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January 6, 2006
Viral marketing – Is it still viral if everyone is doing it?

Viral adj. Of, relating to, or resulting from a virus
Virus n., 3. Something that poisons one’s soul or mind

It seems like you can’t open an email or article in the advertising world these days without reading about the new holy grail — viral marketing. As marketers, we have our work cut out for us, finding new ways to reach the elusive online audience with technology that does not interfere with or annoy consumers. The real questions are: Have consumers become immune to the plethora of viral marketing campaigns that bombard them on a daily basis? Does it drive them to purchase or brand awareness? The beauty of true viral marketing is that it breaks through the clutter and is self-selected brand interaction.

In today’s ROI culture, generating buzz and interest with a viral idea must translate into a measurable impact on the bottom line. Mapping out the end goal of viral strategy, similar to any marketing technique, is critical to developing a smart, targeted idea. Objectives set in advance make the creative development and user experience clear and understood. How often have you fell in love with a great creative idea, only to give way to the cold hard fact that the concept doesn’t deliver a solution to your problem? The wealth of viral marketing campaigns online today indicates many companies have developed funny, entertaining concepts. But what is their intent? To make you laugh and send it to a friend? Or to visit their site and click on their new product idea? If the elements are properly executed, you have a chance to create a seamless viral marketing experience and to generate a tangible, measurable approach that is more efficient or effective in your marketing mix. It gives you information enabling you to decide if the strategy is worth continuing.

Consider the viral marketing tactic as the first step in creating a layered brand interaction. Bring the desired audience to your site and get them to interact. What is it about your product or service that is compelling, making them a perfect target? Is your website the best place for them to land? Perhaps not. Evaluate the tone and manner you’ve used to start the interaction. Create a landing page that bridges the viral visitor to your branded world. How will you know if they’ve been successful?

Success may not be a high click-through rate. This rate alone does not mean an increase in sales or brand awareness, which are the true definitions of success. If you are a company with millions to spend on entertaining the public, then by all means — go to it. However, if the true intent of your campaign is to impact your bottom line, these definitions of success must always be kept top of mind.

The challenge facing viral marketing and those of us who want to leverage the explosion of online social networks, build-your-own sites, and file-sharing services is being as thoughtful and disciplined about this strategy as we would be with any marketing campaign. Is a campaign really viral if it is caught in the clutter of all the similar campaigns out there? Does the campaign have an achievable goal of increasing sales or brand awareness? Is your campaign really viral or is it “me-too” clutter?

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Diane Systrom, VIA’s Principal, Group Strategy Director, has over 20 years experience working with world-renowned brands like Reebok, Tommy Hilfiger Footwear and McDonald’s. Diane holds a B.S. in business administration and marketing from Plymouth State College. She’s a life-long, four-season outdoor enthusiast who isn’t afraid of a little weather. A New Jersey native, Diane is proud to call Boston her home.

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