Go viral or go home
Since 1996 Tim Draper of Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson has claimed he invented “viral” marketing when his portfolio company, Hotmail, included a line on the bottom of each email that said "Get Your Private, Free Email at http://www.hotmail.com/."
Although viral marketing as we now know it was used by companies much earlier, the Hotmail example perfectly illustrates why marketers chase “viral” as if it were the cure to stopping spam. After getting the right message, the biggest challenges facing marketers are message distribution and authentication. If someone doesn’t see your message, you lose. If they don’t think it’s legitimate or don’t trust its source, you lose. Viral campaigns solve both those problems; accelerating propagation faster than we could ever do ourselves and authenticating the message by having it delivered by a trusted source. It’s marketing Nirvana. Forget visions of sugar plums dancing through my head - when I sleep I see social networks acting as Force Multipliers; delivering my carefully packaged message to receptive and qualified customers.
Easier said than done
But hey if it were that easy everybody would be doing it. There are many perils on the long winding road up the peak to Marketer’s Paradise not the least of which is crafting the perfect message. But let’s say you get through that, how on earth do you build a messaging vehicle that has the potential to go viral? And even after you do that what’s really the benefit of doing so? Is there any way to measure the effectiveness of viral effectiveness on buying decisions? I mean, even if the message is right and its delivered by a trusted source in a reasonable time frame is it more effective than a billboard in Times Square?
We’re still very early in our understanding of how effective social media and other 2.0ish technologies will be in helping plain Jane campaigns achieve “viral” status, but the returns so far are encouraging.
One thing that’s much harder to measure however is the effect of networks on individual behavioral (buying) decisions. We know that message reception and retention will be higher when coming from “the network”, but how influential is “the network” on decisions overall?
Viral messaging or networked buying?
New research out of Harvard Medical School indicates that social networks may have more to do with individual buying decisions than we thought. When coupled with Social Media Marketing campaigns this can be much more powerful than just a more effective message delivery campaign. Instead of just permeating an effective message, a “tuned” network could theoretically process a message and if followed up with positive product purchase experiences, directly influence the purchasing decisions of others in the network. This makes the “message spreading” potential of viral marketing seem downright anemic. Traditional viral marketing still relies on the effectiveness of my message to be effective. But if this research holds true for Social Media networks, then there might be a more compelling and cost effective way to harness “the network” in marketing campaigns that transcend traditional message delivery.
When thinking strategically, its easy to get caught up in thinking that marketing is about messaging and message delivery. But its not. Its about selling product. Too often I think we’re content with getting qualified buyers to the table. What if we could more directly influence actual buying?
Certain markets are already operating in this paradigm and as I consider new campaigns in the future I will certainly be looking closer at “network influence on buying behavior” campaigns rather than the traditional “network influence on message delivery” projects that have worked for us in the past.