“The Creative Business Idea Book” — Viral Marketing Do's and Don'ts

GUEST BLOG by Marian Salzman is CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, North America

“Viral marketing” sounds sinister, doesn’t it? Nobody wants to pass on a virus, whether biological or computer.

Marketing viruses are different, though; people are happy to pass them on—and marketers like nothing more than to see them erupt into full-scale pandemics.

Although closely related to the centuries-old practice of buzz marketing (same purpose, different pathways), viral is a relative newbie in the marketer’s arsenal. It didn’t exist until the Internet started gaining traction in the ’90s. Then it took off fast as marketers came to realize that just as computer viruses could spread in an instant around the world, so, too, could word of new products, services, or promotions. Hotmail was the first to make a big splash with it. Who could forget those Hotmail emails, all carrying the clickable footer “PS: I love you. Get your free email at Hotmail.” Hokey? Sure. Effective? Definitely. The rate of sign-ups followed the classic hockey stick curve into the millions.


As marketers and PR professionals, my colleagues and I have been avid observers, enthusiastic proponents, and keen practitioners of viral marketing.

Along the way, we’ve learned some lessons that guide our initiatives.

We explore them in greater detail in Euro RSCG’s "The Creative Business Idea Book", but here are the basics:

Provide an emotional payoff. What drives the spread of marketing viruses is people’s desire to pass them on. So what stokes that desire? Emotion. People share things that contain that emotional X factor, whatever it is that makes others laugh or gasp or cringe or cry or coo: surfing dogs, sneezing pandas, politicians making unguarded remarks, and, of course, babies doing stunts on roller skates.

Don’t overproduce. We’ve grown weary of people who are primped, preened, Botoxed, and media-coached to within an inch of their lives, weary of events in which media management has squeezed out any spark of spontaneity. We respond instead to authenticity, to the hand-held wobbly graininess of YouTube videos, the fun of outtake bloopers, signs with typos or hilarious mistranslations.

Look at what spreads fastest over social media. Whether it’s professionally produced or user-generated, you’ll see everyday people and enthusiasm rather than perfection. T-Mobile’sflash mob performance at Liverpool Street Station in Londonworked because it was fun rather than flawless. It’s not about showing things people can aspire to; it’s about what they can identify with.

Protect your flanks. By definition, viral marketing can’t be controlled. Once released into the wild, a campaign can move at breakneck speed, evolving and mutating in unexpected directions—and not always in a way the brand intends. Consider all possible eventualities and put safeguards in place where possible. In retrospect, GM probably wishes it had enacted some sort of screening mechanism when inviting consumers to create online ads for the new Chevy Tahoe. It turns out SUV-hating environmentalists are a pretty creative bunch! Similarly, Starbucks, KFC, and other retailers have learned the hard way that the digital environment can and will turn what was supposed to be a limited coupon promotion into a PR fiasco. Avoid bunker mentality.

"Think of social media as a combination worldwide spy network/high-tech truth detector. It might take a while, but people (or brands) who pretend they’re something they’re not online always get caught eventually."" -CEO, Euro RSCG Worldwide, North America, Marian Salzman

Look outside your company’s walls and consider all the ways in which your campaign can backfire. And recognize that if something does go wrong, it’s likely to do so in a big, highly visible way.

Be transparent and true. Think of social media as a combination worldwide spy network/high-tech truth detector. It might take a while, but people (or brands) who pretend they’re something they’re not online always get caught eventually. Lonelygirl15 had a pretty good run, but even she ultimately was uncovered as the creation of a television production company. It took far less time for the guy behind alliwantforxmasisapsp.com to be unmasked as a professional blogger hired by Sony. If you’re concerned that the truth coming out will damage your brand, start with the truth up front. There are no secrets in cyberspace.

Say your mea culpas. The best-laid schemes of mice, men, and marketers often go askew. And when they do, there’s nothing more ridiculous than pretending everything is OK. If a campaign fouls up, it’s best to fess up quickly—and repeat as needed. Sony screwed up with alliwantforxmasisapsp.com, but the statement it released in the aftermath recouped some brownie points:

"Busted. Nailed. Snagged. As many of you have figured out (maybe our speech was a little too funky fresh???), Peter isn’t a real hip-hop maven and this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever. From this point forward, we will just stick to making cool products, and use this site to give you nothing but the facts on the PSP." —Sony Computer Entertainment America

In the social media space, laughter can cleanse a multitude of sins.

Make it last. By its nature, viral is fleeting. People might continue to enjoy a joke or revisit a video of roller babies from time to time, but once they’ve passed them on to all their friends, they are unlikely to resend the same material a second time. As soon as you release a viral campaign, be sure an equally infectious follow-up is in the works. Contagion is good.

Marian Salzman is CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, North America. Named one of the world’s top five trendspotters, Salzman is best known for launching metrosexual mania in 2003, but she also created several other buzzes, including “the rise of singletons,” “It’s America Online,” Europe’s cyberspoon, globesity and “sleep is the new sex.” Author or co-author of 15 books, including Next Now and The Future of Men, she currently blogs on the Huffington Post, for the World Future Society, and at eurorscgpr.comand eurorscgsocial.com.


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