Let’s Go Viral! (But First, What Is It?)

by T.J. Tedesco, Grow Sales, Inc.

Marketers are hearing this a lot: “Let’s go viral.” Part of a marketer’s job is to sift through available promotional technologies, select those with a high probability of financial payback, and reject ones that fail the proverbial “sniff” test. Viral marketing has become a hot issue, and Iam happy to share what I know, or the lack thereof, depending on your point of view. Today, I’ll leave the conclusions to you.

What is Viral Marketing?
Viral marketing means different things to different people. The term once was synonymous with “word-of-mouth” marketing, which used to drive marketers nuts because how exactly does one influence what people say to their friends? Admittedly, Starbucks grew mostly by word-of-mouth in the ’80s and ’90s, but how plastics companies are to apply the Starbucks lessons is murky at best.

Today’s viral marketing is different than word of mouth. Online activities can be planned, executed, and monitored. Plastics companies can use LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blog sites and other online technologies to create sales opportunities and grow sales. Social networking tools are gaining critical mass; if in doubt, just ask your twenty-something employees. Online social networking sites are destination points integral to many millions of tech-savvy and tech-average people.

My company ghostwrote a book for a West Coast medical industry client and was asked to help facilitate book sales. To us, book promotion seemed a perfect application for viral marketing activities. Initially, we assigned six people the task of posting a minimum of 100 relevant entries wherever they wished on the web, within reason. All entries were “personal” and not tied to either our client or my firm, meaning everyone used non-business email addresses and left out all references to our companies. We also posted YouTube videos. Many of our online activities pointed to either the video or the book’s web site. In addition, we contacted hundreds of regional newspaper reporters and had dozens of articles placed all across the country and on the Internet.

Does Viral Work?
On to the main question: Does viral work? Not surprisingly, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions, but I’m willing to report what I know. During the first two months after book publication, our viral promotional efforts were frequent and fast. Our publisher’s distributors kept on ordering more and more books, and we quickly crossed the 2,500 books sold mark. But was our success due to viral activities or client promotions that also were occurring? When we toned down the labor-intensive viral campaign in favor of more trackable direct medical industry promotions, our wholesale and distributor sales plummeted. However, our direct sales effort moved thousands more books. As of this writing, six months after publication, 60 percent of the initial 10,000-piece print run has been sold and distributed.

It appears there is a correlation between our viral promotional efforts and sales. Viral seems “right” much the same way that web sites seemed right in the mid-’90s. Then, the question was “Do we launch a web site?” There certainly was a lot of discussion about whether or not web sites were even necessary. Can you imagine that question today?

How Do We Implement Viral Campaigns?
If you decide to roll the dice and go for it, write a thumbnail plan and stick to it. Start with LinkedIn, then move to blogs and communication boards, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever else seems appropriate. Invite your business contacts to join your “communities” in whatever form makes sense to you. Here are a few comments on some of the leading social networking sites:

LinkedIn – This site connects people based on overlapping “networks.” In addition to basic contact between individuals, LinkedIn allows likeminded people to develop “communities” and have group discussions. In my opinion, LinkedIn has crossed the “tipping point” and is now a necessary part of the fabric of American business. Have you noticed how many Google searches for ordinary people return LinkedIn page links?

Blogs, Communication Boards and News Response Postings – You could spend every hour of every day posting almost anything you want on the Internet. Many comments get indexed by search engines, which drives up web site traffic and relevancy ratings. Try to unobtrusively leave links to appropriate parts of your web site.

YouTube – This is a great medium for free promotion. With an inexpensive digital video recorder or even a high-end phone, you can make perfectly fine video clips and load them onto YouTube. Include intelligent search words next to your video, so searchers can find it. Subject matter? Let your imagination run wild. Will it help drive business? Try it and report back to me.

Twitter – This is a new site that launched in November 2007 that has earned a determined following. While I don’t think broadcasting one’s lunch menu will drive business (although many people do this), this site has a lot of potential. I know of one CNN reporter who posts his upcoming topics a few hours before airtime and his ratings have been sky high. Is this a result of his Twitter activity? He thinks so. How Twitter applies to the plastics industry is up to each of us.

Facebook – It’s not just for kids anymore.

T.J. Tedesco is president of Grow Sales, Inc., a full-service sales growth firm founded in 1996. Grow Sales services include marketing, public relations, web site design, and sales support. Tedesco is the author of five books, four of which still are in print. Tedesco can be reached at (301) 294-9900 or tj@growsales.com.