How To Be Highly Contagious

Every marketer dreams of creating a campaign that "goes viral." Help your own content catch on by employing these 5 simple and affordable tactics

Written by Deborah Aarts

What do chickens, Bauer Supremes and melting snow have in common? Granted, they might all be seen at an early spring game of pond hockey on the family farm. But they’ve also tested the durability of bamboo laminate flooring in the “Watch Us Wreck a Floor” series of online videos produced by Vancouver-based building materials wholesaler BuildDirect Technologies Inc.

The clips are short, funny, upbeat and completely devoid of a hard sell. And they’ve been watched 75,000 times since launching two years ago, due largely to pass-along via such online platforms as Facebook and Twitter. That’s not bad for content produced in-house using a $200 camera. Better yet, the videos triggered a call from a buyer for a little project called the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Village. Although a sale didn’t result, the unsolicited enquiry shows how a viral marketing campaign can engage the right people despite little investment. “It’s undeniable how effective it has been for us,” says BuildDirect co-founder Rob Banks.

For modern marketers, “going viral” is the Holy Grail. It can be a quick, inexpensive way to reach a large audience. It can give your message more credibility, too, as people are more receptive to messages recommended by their friends than to appeals directly from marketers. However, notes Jacquelyn Cyr, CEO of Toronto-based marketing firm Espresso, “The biggest myth is that amazing content will magically spread. There’s much more of a science to it than most people think.”

Here are five simple and cost-effective ways to make your next viral marketing campaign more contagious:

Make it easy to share
Never underestimate your audience’s inertia. Even if they love your content, they probably won’t share it if doing so takes much work, says Jeff Quipp, CEO of Ajax, Ont.-based Web marketing firm Search Engine People Inc. That means making sure each piece of content is equipped with buttons that help people to email it to a friend, post it on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, or add it to social news websites such as Digg, Reddit and StumbleUpon. Providing such tools will do more than make your content easy to share, says Quipp: “If the tools are there to remind people to share it, they’ll be much more likely to do so.”

Also, many web users are highly influenced by the sharing behaviour of their peers—if Jack know that his contacts are sharing a piece of content, then Jack will be more likely to share it. Embed such information in your campaign. For example, you can add a window to your website that lists who among a visitor’s Facebook contacts has recently shared your content.

Be friendly to search engines
When your content is easy to discover outside of the viral chain, you can attract people who might merely have overheard others talking about your content, as well as people searching relevant terms. In other words, make your content search-engine friendly.

There are several ways to do this, says Mark Campbell, account director at Toronto-based digital marketing agency Viral Media Group Inc. First, in naming your content, he says, “Think of what people are searching for, not what perfectly describes it.” For instance, name your video “How do I drywall?” instead of “Drywall AX-2000 Demonstration.”

Second, try to tie the content to what’s popular. This approach helped U.S. blender company Blendtec create one of the most successful viral marketing campaign of the past few years. During soccer’s 2010 World Cup, Blendtec posted a clip of one of its blenders pulverizing a vuvuzela; it has done the same for the highly searched iPad and Guitar Hero III.

Third, stick to YouTube for viral video campaigns. This allows you and hosts in the viral chain to embed the content more easily into such channels as personal blogs and Facebook pages than with proprietary players. Consolidating the viral traffic has additional benefits: the more views you bank through YouTube, the higher you’ll rise in its rankings—and those of its owner, Google.

Seed the influencers
In any web community, there are key influencers, such as well-read bloggers or industry leaders with loyal Twitter followers. Getting friendly with these people should be a top priority, says BuildDirect’s Banks, as it can significantly increase your exposure. “If you can connect with five really popular bloggers in your industry who have lots of fans and get them on board with what you do, you don’t need to find those fans yourself,” he explains.

It’s imperative that you take time to build a relationship with these in-demand people, stresses Banks, because they will see through anyone trying to use them. “If they know you’re serious and genuine in your social media presence, and they dig what you’re doing, they’ll support you,” he says. “But if you just show up, buy them dinner and say, €˜I want to use you to get to your group,’ that’s a big no-no.” Since the last thing you want is a popular blogger questioning your firm’s integrity to his audience of thousands, take the time to build your cred by commenting on or reposting his posts, or by sharing links with him to other items of mutual interest. Send your content his way only after you’ve developed a relationship.

Know your audience
It’s unlikely your viral campaign will reach millions, so focus on quality rather than quantity. Where does your target audience spend its time and what content does it like to consume? The answers should guide your plan. “When you start understanding your audience’s technographic profile,” says Cyr, “you can really determine how to design content that’s useful and relevant for them.” Find out by setting up Google Alerts, which will help you track the websites and social media platforms on which your company, industry and product category are mentioned.

Create awesome content
Of course, no degree of planning or support can help unengaging content go viral. “You can’t force it,” says Detlev Zwick, an associate professor of marketing at the Toronto-based Schulich School of Business who specializes in viral campaigns. “If people are not being engaged or motivated to pass it on, suggest or recommend it, it’s not going to happen.” People will share marketing messages only if they believe those messages have given them value for their time.

Whatever medium you choose, your content “has to be short, catchy and provocative,” says Sabine Schleese, managing director at Schleese Saddlery Service Ltd. Her company’s videos debunking misconceptions about saddle-fitting usually attract more than 20,000 views each within a few weeks of their release, typically going viral via email. To attain similar success, keep video clips less than five minutes long and try to present written content in a list or quiz format.

Interactive elements, such as quizzes and contests, add to the content’s viral potential, according to recent research by Boston-based publishing software provider Zmags Inc.

And don’t be discouraged if your best efforts fail. “You might have to develop five or six iterations of a message before it takes off,” says Zwick. “But if you do it right, your customers will come to you instead of you going to them.”

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