Prevention is the Best Medicine: Don’t Let Viral Campaigns Get Sick and Die

Today is my first contribution to the Link Love column. Viral marketing as a form of link building is a topic that is extremely interesting to me and since you’re reading this, I imagine it’s at least fairly interesting to you too. The reason link building and viral marketing is compelling to so many people is because effectively implementing viral strategies as a method of obtaining inbound links can be so elusive.

When I think of Link Love, I often think of the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book he discusses “Connectors” and “Mavens.” According to Gladwell, these people have massive reach and effect on others when they embrace a product or trend. “Connectors” are social personalities who bring people together. “Mavens” study something intensely and like to pass along knowledge. Once a few Connectors and Mavens evangelize a product, it doesn’t take long until a significant number of people begin embracing it.

What isn’t discussed in the book is the means to keep the viral effect rolling out beyond the circle of influence of a few key Connectors and Mavens. In other words, what do you do when the new adopters are not Connectors or Mavens themselves and the viral affect burns out?

In this month’s Harvard Business Review, in the Forethought section, they address this very question. The brief article entitled Viral Marketing for the Real World states: “…the standard viral marketing model is based on an analogy with the spread of infectious disease. It assumes that one starts with the seed of individuals who spread a message by infecting their friends, where the expected number of new infectious people generated by each existing one is called the reproduction rate.”

The article goes on to say that since a 1:1 reproduction rate is not realistically attainable, understanding how many percentage points away your campaign is likely to be from the 1:1 rate will help you understand how quickly it will burn out.

The magazine conducted a study of viral campaigns to ascertain averages on these rates, and the highest reproduction rate they saw was 0.769. This was from a campaign created by the Oxygen Network in which Oxygen agreed to donate $1.00 for every participant to Hurricane Katrina relief.

This illustrates that even in the best of altruistic circumstances, viral campaigns will burn out. And it implies that most campaigns with lower rates will, in all likelihood, fan out only one or two generations before burning out.

What does all this mean for those starting a viral marketing/link campaign?

  1. Setting realistic expectations is key. Popular Web sites and link bait phenomena such as Elf Yourself, FlashMobs, the Star Wars Kid, and JibJab are the exceptions, and definitely not the rule. These wildly successful viral campaigns should be regarded more as “lottery winners,” and less as campaigns setting the bar you plan to surpass with your own strategic marketing initiative. Most campaigns, especially commercial viral marketing campaigns, don’t make it past the first wave of exposure, much less the second or third wave.
  2. You can offset this effect with aggressive manual seeding. Instead of just placing your viral campaign in one channel such as your blog, some forums or an e-mail list, consider a “big-seeding” approach. Once you’ve created a compelling campaign, begin spreading the word across as many seeding locations as you can possibly find – search, blogs, video channels, forums, social network sites, and offline campaigns. This cross-channel reinforcement may up your reproduction rate by a few additional percentage points and will likely, at the very least, increase the saturation of adopters if your rate remains low.

So, go forth and be brilliant in your creative viral/link marketing campaigns. But once the campaign has been created and launched, roll up your sleeves, get out to as many channels as you deem potentially effective, and start spreading the word (or link virus) to anyone and everyone who will listen.

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