a couple of years now since many marketers were briefing agencies to include a
viral element in their campaigns in the hope the campaign would ‘go viral’. Some
well known examples were banned, thus speeding their popularity. Some even suggested
that getting the campaign banned was in the brief. Examples from this golden era
of viral marketing include the Microsoft X-box launch viral of a baby ejected
from its mother on its inexorable trip to the grave; the John West Salmon dancing
bear and that MTV Headrush exploding head video I couldn’t bear to watch. Some
of these campaigns reached millions in minutes.
was this just a brief craze, or is viral still relevant? Some of the issues we
will explore in this E-Marketing Insights column are:
what is viral marketing?
legal constraints are introduced by the new Privacy and Electronic Communications
Regulations Act in force from December 11th 2003?
viral still reach millions to boost consumer brands?
viral relevant for business-to-business markets?
will look at the success factors for viral campaigns for B2C and B2B organisations.
what is viral marketing?
most buzz words ‘viral marketing’ means different things to different people.
A viral marketing execution certainly needs to create a buzz to be successful.
The two main forms of viral marketing are best known as ‘word-of-mouth’ and ‘word-of-mouse’.
Both rely on networks of people to spread the word.
this is the E-marketing Insights column of What’s New in Marketing,
we will be concentrating on the second viral variety – online viral marketing.
Online viral is more efficient in terms of speed than offline viral since it uses
e-mail to rapidly transmit the virus. Witness the rate at which e-mail-based computer
viruses such as SoBig.F spread to millions of computers. But viral can be a force
for the good. Anti-spam software Cloudmark (www.cloudmark.com)
which uses a collaborative approach to filter out e-mail has nearly a million
‘spam fighters’ using its service yet has only been released for a matter of months.
Cloudmark example shows that that often ‘word-of-mouse’ works best with ‘word-of-mouth’.
Word-of-mouth tends to give a wider reach since most of us spend more time offline
than on and perhaps there is more chance of the virus taking hold. If you want
to read more about word-of-mouth, read Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Idea Virus
(Godin, 2001) or Malcom Gladwell’s excellent Tipping Point (Gladwell,
2000). The Tipping Point is when the viral message increases exponentially
once it moves beyond the initial people it is seeded with.
benefits that created such a buzz around viral marketing amongst marketers in
the last few years can be summed up in one long definition:
marketing uses a powerful offer transmitted via a network of people
to reach a large audience cost effectively to generate prospects,
build brand awareness and so increase sales’
of viral marketing which build awareness through video clips from brands such
as Virgin, T-Mobile and Microsoft are viewable at DMC (www.dmc.co.uk).
For example, Mazda has commissioned several awareness building campaigns based
around humorous video clips for new car launches.
prospects’ refers to the use of viral campaigns to build up a permission-based
house e-mail list which can then be used to convert interest to custom. This simply
needs a referrer (the originator) of the message and a recipient – best known
as ‘refer a friend’ or ‘forward to a friend’. The marketer then sends a message
to the recipient telling them about the offer and persuading them to opt-in. For
example, Chaffey (2003) describes how Virgin Atlantic offered ‘Free Flights for
Life’ and the viral effect enabled them to gain more over 100,000 new list members.
make a viral campaign happen, Justin Kirby of viral marketing specialists DMC
(www.dmc.co.uk) suggests there three things are
needed (Kirby, 2003):
Creative material – the ‘viral agent’. This includes the creative message
or offer and how it is spread (text, image, video).
Seeding. Identifying web sites, blogs or people to send e-mail to start
the virus spreading.
Tracking. To monitor, the effect, to assess the return from the cost of
developing the viral agent and seeding.
we think of online viral marketing we tend to think of e-mails being used to pass
the message on from one person to the next. But as we will see, the web site is
often also an important part of e-mail marketing. In Total E-mail Marketing
(Chaffey, 2003) I distinguish between these types of viral e-mail techniques.
Pass along e-mail viral. This is where e-mail alone is used to spread the
message. Towards the end of a commercial e-mail it does no harm to prompt the
first recipient to forward the e-mail along to interested friends or colleagues.
Even if only one in 100 responds to this prompt, it is still worth it. The dramatic
growth of Hotmail, reaching 10 million subscribers in just over a year, was effectively
down to pass-along as people received e-mails with a signature promoting the service.
Word-of-mouth helped too.
or forwarding has worked well for video clips, either where they are attached
to the e-mail or the e-mail contains a link to download the clip. If the e-mail
has the ‘WOW!’ factor, of which more later, a lot more than one in hundred will
forward the e-mail.
Web facilitated viral (E-mail prompt). Here, the e-mail contains a link/graphic
to a web page with ‘E-mail a friend’ or ‘E-mail a colleague’. A web form is used
to collect data of the e-mail address to which the e-mail should be forwarded,
sometimes with an optional message. The company then sends a separate message
to the friend or colleague.
Web facilitated viral (Web prompt). Here it is the web page such as a product
catalogue or white paper which contains a link/graphic to ‘E-mail a friend’ or
colleague. A web form is again used to collect data and an e-mail is subsequently
Incentivised viral. This is what we need to make viral really take-off.
By offering some reward for providing someone else's address we can dramatically
increase referrals. A common offer is to gain an additional entry for entry into
a prize draw. Referring more friends gains more entries to the prize draw. With
the right offer, this can more than double response. The incentive is offered
either by e-mail (option 2 above) or on a web page (option 3).
Web-link viral. But online viral isn’t just limited to e-mail. If you click
on any of the links in this article – that can also be considered to be online
viral marketing or you could call it online PR. Links in discussion group postings
or web logs which are from an individual are also in this category. Either way,
it’s important when seeding the campaign to try and get as many targeted online
and offline mentions of the viral agent as you can.
look at the law before exploring viral techniques, since in future, marketers
operating in Europe will have to look carefully at the interpretation of the European
Community law on Privacy and Electronic Communications in each member country.
We will focus on the UK law.
follows is not legal counsel, but a brief summary interpretation of the latest
law. Given that the law effectively evolves and clarifies as new cases are brought
professional legal advice should be sought, particularly before embarking on a
viral marketing campaign.
Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations Act (PECR) in force from December
11th 2003 is published at:
is a surprisingly accessible and commonsense document – many permission marketers
will be practicing similar principles already. Clause 22 to 24 are the main clauses
relevant to e-mail marketers, but note that there are other significant clauses
which should be read carefully by everyone whose web services place cookies on
end-user computers. We will summarise the main implications of the law by picking
out key phrases. The new PECR law:
Applies to consumer marketing (mostly).
(1) applies to ‘individual subscribers’. Individual subscribers means consumers
sounds like great news for business-to-business customers and I have heard some
business-to-business commentators and marketers take the view ‘great, the new
law doesn’t apply to us’, but this could be dangerous. There has been adjudication
by the ASA which found against a B2B organisation who had unwittingly e-mailed
consumers from what they believed was a B2B house list. Distinguishing between
those working for large organisations and small partnerships maybe difficult and
what about the many business users who opt-in for business e-mail communications
using their personal Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail account? The government has also indicated
that the law is under review and could potentially be extended to business-to-business.
Beware also since in some European countries where the law applies to both B2C
Is an opt-in regime.
new law applies to ‘unsolicited communications’ (22(1)). It was introduced
with a view to reducing SPAM or unsolicited commercial e-mail, although we all
know its impact will be limited on spammers beyond Europe. The relevant phrase
is part of 22 (2) where the recipient must have ‘previously notified the sender
that he consents’ to receiving commercial e-mail. The ASA CAP code (see below)
refers to ‘explicit consent’ this suggests that a proactive action at the
point of opt-in is required. On a web profiling form this means actively selecting
the option to receive e-mail by ticking a box.
Requires an opt-out option in all communications.
unsubscribe method is required so that the recipient does not receive future communications.
The law states that a ‘simple means of refusing’ future communications is required
both when the details were first collected and in each subsequent communication.
Does not apply to existing customers when marketing similar products.
commonsense clause 22 (3) (a) states that previous opt-in is not required if the
contact details were obtained during the course of the sale or negotiations for
the sale of a product or service. This is sometimes known as ‘soft opt-in’. While
this is great news for retailers, it is unclear where this leaves Not for Profit
organisations such as charities or public sector organisations where the concept
of a sale does not apply.
22 (3) (b) adds that when marketing to existing customers the marketer may market
‘similar products and services only’. Case law will help in clarifying this. For
example, for a bank, it is not clear whether a customer with an insurance policy
could be targeted for a loan.
Contact details must be provided.
is not sufficient to send an e-mail with a simple signoff from ‘The Marketing
team’ or ‘Web team’ with no further contact details. The law requires a name,
address or phone number.
The ‘From’ identification of the sender must be clear.
aim to disguise the e-mail originator. The law says that the identity
of the person who sends the communication must not be ‘disguised or concealed’
and that a valid address to ‘send a request that such communications cease’ should
be provided. This implies that a teaser ‘From’ address should not be used and
that a valid e-mail address to reply to should be available in the body of the
e-mail (since often commercial e-mails are not sent from an address that accepts
Applies to direct marketing communications.
communications that the legislation refers to are for ‘direct marketing’. This
suggests that other communications involved with customer service are not covered,
so the opt-out choice may not be required here.
where does this new law leave viral marketing? We will explore the options for
each of the four types of online viral mentioned above for B2C and B2B below.
current law that e-marketers are talking about now, is in fact only one of a series
dating from the 1998 Data Protection Act. To understand the marketing implications
of all these laws, the CIM offers a course on E-marketing Law (www.cim.co.uk/1153). Consumer marketers also
need to heed the April 2003 Code of Advertising Practice from the Advertising
Standards Agency (ASA CAP code). This has a broadly similar aim to the PECR
viral still reach millions to boost consumer marketing?
reading of the law is that it has drastically reduced the options for viral marketing
in consumer marketing.
consumer brands being hauled up in front of the ASA for offline ads seems commonplace,
indeed you can argue that if they don’t, their agencies aren’t pushing the envelope.
But breaking the PECR is potentially more serious and not just because of the
£5,000 fine and reputational damage. It is within the powers of the data protection
commissioner to close down an organisation's direct marketing operation until
they are satisfied a problem has been rectified – far more damaging!
the four online viral options below, only the first remains legitimate. Options
two to four would involve sending an unsolicited communication without prior consent,
and this is now outlawed.
Pass along e-mail viral.
Web facilitated viral (E-mail prompt).
Web facilitated viral (Web prompt).
its not all bad since (1) Has proved popular for viral clips in the past and will
continue to do so, with the right creative. But for (2) to (4), we may have to
fall-back on traditional word-of-mouth – if the offer is good enough in (2) or
(3) then the friend or colleague will be told verbally how great it is and will
then visit the web site.
options (2) and (3), HTML ‘mailto:’ style hyperlinks can also be incorporated
in e-mails and on web pages which will automatically open up the default e-mail
package possibly with a preformed message, so the site visitor sends the message
themselves. This approach is nowhere near 100 percent reliable since it is dependent
on web browsers and e-mail packages used and how they are set up. So this is a
less efficient method and the viral effect will be reduced.
(4) could be achieved through the use of a code which a friend has to pass on
verbally, but can be redeemed when the friend enters their details although this
would be a lot less effective. Alternatively the referred could still be prompted
for the friends/colleagues e-mail address to be provided, but no message sent.
Additional entries would be provided for each valid e-mail address provided. For
the paranoid, the additional entry into the prize draw would be activated when
the e-mail address entered by the friend on a subsequent visit matched with that
supplied by the referrer!
sum up, pass along or forwarded e-mails can still be used for consumers, but we
will have to use message, creative and incentives to prompt traditional word-of-mouth
transmission of the viral. Also work hard at PR – the right media mentions on
TV, radio, print and web will dramatically boost reach when the viral agent is
update to this article – added after the above was written
the end of November 2003, the UK Information Commissioner produced detailed guidelines
for companies on how to comply with PECR. Details can be accessed here: http://makeashorterlink.com/?X26862EA6.
viral marketing is not referred to explicitly in these guidelines. However, it
is thought that a future update to the guidelines will refer to it. Comments from
marketers who have spoken to the office of the Information Commissioner specifically
about viral marketing suggest that the new law may not restrict viral marketing
as much as suggested above. The comments suggest that all viral options apart
from 4 may be permissible although strict interpretation of the law suggested
that only 1 and 5 are permissible. In other words, forward-to-a-friend viral links
from web site or e-mail will remain permissible except when the provision of the
friends name is in return for an incentive, such as an additional entry into a
factors for B2C virals
depends on the viral agent, transmission mechanism and seeding process. We have
seen that the law has limited our options on transmission, so we will now look
at the viral agent and seeding.
successful viral agent relies on achieving that elusive ‘WOW!’ factor. WOW! doesn’t
have to mean smut, although a visit to sites which index the mosty popular virals
such as Punchbaby (www.punchbaby.com),
the Viral Bank (www.viralbank.com) or the Lycos Viral chart
(http://viral.lycos.co.uk) shows that
this remains popular. In fact, good old-fashioned humour is the main attribute
of the top listings in the Lycos chart. But, whether it’s a video-clip, prize
draw offer, a well executed game, a fun quiz, smutty office anecdote or royal
intrigue – it has to have that WOW! factor. Its basically down to value – whoever
forwards the message will not want to be seen as spamming their friend or colleague,
so it must have some form of ‘unique’ value. For Virgin Atlantic, the value was
‘Free Flights for life’. A prize draw with this offer drew over two hundred thousand
responses. Details on the motivational aspects of viral marketing are available
from iMediaConnection (2003).
ad-based virals are simply re-purposed ads for TV broadcasting. In the US ING
Direct have pre-viewed new ad launches before their offline broadcasts, for instance.
Kirby (2003) suggests that a better approach is ‘advertainment’ where the product
is incidental to the humour. Of course, there is a danger that the brand association
may be reduced by this approach. There is also the danger that the humour may
not match your audience. This is why one of the Mazda clips featured an out-of-control
golf-cart rather than a clip of Kylie! Many marketers and agencies fear this lack
of control in targeting, and this is perhaps a reason why viral marketing has
not developed in the US.
does not simply involve sending an initial e-mail to a small group of promiscuous
people (Seth Godin called these ‘sneezers’) in the hope they will pass it on.
For maximum reach, a viral clip or offer should be accessible from as many relevant
as sites as possible –not only viral chart sites, but also online newspapers,
comedy sites, web logs and discussion groups.
viral relevant for business-to-business marketing?
brief scanning of the law would suggest that all four viral options remain open
to business-to-business marketers, but as mentioned above, great care is needed
for 2, 3 and 4. The problem is that the organisation cannot be certain that the
e-mail is not forwarded as an unsolicited e-mail to a consumer or ‘individual
subscriber’. One approach would be to exclude obvious non company addresses such
as hotmail.com, but there are still hundreds of ISPs offering e-mail addresses
so they couldn’t all be checked for. Another approach would be to make clear in
the ‘refer-a-friend’ messaging that the person the referred person MUST be a person
working for an organisation otherwise it will breach the privacy law. But this
is clearly not watertight.
practice, many B2B marketers may decide that caution is best and resort to the
techniques described above for B2C.
factors for B2B virals
do we get that WOW! factor for B2B viral e-mails. We can’t really expect to create
anything business related that’s going to make anyone fall off a chair, but we
do have to have some impact.
success factors of great viral agent and targeted seeding also apply to business-to-business
draws still work in many business-to-business sectors – a free lap-top, PDA or
digital camera will get good responses. The problem is list quality. Are the respondents
actually in your target market. Its not a big problem though if the offer is clearly
limited to a particular profession. For example, 3M Health Care offered consumer
gadgets to health care professionals, but clearly stated that entry was dependent
on job title and workplace.
can also work if they are centred around knowledge about a profession – people
love proving they’re best.
agents can work surprisingly well – a listing of new store openings collated from
several sources soon found its way around retail store managers when it was seeded
to this limited sized business community.
the next edition of WNIM – integrating e-marketing into marketing campaigns. We
will concentrate on strategic issues such as budget allocation, cross-media integration
and frequency rather than the creative.
D. (2003) Total E-mail Marketing. Butterworth Heinemann. Oxford.
(2003) Online viral marketing: next big thing or yesterday?s fling?. New Media
Knowledge. March 2003.
M. (2000) The Tipping Point How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
Little Brown & Company
Godin, S. (2001) Unleashing the ideavirus. Available online at:
(2003) Online Viral Marketing: Friend or Foe? Rebecca Weeks. 16th October,
Dave Chaffey is workshop leader for a range of one-day e-marketing training workshops
from the CIM:
to www.cimtraining.com for course details
and online booking.
Dave Chaffey, consultant
for Marketing Insights Limited (www.marketing-insights.co.uk)
is a prolific e-business author with ‘Total E-mail Marketing’ and the second
editions of ‘Internet marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice’
and E-business and E-commerce Management new for 2003. Dave is also
an examiner of the CIM E-marketing Professional Development Award. A web site
supports the workshops and books with over 400 marketing related links.