Viral marketing – what is it about?


Viral marketing, whispered marketing, word-of-mouth marketing, all these names are used to denote one thing: recommending products or services to consumers by other consumers.

The concept itself isn’t new – specialist have been aware for a long time that other user’s positive opinion on the product has far more impact than some marketing campaigns. Nevertheless, in the past there was quite a big constraint to viral marketing: a single consumer wasn’t able to communicate effectively with a bigger group of people, and thus -mass campaigns such as mass media commercials were far more remunerative. Nowadays that is no longer a problem – modern technology enables effective communication on virtually mass scale at minute expense. Consumers have at their disposal internet forums read by thousands of other people, they can start their own blog, send hundreds of e-mails or chat with dozens of other users at the same time. Consumer empowerment, or -increase in the potential of consumers have become real, a single user can become the captain of other people’s souls, and companies are more than eager to use that fact.

Nevertheless, viral marketing is a relatively fresh ground that still needs to be broken, even in more mature and innovative markets. A recent research study conducted by Bold Mouth (a company that specializes in whispered promotion) shows, that while quite a big number of marketing managers know this and that about word of mouth marketing (WOMM), and a considerable number of companies employ it, it isn’t formalized in any way, and the results of such campaigns either aren’t measured at all or are disregarded.

The study was conducted at the break of 2005 and 2006 on the sample of 112 people, the majority of whom (over 80%) deal in marketing directly – like chairpersons, company owners, marketing CEOs etc. Only 9% of the people questioned described WOMM campaign as -not important at all- or -of little importance-. The others ascribed much stress to WOMM during planning marketing actions both for their Clients and for their own use. Interestingly, the people questioned admitted they lacked knowledge regarding WOMM campaign methods or ways used to measure their results. Still, only 10% avail themselves, on the regular basis, of the services offered by specialized companies dealing in WOMM, (58% have never used services of such a company, relying solely on their own experience and intuition). Despite that fact 49% of the people who took part in the study claim viral marketing is being currently used by them at the moment, and another 34% plan using it in the future; what’s more – over 62% intended to increase the use o’—-f this technique in 2006. What follows is theres a lot to be done (and earned) in this market. Asked whether their company had a settled plan of action regarding viral marketing, 45% of people questioned answered no, another 20% said no, but we are in the process of creating one, and only 30% admitted to having such a plan.

So, what products or services can be promoted with WOMM? Asked to point out particular campaigns, brands or products respondents pointed, among other things, to mobile phones, computer games, movies, CDs, books& Under the category -own campaigns- referral programs for distributors, executive trainings, tourist services and own books and computer software were included. Nokia, Coca-Cola and Skype were named among global brands that effectively employ viral marketing

Tested methods

Who are the companies aiming their viral campaigns at? There are a couple of target groups. The way that continues to be the most popular campaign opener is letting know present and potential customers about a new product or service – this strategy is still being used by almost 70% of the researched companies. Another popular way is informing certain journalists (which is more of public relations method than viral marketing). Third comes sending pieces of information to& bloggers (it’s done by over 16% of the inquired marketers). The power of blogs is going to keep increasing, there’s no doubt about that and marketing masterminds acknowledge it – another 14% involved in -whispered marketing- campaign just created their own blog& Still other ways to start a campaign is commissioning paid research or telling your employees to talk about the campaign among their friends.

Direct contact (which is the very essence of whispered marketing) is considered the most important method of getting through to potential Customers, still the succeeding positions are taken by tricks bordering on public relations – press articles about the company, TV programs, interviews and sending press releases. Phone talks and mailing bear their own share of cake as well.

Another thing Bold Mouth inquired about was the effectiveness of a given type of communication. According to marketers, face-to-face contact is considered the most effective (which comes as no surprise). It is closely followed by above-mentioned TV programs and radio and press interviews about the product. Sending out press releases is believed to be as effective as contacting -industry- bloggers – at least in American market.

Product comes first

Whereas marketers admit that they do not always know what to start WOMM campaign with, they have no delusions concerning one thing – you can’t conduct it without highest quality product or service. And it’s not only about stunning specifications, price or choice. What’s most important is -user experience- – over 53% of the people inquired consider having satisfied Clients most important, and a perfect product or service (which are a part of the aforementioned positive user experience) are the top priority only with 27% of the respondents. What’s interesting price counts less and less – customers are ready to pay more not only for the product itself, but also for its marketing halo or quality of service. It means that thanks to a successful WOMM campaign a company can change its pricing policy (stop fighting the competitors with the use of price) and change its market position at a relatively low cost.

Why not everyone?

If you want to deal in viral marketing, it’s worthwhile knowing well your own business. We already know well that a lot of companies show interest in this type of communication with the Customer, still not every one uses it. Why is that? The factor mentioned most often, among the reasons that prevents marketers from taking up whispered campaigns, is the lack of possibility to evaluate the results of such a campaign (almost 40% of the people questioned). Companies that aren’t really innovative and that have rather strict procedures won’t afford to use their strength and means in the area that is hard to measure. Sure when the market ripens, it’ll work out some standards (as in its time it worked out press, radio and outdoor standards), still until that happens a marketer has to rely on his own intuition to a large extent. And that’s a luxury not everyone can afford.

Another -entrance barrier- mentioned by nearly 33% of the respondents is they aren’t certain how to integrate viral marketing into existing marketing strategy. Here specialized consultants would no doubt have much say. Nevertheless, as I have already written, not many companies use their services. Specialized consultants could also help as far as -lack of staff experience or skill sets- is concerned – a WOMM implementation obstacle mentioned by almost 29% of the people surveyed. The succeeding positions are occupied by prosaic -budget constraints- and fear of – Potential negative customer comments-.

Problems, Problems

As shown by the experience of companies that have already implemented WOMM, the fear of negative response isn’t unfounded. 7% mentioned consumer criticism as the main difficulty in viral marketing campaign execution. On the top of the problem list came, aforementioned lack of possibility to measure the results (51% of the surveyed) and coaxing Customers into participation. However, I’d argue with the last point – if you haven’t managed to persuade Clients to take part in your campaign, it’s simply because the campaign was a failure. In the end viral marketing is based on getting your message as widespread as possible – so consumers aren’t the problem, they are your target, and you should look for the problem in the very methodology of the campaign execution. Another interesting thing found in the study is -the lack of in-house talents to properly manage such campaign-. There’s a niche in the market (for the time being, noticed by 2% of marketers, but it’s going to expand) and it can be managed&

Troublesome results measurement

Asked whether they measure the results of WOMM campaigns almost 41% of the surveyed answered yes. It’s not much – as almost 39% answered, in all conscience, that they do not measure the results. And to top that, almost 60% of the ones who do, claim they -are not sure, whether the results are valuable or meaningful. In short, there’s a lot of uncertainty here, and it comes as no surprise that marketers complain about it.

If they measure at all, how do they do that? Well, there hasn’t been much innovation: they survey participants concerning campaign effects, measure revenue, ask Customers how they found out about the company and ask them whether they would tell their friends about it.

Viral marketing ethics

Asked whether using WOMM is ethical, almost 90% of marketers agreed it is. It isn’t a result that would represent consumers’ attitude in anyway, still it’s worthwhile recording. Though I’m well aware that a lot of you think marketers would consider selling their own mother ethical if only it affected sales directly;) What’s far more interesting is the answer to the question which practices are considered unethical by marketers themselves. And the Oscar goes to& (mind you well!) hiring bloggers and other people to write reviews about your products. Nearly three out of four surveyed find such practices unethical (which is interesting if you bear in mind that hiring people to write reviews about a product is what vast majority believes to be the very essence of whispered marketing). Another unethical practice is coaxing people who – as a matter of fact – do not use your products to talk about them in return for some financial incentives. Third in this list comes ordinary spam.

What’s interesting, there are some conservatives who consider unethical such practices as paid SEO (search engine optimization) services or starting a company blog to promote your own products and services 🙂


Viral marketing is an issue that triggers vivid emotions. As with any emerging market, that has no fixed place in consumers’ awareness, it has both ardent adherents and adversaries. As other relatively new branches of marketing, like mobile marketing or product placement (in movies or more recently computer games), it has to find proper target groups and work out proper procedures. There’s no running away from it – that’s for sure. So the best you can do is simply monitor its development and join it if you like&

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