Last month at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, I was part of a panel of speakers covering viral link building with Jennifer Laycock, Chris Winfield, Fionn Downhill, and Andrew Goodman. One common theme presented by all of the panelists was that successful viral campaigns don't need to be massive or large-scale. This goes against some popularly held ideas about viral marketing.
Here's the scoop. Most viral campaigns won't become large-scale. Few actually achieve that status. In nature, viral infections rarely turn into plagues. They tend to be small -- yet can have a big impact on a community. The same holds true of viral campaigns. You can have a small campaign that has a big impact in your industry or community.
At the session, Laycock brought up the excellent point: there are hundreds of successful viral campaigns happening right now that you'll never hear of. Nor will they ever be featured on major news networks, because they're focused on particular areas of interest or communities.
It's important to keep your target audience and goals in mind when designing your campaign. Is it to build brand awareness? Build quality links? Get the attention of industry journalists?
Some may judge the success of a campaign by the number of downloads, traffic, or getting to the top of social media sites such as Digg or reddit. Yet that isn't necessarily a good quality measurement of the real goals or objectives behind a campaign. Something can make it to the top of social media sites and never get the attention of journalists.
How is success measured? Downhill used the example of being interviewed by the Washington Post and Computer Weekly after they read her white paper. Others may measure success as getting links from a dozen leading industry sites. Let your goals and objectives set the standard for what is successful.
How can you design a campaign to reach a targeted community? Get involved with that community and find the influencers. Here are some places to start:
Winfield said forums are undervalued and underappreciated. I have to agree. They're a great way to get in front of a targeted audience and find the people of influence. Plus, they're easy to find. Sell car parts? Try these searches to find forums -- forum sports cars, cars phpBB, cars vBulletin, and trucks Invision Power Board.
Find the influential bloggers for the community you're targeting. Increase your results by researching active users who left comments on those blogs. Find out who's contributing positively to the discussion. A pattern will emerge showing people you can reach out to for help promoting your campaign. Obviously, avoid the people who constantly leave negative comments or try to stir controversy -- unless that's your goal.
Finding these bloggers is easy, with blog search engines and blog directories. Several major directories also keep track of them such as Best of the Web Blogs and DMOZ weblogs (insert your keyword with weblogs). Also, pay close attention to the blog roll (sidebar links) of leading bloggers.
E-mail Discussion Groups
This often-overlooked and undervalued community is still alive and strong. Subscribe, contribute, and find the people of influence you can recruit. Yahoo Groups is a good place to start. Wikipedia has a list of e-mail groups to further expand your search.
Your viral marketing campaign has a greater likelihood of success by having specific objectives and targeting communities. Of course, there are no guarantees with viral. If it doesn't succeed the first time, then explore what you can improve, what you've learned, and put that new knowledge into another campaign. At the very least you developed some relationships with people to promote your next viral marketing initiative.