April 18, 2007

Special Report: Viral Marketing 2007 - 15 Data Charts, Top Tactics & ROI

SUMMARY: Interest in viral marketing is super-hot right now. The 2007 Viral Marketing Survey just closed with 2,914 responses, 3 1/2 times more participants than last year. (Thanks, folks!)

But what the responses tell us is that, after more than a decade, viral marketing still has several bugs to work out. For instance, few viral campaigns explode online on their own -- ever. Yet, with the right approach, positive ROI figures are being attained by a considerable number of marketers in a variety of niches.

Includes 15 data charts on costs, most-used tactics, plus tips to improve your results.
This is the third year for MarketingSherpa’s special report on viral marketing, and we’re seeing a divide between the viral oldtimers and newcomers. Our charts show that many newcomers are probably overspending on their campaigns, while the experienced players have a more distinct feel for knocking out ROI homeruns. They also address the question of whether viral is a better fit for certain goals than others.

The charts illuminate two areas where experienced viral marketers are different:

- They see growing their email list and viral as a very good match of a tactic/goal.
- They are much less likely to use viral for attempts at direct sales and see it as a better tool for branding/awareness.

Experienced viral marketers also tell us that they are relentlessly focused on lead generation, even if viral may be better at other things, while the consumer marketing folks use it in equal measure for most goals. Granted -- a lot of these goals overlap -- you could call some lead generation ‘offline sales’ or consider ‘growing email list’ as lead generation.

First, about the survey methodology: This third annual survey was opened to MarketingSherpa's 237,000 readers on April 10 and closed on April 13. 2,914 responses were collected.

Now, let’s dig into the findings and see what marketers from various niches have to say. Note: As with all MarketingSherpa content, the following charts are copyright protected. Please do not copy them; however, you can link to them on this permanent link.

Chart 1.1: Breakdown of Marketers Using Viral Marketing
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

Predictably, consumer marketers make up the bulk of experienced viral players. But it’s surprising to see that many B-to-C marketers (48%) who still don’t have at least a Tell-A-Friend feature, much less a podcast.

While B-to-B marketers are 52% of the zero-experience *newbies*, they are highly interested in its potential. This might suggest that the number from this sector using the medium will grow soon, but there are already some doing so with savvy -- as the 28% ‘very experienced’ data shows.

For instance, we named data storage company Quantum to our 2006 Viral Hall of Fame. They created a trivia contest for IT managers and directors, using responses to the questions as a way to qualify leads. Why not position your B-to-B survey in a similar fashion? (Check out the campaign in the hotlinks below … and look for Sherpa’s 2007 Viral Hall of Fame next week to catch some other great ideas!)

Chart 1.2: Viral Campaign Goals by Experience
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

80% of marketers say viral builds awareness -- with 'very experienced' players leading the numbers. That group also says 'growing email list' is the second-best reason with lead generation in third. On the other hand, 'somewhat experienced' players say lead generation (27%) is the best way to use viral tactics with branding in second (23%) and site traffic third (19%).

Meanwhile, using viral for direct sales is lagging as a potential chief goal behind campaigns. 4% of the very experienced group says it can be used for direct, along with 12% of the somewhat experienced crowd. The results mirror data from last year when the total percent for marketers with experience was also in the teens.

“The Web 2.0 generation should change that drastically in B-to-C,” says Consultant Jack Aaronson, who has worked on viral campaigns for SkyMall.com and HelloDirect. “Direct sales are going to be a growing entity in the viral space as ecommerce becomes more decentralized. We are going to be seeing widgets at MySpace, Facebook and the like that are going to allow companies to do sales -- but without having to be at their sites.”

Chart 1.3: Viral Marketing Goals by Focus and Experience
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

In a question for experienced viralers, we found 50% of B-to-B marketers reporting a focus and experience on lead generation, which doesn’t come as a shock. Only 18% of consumer marketers use viral for lead generation.

It’s interesting to see the branding/awareness numbers so even between the two sectors. However, much of the rest of the numbers pretty much panned out as we thought they would -- with consumer marketers more heavily focused on email list growth and site traffic.

Perhaps there’s a lesson for business-to-business marketers in how consumer marketers view viral as a multipurpose tactic. Instead of a myopic focus on lead generation, business marketers might benefit from viral campaigns that try to do more than simply generate leads.

Viral has been very successful for some B-to-B companies in introducing products and changing brand perception. One marketer we spoke to in the networking hardware sector described a very successful viral campaign that had only one goal: letting system administrators know that they have a discussion group. The campaign dramatically raised awareness (and visits) and contributed to lowering customer service calls by a double digit percentage, as well as increasing customer satisfaction.

Chart 1.4: Which Viral Tactics Get ‘Great Results’?
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

Experienced viral marketers recognize that creating a separate presence for viral campaigns can have a huge impact –‘creating cool microsites’ outshined all other tactics, with 37% of ‘very experienced’ marketers saying they produced ‘great results.’

Online games are interesting, in that they can be very effective for generating traffic and bringing repeat visitors. The downside? If you’re targeting decision makers, don’t expect a viral effect. If a CIO plays a game or answers a poll, that’s great, but they’re much less likely to forward it along than someone lower in the organization. One note: if you put up a game, you’re in it for the long haul –- people will return for years, and you have to ensure that any surrounding content remains relevant.

Chart 1.5: What Works in Viral - Highly Experienced Marketers’ Results
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

This chart essentially looks at the possibility of hitting a home run. The better the ratio of ‘great results’ to ‘dismal’ the more capability the tactic has to generate a positive ROI and hopefully ‘go viral.’ The top three tactics all enjoy a 2-to-1 ratio or better. For the rest, the experience of viralers is that success is more difficult to come by. The good news is that these lower-rated tactics tend to be inexpensive and easy to implement.

For the tactics with less than positive ratios, it’s all in the execution and content.

For the past couple of years, literature retailer Powells.com has used 10-minute audio clips to showcase young writers in onsite blogs. These have worked well in conjunction with the retailer’s popular book-review blogs, which are written by staffers.

”We constantly see our stuff getting spread around on other blogs,” says Dave Weich, Director Marketing and Development, Powells.com. “The most viral bookcast has been the one we did with John Hodgman [satirical author of ‘The Areas of My Expertise’], where he not only read from his book, but he also played guitar during an in-store appearance.”

Chart 1.6: High Impact Tactics to Jumpstart a Viral Campaign, Rated by Somewhat/Very Experienced Viral Marketers in B-to-B & B-to-C
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

We wanted to know how experienced marketers view the factors that can jumpstart a viral campaign. You’ll notice that we didn’t bother to ask about the impact of mentions in the mainstream media, because even though old media may be having a tough time adjusting to the digital world, it’s still by far the most powerful way of generating attention for a viral campaign.

Getting mentions across the blogosphere was the most popular response to 'high-impact tactics' for B-to-C marketers at 37%. B-to-B respondents also liked the choice, coming in at 27%, which tied with their campaigns getting mentioned in industry-related online publications.

Of course, posting to social communities, such as MySpace and YouTube, was big with consumer marketers (34%), but it also performed well for B-to-B firms (18%). And it’s worth noting that there’s still bounce between online and print, as 20% of consumer marketers and 18% of B-to-B marketers said industry-related publications helped create high-impact viral.

Chart 1.7: Viral Marketers’ Planned Campaigns and Tests for 2007
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

Not surprisingly, encouraging email forwarding and tell-a-friend boxes are huge in the 2007 plans of marketers from both sectors. Since they entail low-cost implementation and have customer acquisition chops, the features are ROI no-brainers.

65% of consumer marketers planned to use video this year. Weich from Powells says his firm will be unveiling a video viral campaign -- with 1-minute clips of a new, short independent film being released periodically. “The whole expressed intent of the effort will be to create viral.”

Chart 1.8: What Do Experienced Viral Marketers Have Planned for the Next Year, Compared with Newbies?
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

Remember back a few charts where experienced marketers shrugged off the potential of ‘encouraging email forwarding'? Well, it may not have the potential to generate huge buzz, but it’s cheap, easy and effective enough for 72% to start or continue doing it.

Viral must be working. The message underlying this chart is that marketers who have worked extensively with viral plan on keeping with it. Their 2007 plans (which always tend to be more ambitious than reality) show that more than half plan on multiple viral efforts.

Chart 1.9: Challenges to Viral Marketing by Experienced Marketers by Focus
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

62% of 'somewhat' or 'very experienced' B-to-B marketers say that getting a core audience to run with the viral process is their biggest challenge, and it’s no wonder why, explains Danny Essner, Director Marketing, Xandros Inc.

Unless you are marketing to a community-centric target audience, such as IT professionals, many B-to-B customers/prospects will tune out nontraditional messaging in favor of a direct sales effort. Still, Essner identifies most with those who responded to 'getting reliable public relations support …' on the survey.

“My biggest obstacle is finding someone who has a combination of viral and traditional B-to-B PR skillsets. You usually just find a person with one or the other.”

Chart 1.10: What’s so Appealing About Viral Marketing?
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

To be honest, we thought we’d catch newbies in some magical thinking by seeing how their belief in the power of viral differed from those with experience. In fact, there wasn’t much variation to be found. Perhaps the most striking difference is in the area of SEO, where the ‘very experienced’ were significantly more likely to cite ‘improving natural search ranking’ as an important benefit to viral.

Reaching a new audience is, of course, the great appeal of viral marketing. What’s interesting here is that marketers with a variety of experience in this medium seem to be getting 'highly qualified' sales leads -- between 43% and 47%.

“In our viral experiences, leads have been up to three times more qualified,” says Darcy Kelley, Ebusiness Strategist, Petro-Canada, which has been running viral to launch their line of cellphone products since November. “We are very excited about this being a low-cost and high-credibility channel.”

Chart 1.11: Ratio of Positive ROI Viral Campaigns
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

It’s important to note that we asked marketers for the ratio of campaigns with positive ROI -- NOT the ratio that *go viral*’ while exploding in popularity. That ratio is far smaller. As one marketer we spoke to put it, “I expect at least half of my viral campaigns to be worth doing, but 1 in 80 to be a home run.”

While it’s interesting that the two sectors answered at the same rate (42%), it’s not at all surprising that the most experienced get the best results. This finding undescores an important aspect of viral; that it’s not a binary tactic that will either soar or crash. Many viral campaigns are solid performers without ever ‘going viral’ in the classic sense.

Now, let’s take a look at budgets. As we said last year, MarketingSherpa suspects the paying-for-viral world falls into three camps:

#1. Huge B-to-C brands that spend millions on broadcast media. $50,000 for a what-the-heck viral test is pocket change. Unfortunately, they're the hardest clients to create so-cool-it-actually-virals campaigns for because they're leery of brand damage. And viral campaigns created by committee are the worst campaigns of all.

#2. Casino and porn sites: These marketers spend a ton per lead (sometimes $50 to $150), so they'll happily sign up for a campaign that might produce a better ROI. Plus, while they want their brand names to be more famous, they don't mind what sites they appear on. For instance, they have little reason to flinch at buying MySpace.com ads to support the campaign.

#3. The little guy (with the little budget): Your typical bargain shopper, this is the marketer who must get ROI from the campaign or lose his or her job. Often they are an unknown or a little-known brand trying to break out from the pack. They can't outspend Fortune 500 competitors, so they try to out-viral them. And, sometimes it works.

Chart 1.12: Price Ranges for E-card Viral – Compared by Experience
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

An inductee into last year’s Viral Hall of Fame was an e-card for CareerBuilder.com's Monk-e-Mail -- so don’t completely write off the overcrowded (and sometimes tired) e-card field. It’s not shocking that *newbies* routinely underestimate what it’ll cost to create an e-card from the $5,000-mark and up.

Again, the experienced marketer understands not only what it takes to get a small initiative up and running but that it also takes investment and commitment to break through the clutter.

Chart 1.13: Price Ranges for Game/Quiz/Poll Sites – Compared by Experience
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

At the same time, it’s understandable that newbies consistently overestimate viral costs on the cheap end -- in terms of $2,500 and less. It’s rather disappointing to see the ones who have the most to gain/lose with their ROIs (their jobs) also knowing the least on how to be cost-effective.

Chart 1.14: Price Ranges for Video Clips – Compared by Experience
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

With these estimates being more even between the very experienced and newbie crowds, it looks probable that $5,000 is the most-common investment mark on video clip campaigns.

Chart 1.15: Price Ranges for Cool Microsites – Compared by Experience
Source: MarketingSherpa, Viral Marketing Survey, April 2007

63% of newbies appear willing to pay $2,500 to $10,000 for cool microsites. This seems to be a consistent price range for all newbie estimates for viral as they plan their campaigns. The very experienced respondents had some intriguing results as well -- with 21% estimating $10,000, only 5% at $20,000, but up to 13% for $35,000 and 15% for $50,000.

Useful links for this article

2006 Viral Hall of Fame winners:
2006 Viral Marketing Survey -- Benchmark Data, Practical Tips & Biggest Change



The Aaronson Group:


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