March 18, 2008
How To

How to Build an Online Street Team to Create Viral Buzz

SUMMARY: The sooner your devoted customers know about your new product the better. And “leaking” exclusive news to your biggest fans can quickly spread the word virally.

Leveraging recommendations from these brand advocates to create buzz can also give you tons of new market research. Here’s how to build your own online street team.
Getting word out about how your most passionate customers feel about your brand can work wonders for a new product launch. By releasing exclusive news or images to them, they’ll spread your message on the street to their peers and provide plenty of market research data.

“You’re essentially creating a team or group, or however you want to look at it, of brand advocates,” says Terry Dry, President and Cofounder, Fanscape. Give the team exclusive information about your products -- like movie trailers, product designs or pre-release images -- and let them disseminate it to their peers. It’s a great way to get your message to your best customers.

With research showing that recommendations from friends or trusted sources go beyond just general, traditional advertising, creating your own “street team” to help that pass-along occur is critical, Dry says. There is a catch: a street team works best for products or brands that people are very passionate about -- such as musical artists or video games.

Dry has helped form hundreds of street teams over nine years with most of his targets in the 13-to-35 age demographic. Here are the seven steps he and his team use to build an online street team:

-> Step #1. Decide if a street team is right for you

Don’t try a street team if you sell products like tires or coffee filters. They’re only effective if your team is passionate about certain products and your brand, in particular, and they value getting exclusive content.

“In the case of iPod, or even Target, there are people as passionate about that brand that may be just as fanatical [as with a music artist]. But it’s not always the case with any old brand,” says Dry.

You must decide if your product or brand invokes the passion needed to warrant having a street team.

-> Step #2. Set your goals

The primary goal of an online street team is to energize customers who would do the following:
o Spur viral marketing
o Promote brand loyalty
o Provide research data

“Especially if you’re a brand, you’ve got to be real careful about what your objective is and what you’re trying to get out of it because sometimes we’ve had it happen where they’re just looking for research,” Dry says. “And that’s cool -- you just have to be up front about it.”

-> Step #3. Find appropriate members

Before you can round up your street team members, you need to know where to find them. You need to know where they spend their time online. If you don’t, you need to look at their demographic profiles and ask yourself: “What websites would this person frequent?”

Also, take a look at what platforms your audience is most comfortable communicating with so you can contact them. Email is right for many people, but teens can be different.

“If you sit down with a teenager, or you look at research and you look at how they’re spending their time, or how they’re communicating in general, you start to see things like Facebook, [instant messaging], mobile and other communication platforms start to rise ahead of email,” says Dry. “And they’ll sit there and say, ‘Well, I do check my email, but it’s once every two days or it’s once a day, whereas, I’m texting a hundred times a day or I look at my Facebook page 10 times a day and I’m doing bulletins there.”

You want your message to spread as quickly as possible, so target the channels your audience uses most often.

-> Step #4. Determine sign-up process

Getting customers to sign up for your online street team starts with putting links in places they visit. Links should go directly to a landing page that collects information about a new street team member (see creative samples below).

This part of the process provides great marketing research from your most devoted customers. The list of information Dry requires is “pretty extensive.”

“Where you or I might be like, ‘Oh my God, what a pain. They want to know everything about me.’ We’ve never found that to be a problem on a street team,” says Dry. “There have been times where we only ask: ‘Are you over 13?’ and your ZIP Code and your email address. But what we found when we’ve done an A/B comparison is that it really doesn’t make that much of a difference. So, if somebody is invested in it and wants to be a part of a team, so to speak, they will give you all of that information.”

Pieces of information you can collect:
o City, State and ZIP
o Email address
o Cell phone carrier and mobile number
o Favorite television shows, websites, magazines, etc.
o Online social networking habits
o Search engine preferences
o Contact preference

“They want to give you this information. They want to tell you everything about themselves and about what they think about the product. It’s amazing. We can ask: ‘What TV shows do you watch?’ ‘What magazines do you read?’ ‘What newspapers do you read?’ and you can literally sculpt the marketing campaign around that.’

-> Step #5: Try Web 2.0 tools

You can use email to communicate with your online street team. But Dry found that platform to be slower than others -- especially for teens. Here are some of the tools he and his team use:

- Widgets
Widgets can syndicate RSS feeds, play videos or perform lots of other actions. Dry uses them in social networks to keep street teams updated and growing.

“With any of the musicians, like [Maria Carey], we would create what we would call ‘fan feeds,’ but essentially they’re just widgets and it’s a widget that you can put on your MySpace page that’s going to update with RSS feeds or information that we can control about Maria, and there will be a link right there to join the street team,” he says. “It’s definitely a great way of syndicating information.”

“And you get this widget out there and say: ‘OK, put this on your page. Send this to your friends.’ And you start the viral distribution of this asset, so to speak, through that fan base, through that core.”

- Text messages
Three- to five-sentence messages sent to cell phones can be a great way to generate a quick response. They’re usually shorter and easier to read than an email, and they reach people wherever they have their phone.

- Social networks
Online social networks like Facebook and MySpace have a long list of features designed to get users to interact. This makes them fertile ground for viral marketing.

Both platforms provide a place to organize a team and distribute messages. You can organize a “group” for your team on Facebook and send instant messages to all members. Or, you can start a MySpace page and add members as your “friends” and send them messages through “bulletins.”

“We had 2,800 responses in 4 hours on sending a MySpace bulletin vs. 400 responses in 48 hours via email,” says Dry.

-> Step #6. Send content to members

The first piece of information a new team member should receive is an auto-generated confirmation email. After that, it’s time to deliver good content.

- Make it exclusive
Members of your street team want exclusive content -- coupons, information on new products, clips of an upcoming music video or a trailer for an unreleased video game. It must be exclusive.

“If you try and send them something that they saw on YouTube a week earlier and you try to pass it off like, ‘Hey, I’m giving this to you first,’ they see right through that,” says Dry. “We’ve had this in the past, where it’s an offer for $10 off and that’s what they’re giving the street team. Yet, they can go online and find the same offer for $50 off, then they just feel slighted. You’ve got to give them something they want and something that they don’t feel that they can get somewhere else. Those are the two keys.”

In one example, members “were getting to hear the new music first and then they were told ‘spread this around, give it to your friends,’ which is sort of something you would naturally do if you were a big fan of something. You’d want your friends to hear it,” says Dry.

- Use incentives
If you’re dissatisfied with the speed of your message’s distribution, add prize rewards. “Say, ‘Here’s a new song, and the person who spreads this to 100 different people, or gets 100 people to play it wins this prize.’ That’s going to move fast,” says Dry.

- Don’t waste their time
Keep your messages loaded with good content so your online street team stays responsive. Don’t waste their time with promotional emails or irrelevant information. It will lower your open rate and decrease the team’s effectiveness.

- Be honest
Every piece of information sent to an online street team should be honest. If your biggest fans discover they have been deceived, it might cause a terrible backlash.

“We know we have to be 1000% transparent and honest. It’s just, you can’t try and push something at them. You can’t be a salesman,” Dry says “You can’t try and pretend you’re someone you’re not. It’s all about being really, really upfront … but also, it’s not like we’re trying too hard, trying to use lingo and pretend we’re 15 years old.”

-> Step #7. Maintain relationships

Not every piece of content you send to members should be intended for viral distribution. Some should serve to maintain customer relations:

- Housekeeping messages
“We look at things like the open rates,” Dry says. “We’ll look at all that kind of stuff and say: Was the open rate on emails to this team in 2006 way higher than it is now? Why is that? Do people not care anymore? Do we just need to flush out people and make sure they’re still interested?”

If that’s the case, send members a simple message asking them to verify that they still want to be on the street team. Dry usually sends these about once a year.

Other housekeeping messages could ask members to update their contact information to keep your list current.

- General updates
Messages about the number of team members exceeding a benchmark or a product release-date reminder are not great viral content, but your team members will still appreciate having them.

- Thank-you messages
“At Christmas time, for instance, we always do this. It’s a Christmas message from Maria Carey, for instance, thanking her fans for being on the street team,” Dry says. “But I don’t expect them to spread that around. I don’t need them to. If they want to, great, but I don’t need them to. It’s for them. It’s their reward.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Fanscape:

Past Sherpa articles -
Marketing with Widgets:

How to Market Yourself & Your Company on Facebook:




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