit older (includes ad agency execs), we expect to see a big change within 18 months.

-> Viral Tactic #6. Tell-a-friend offers on promo pages

Unlike audio, in this case 76% of viralers have tested this at least once and for 62% of them it worked moderately well. 48% of viralers definitely plan to use the tactic in 2005.

This overwhelming moderation is understandable given how prevalent the tactic is. It's situation normal to stick a "tell a few friends" box on the end of online promo pages for sweeps and other freebie online offers. Few seeing the offer will be very surprised or thrilled to see it there.

And the very underpinning of a viral ad campaign's success is that sense of thrill -- the Wow! factor. Without it you can certainly do moderately well, but not better.

-> Viral Tactic #7. Cool (independently branded) microsites

Experienced viralers are hugely excited about microsites. 44.7% of those who tested them in the past reported great results. Plus, 34% said they would definitely use the tactic in 2005, and another 31% said they'd "possibly test" it.

The only problem? You have to invest in a traffic-driving campaign for a microsite. Given how bad many advertisers are at driving traffic to their main site, we wonder if they're underestimating how hard it will be to drive traffic to a second site.

Plus, if you do get blog-land and other online links pointing to your microsite, the resulting lift won't help your main site's search engine optimization much because the microsite is a separate brand.

One final thing to remember: Leave your microsite up for the long haul. Traffic will drift in over years to come. Plan to change offers/art if needed once relevant deadlines are passed. But also plan to host this site into infinity if need be to maximize your ROI. It's not an ad-campaign-of-the-quarter.

Creative and costs -- do you need to hire an expert?

Kurt Fisher of View Marketing in Dallas lamented, "Viral should be targeted and compelling -- don't ruin it for the rest of us by creating a general lame message and launching it to the world."

"The quality of execution is tremendously underestimated," notes David Wharton who handles Online Marketing for Nintendo of America. "As with Web marketing in the early days, people feel like they can get away with less effort on viral campaigns. But, while some campaigns feel very low-tech to give off an aura of authenticity, the best campaigns are well thought-out and impeccably executed."

So, the answer is, you may need an expert's help.

That said, the chances you'll budget enough for one are slim. Here's what folks thought typical viral campaigns should cost outsourced to an expert who did concept, creative, initial seeding and measurement:

Tactic:...........Newbies' budgets.....Experienced Viralers
Audio clip..........$500....................$2,500
Video clip..........$2,500.................$5,000
Tell-a-friend box.$500...................$500
Cool microsite....$500....................$10,000

Can you say disconnect? Even experienced viralers have unexpectedly wafer-thin budgets. In reality, the only tactic you could do for $500 is the tell-a-friend box added to an existing promotional landing page.

Our experience shows you need at least three to five times the amount experienced viralers suggested to get the ball rolling -- and possibly higher for world class creative and strategy that work. Heck, consider what you'd pay for concept, creative, and measurement for a standard ad campaign. The only cut you're making is possibly not doing a media buy. And, many of our respondents noted a viral campaign often requires online media buys and perhaps some help from offline PR to get seeded.

"As an agency person, I wish clients understood that viral marketing takes effort," one survey respondent told us. "The content has to be VERY GOOD to be passed on. It's not necessarily cheap but can be efficient when the impact exceeds traditional tactics."

That said, despite nine years of campaigns and tests, viral is far from a proven safe tactic even if you invest a lot.

Another respondent explained, "Our clients often perceive viral marketing as a 'cheap' alternative, and frankly some of our salespeople sell it that way, but in my opinion viral marketing is an expensive, risky method of marketing if you rely on it solely for results. Viral marketing can be extremely successful, but it's FAR from a sure thing. I would never characterize it as a definite bang-for-your-buck old standby."

How can you give your campaign the extra edge it needs? In Part II of this Special next week, we'll bring you a big dose of inspirational creative samples and stories of campaigns that worked.

Useful links related to this article

MarketingSherpa's Viral Advertising Showcase: Top 12 Campaigns & Results Data to Inspire You http://www.marketingsherpa.com/sample.cfm?contentID=2964

Creative samples of Workopolis.ca April Fool's viral campaign mentioned above: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/worpol/study.html

Viral & Buzz Marketing Association: http://www.vbma.net

Useful four-page white paper by VBMA co-founder Justin Kirby, "Online Viral Marketing: Strategic synthesis in peer-to-peer brand marketing": http://www.brandchannel.com/images/Papers/viral_marketing.pf

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