Generally the word virus conjures up only nasty images.
In medicine it comes from the Latin word of the same name meaning toxin or poison and is a small infectious agent that can wreak havoc on our bodies.
A computer virus, as we know only too well, is a program that can copy itself and infect everything you have stored in your laptop as well as the workings of the computer itself.
Yet when it is used as the adjective viral and is harnessed by an organization wishing
to spread its message to as many people as possible on the Web, it can be a very useful thing. Because when a message goes viral, it assumes a life of its own and literally can spread itself to millions of Internet users.
And it can do it at a fraction of the cost it would otherwise cause a company or nonprofit group to buy via more traditional distribution methods such as advertising.
Good news, bad news
That’s good news for these organizations, but not so great news for the traditional news media. Why? Because it can represent a hit to a newspaper’s or television station’s already hard-hit advertising revenue profile. It also is another challenge for the online media’s advertising, like the one discussed a few weeks ago in this blog’s post called “The Flash and the Cash.”
Many traditional media companies are realizing this and are finding ways of transitioning to this new reality, while still touting the obvious benefits of advertising in the only print daily newspaper in town. After all, if advertisers think they can automatically garner customers on the Web, possibly they’ve forgotten about the hundreds of thousands of competitors out there.
Viral campaigns underway
Viral marketing campaigns have caught on big-time in the public relations industry, largely as a result of the track record of past viral successes.
A classic example of what some believe to still be the best viral marketing campaign was also the simplest to develop. The story belongs to the marketing people behind the e-mail service Hotmail.
When Hotmail began, it faced the challenge of getting enough traffic to become successful. Its growth rate just wasn’t fast enough to meet the demands of the company. Many believe this gave rise to the first mass viral marketing campaign over the Web. To its advantage, Hotmail realized it could control the format of all its outbound e-mails that each Hotmail user sent. So Hotmail created a footer at the end of each outgoing message in which they attached their own message that read: “To get your FREE email account, go to www.hotmail.com.” Anytime a Hotmail user sent an e-mail, that message was getting out to the spider web of users on the Internet.
Bottom line: traffic soared; goal reached. Hotmail became a great success. Cash outlay? Virtually nothing.
Not magic, but helpful
Another example: Six Flags Magic Mountain produced a VNR (video news release) about a new ride, but it also digitized the video B-roll of the actual ride and distributed it via its Web site and put it up on YouTube. Visitors to either site could experience the ride from their own PC screen in full motion and in full sound, and send the video to their friends, who sent it to their friends, yadayadayada.
In essence, viral marketing takes a different approach to reaching people with news about services and products. Before the popularity of the Web became so immense, organizations and companies targeted their messages and advertisements to the news media, which in turn would deliver those messages to the target audiences. Some media do a great job in reaching target audiences; others not so great.
Can you spell community?
Viral marketing goes online to directly reach the networked communities that make up the Web. The marketing campaign can target any one or more of those thousands of networked communities, each of which resembles (again the metaphor) a giant spider web.
In fact, many say online marketing is all about community.
Online marketing allows organizations and companies to listen to what their audiences are saying, getting involved in that conversation directly, providing quality content relevant to those specific conversations, and building relationships.
The company RealWire (www.realwire.com) which is one of a growing number of online consultants offering services to clients, uses the analogy of the Web as a large party. You are invited but don’t know many people, so you wander around the room listening in on conversations until you find one or more that is relevant to you and your interests. Then you stop and engage in the chat. That’s what online marketers do. If your conversations are interesting, some of the people at that party may invite you to their parties where you can share your stories with others. That’s the role that bloggers play in all of this and, in fact, it is what I’m doing right now: sharing a story from RealWire that I heard at another online “party.”
So, if you’re reading this, that company’s story has been moved along one more link in the chain of Web users.
RealWire’s subsidiary, WebitPR, recently conducted a survey of how important viral marketing is to businesses and organizations, and discovered that 99 percent of all respondents said online coverage is important to their organization or clients. The reason? Most saw the archived nature of coverage and the Web’s global reach as vital. And 90 percent said that kind of online coverage has become even more important over the past 12 months.
Traditional news media understand what is going on, and many of them have long ago extended their services into the Web and are taking advantage of its viral possibilities. The Oklahoman, for example, has established a presence on three of the most viral Web sites: Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. A story from www.newsok.com gets shared on Facebook with a group of friends, who in turn share it with other friends and other “parties.”
Before long, the word gets out and it gets out big time.