On the face of it, viral marketing optimization (VMO) bears little resemblance to more established digital marketing practices. In retail and lead generation the basic principle to optimizing conversion is long established as driving people into the funnel and then pushing them down it. Viral Marketing turns this funnel upside down. The viral marketing end is really a beginning. Success starts at that single point of conversion and moves wider and the benefits of optimizing the viral funnel get compounded in ways other marketers can only dream of.
So, if all VMO does is flip the funnel then can’t the same optimization techniques and practices that are used successfully on in other digital marketing areas be applied to VMO? I think so — since success in both disciplines depends on two common factors, reach and relevance. What viral adds is a third factor made up from parts of reach and relevance and critical to its success, repetition.
So what determines success with these three factors and how do we think about optimizing them?
Reach: Here you are trying to connect your messaging with the greatest amount of people. You’re casting the widest net possible and hoping to get some relevance in it. Search, Display, Email, Affiliate, Social, WOM — there are different channels to accomplishing this goal. There have been more than a few success stories here generated from SPAM and other forms of misleading ads. While this may be frowned upon the business goal is trying to reach the most people as possible with our message in the most cost effective manner. The more nets we cast the more likely we’ll catch fish and the larger nets are usually the cheapest. Two examples of reach success in viral are MySpace (email) and AdultFriendFinder (display).
Relevance: Once the message is presented the persuasive nature of it will ultimately determine how well it works. This is usually dictated by the degree of relevance inherent in the message as well as the delivery and presentation. This is the same for VMO and other digital marketing. Trust factors as an important strategy here just as it is in other conversion optimization. Most of the same rules and technology we use to test and optimize sites and landing pages can and should be used to ensure the highest degree of relevance in viral marketing creative including A/B, multivariate testing and targeted content delivery. LinkedIn’s invite is a good example of this as is AdultFriendFinder’s use of geo-targeted messages to deliver relevance with great success. Again improvements here have huge impacts as the lifts get compounded.
Repetition: In VMO the net gets wider with each successive pass through. This is the real power of the pyramid. If reach and relevance are created building the first levels become more a matter of process and tools than anything else. Facebook’s email address uploads and Slide’s widget creation are the shining examples here. However, as we create our viral funnel relevance may change or additional considerations can emerge. Understanding and optimizing these is a key component of establishing and keeping an active user base, leveraging the work done on the front end and imperative to execute the mother of all viral strategies, word-of-mouth. A high-level example of this is Facebook which started out as college network, grew to include high schools and is now attracting professionals. Webkinz is another example as they optimize the changes in relevance from first time users to repeat user activity on many levels both online and offline.
There’s a lot more to chew on in each area and hopefully I’ll get to it in a future post. It’s interesting to think about multivariate testing up and down the viral funnel, creating landing pages and using personalization and targeted content. What’s clear is that the ability to deliver personalization (relevance) is a key success factor for VMO.
Viral Marketing continues to grow in importance. Understanding and experimenting in optimization of this process is an emergent but very interesting practice that will surely reap many rewards for its practitioners.
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