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Zen and the Art of Viral Marketing

Zen and the Art of Viral Marketing by Jason L Miller

Let’s begin with some simple tenets we can agree on. Free is better than paying. Cheap is better than expensive. An invitation is better than a command. A smile attached to the eyeballs you want scanning your site is better than a disappointed scowl.

These concepts make up everything that is viral marketing, or as it is referred to outside cyberspace-word of mouth advertising.
Now lets look at how AOL and Juno got schooled by Hotmail and NetZero. Hotmail is a key beginning as it is considered the progenitor of online viral marketing. While Juno was spending $20 million on traditional advertising channels, it didn’t come close to the success of Hotmail’s email service that began with a modest $50,000.

Hotmail’s subscriber base grew from zero to 12 million users in 18 months, spreading over the globe (even countries where no marketing was done), in the words of Steve Jurvetson, as if Zeus sneezed over the planet.

The concept was simple. Offer a free subscriber email and let subscribers tell their friends about it by providing a sign-up link. Recently, Google has launched a similar initiative with originally invitation only G-Mail accounts.

At around the same time, while millions were using AOL Free Trial CDs as drink coasters and Frisbees, NetZero launched its own, completely free Internet service. The result: NetZero grew ten times faster than AOL.

AOL continues to learn this lesson, recently noted in a New York Times article, as it attempts to combat a huge drop in renewal rates. No doubt they noticed Google’s tripled share prices and $1.3 billion first quarter returns, and adjusted accordingly by launching its own free portal.

The big lesson here is that while traditional real world marketing is valuable, it’s getting killed by creative, less budget-pinching initiatives due to a resurgence of the ancient and fundamental principle of word-of-mouth.

Consumers have come full circle by being able to spot a salesman a mile away. Worse, they’ve got their shotguns loaded and cocked. While Hotmail’s method was a precursor to a spam epidemic (all good ideas are perverted by opportunists), it illustrated the importance of likeability, believability, and the law of giving and selling.

Gimmicky spammers and pop-up advertisers, like telemarketers, are only selling, door-to-door style, interrupting dinners, breaking into conversations in a way that typically causes a knee-jerk, negative reaction. When it gets to the point that laws are passed, you know you’ve caused a problem. In the long run, that’s bad for business.

Elements of Successful Viral Marketing

Am I going to tell you how to create a viral marketing campaign? Well, no, not really. It’s a very Zen concept, a faith-based business model that butterflies away whenever you try to hold it down. I can tell you what it’s about, give examples, and then let the reader clear his mind, become the uncarved block, allowing his imagination to guide him.

All I can say that it seems paradoxical: giving instead of selling; low budgets lead to big returns; you can’t want it or you’ll never get it. Clear your mind, Grasshopper, and know there is no pebble to snatch.

Dr. Ralph Wilson, consultant to E-Commerce, put forth six elements of a successful viral marketing strategy. The successful campaign:

1. Gives away products or services
2. Provides for effortless transfer to others (i.e., easily emailed, linked, or downloaded)
3. Scales easily from small to very large (popularity drives success)
4. Exploits common motivations and behaviors (i.e., funny content motivates people to share with others)
5. Utilizes existing communication networks
6. Takes advantage of others’ resources (people become the medium, free of charge)

Examples Of Others Using Viral Marketing

Anheuser-Busch hired Jib Jab’s Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, the creators of the web-phenom “This Land,” an animated spoof of the 2004 presidential candidates, to develop entertaining content for Budweiser’s website (a concept I call “advertainment”). “This Land” was seen by an estimated 80 million web viewers and was fueled further by being picked up by the Today Show and others.

The Blair Witch Project
All the buzz around the famous motion picture “The Blair Witch Project” orignated from a simple Internet rumor that the movie was not fiction, it was actual footage of college film students who were killed in the woods by the Blair Witch ghost. The return on investment was huge.

What turned out to be a contest entry for sponsor Contagious Media, a website advertising “Forget-Me-Not Panties,” GPS enabled, trackable, heartrate and temperature monitoring underwear attracted 615,562 unique viewers. Even though it was a hoax, it was believable enough to win the contest and attract media attention.

The site beat out “” and won its creators the $2000 grand prize. Contagious Media received a bit of attention too.

There are numerous ways to get the word out about your company through the concept of viral marketing. You just have to be creative enough to make it work. It doesn’t take money, it doesn’t take “in your face” advertising. It takes enough likeability to get viewers to do the work for you by spreading the news around.

About the Author:
Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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Camilla Todd
Camilla Todd is Head of Digital Marketing at WNW Digital and manages Search Engine Optimisation, PPC, Social Media campaigns and Brand Awareness for WNW Digital SEO clients. You can follow her on Twitter @camilla_wnw, email her at or phone on 01392 349580

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