With the arrival of the internet and e-mail, grassroots marketing
has been transformed from word-of-mouth to word-of-mouse, and most of us
have been infected. From simple beginnings, as a mechanism for spreading
good jokes among friends, 'viral marketing' has developed into a global
buzzword, which PR professionals reckon is setting the world of
It is widely accepted that venture capitalists Steve Jurvetson and Tim
Draper were the first to coin the 'viral marketing' tag, back in
The previous year, the duo backed one of the first successful viral
marketers, free e-mail service Hotmail, which built a customer base of
12 million users in 18 months, on an advertising, marketing and
promotions budget of less than dollars 500,000.
It achieved this by inserting an invitation in each Hotmail message for
receivers to sign up and get their own Hotmail account. In effect, the
service had come up with the ideal marketing solution, whereby its own
customers - albeit mostly unaware - were endorsing its offering with a
simple message, coupled with a free demonstration. Little wonder that at
one point, Hotmail membership in India, rocketed from nought to 100,000
in the space of three weeks.
Today, mainstream brands ranging from Coca-Cola and its energy drink
Burn to Budweiser, with its 'Whassup?' ads, are using VM, to create
irresistible, but simple, web-based items, games, jokes, competitions,
e-clips - that receivers think will appeal to their friends, so pass
Based on the principle that everyone on the planet is connected
indirectly at the most through six other people, the attraction of VM is
that it appears incredibly cheap and easy. Not only that, audiences
self-select and when done properly, campaigns can really catch-on. By
providing appropriate content to a few well-chosen seeds, viral
marketers can sit back and watch their audience figures go through the
Twentieth Century Fox recently used this technique to market the film
Dude Where's My Car?. The film company mailed its own database of 20,000
and a database of 5,000 early adopter students - supplied by film
promotions agency SubLime - with an online movie maker package designed
by I-D Media.
Using footage from the film, recipients could type in speech bubbles and
send their personal mini-movie to as many friends as they wanted.
'Dude is targeted at a student and teenage audience, which generally
tends to be quite cynical and also quite fragmented, so you have to
spend huge amounts on TV and radio ads,' says Twentieth-Century Fox
marketing manager Clare Tyler. 'With the Dude Movie Maker we gave them
something quick and easy in a medium they could control, which was also
really good fun.'
Understanding the audience
However, one of the most important elements in firing up a VM campaign,
is that the initial audience is made to feel unique and special. 'In
part, it is about giving people kudos with their friends, so you have to
identify the key movers and shakers and give them something exclusive,
whereby they are the first, so that they maintain their status,' says
Jez Jowett, head of new media at youth marketing agency Cake.
His organisation recently worked on the launch of Channel 4's digital
entertainment channel E4. 'With all the different themes and interests
in the programming - such as Ally McBeal, Trigger Happy TV, and Banzai -
we knew that we had a lot of opportunities to introduce new stuff to
people,' says Jowett. This was achieved by hanging out in newsgroups and
chatrooms and joining appropriate mailing lists.
In addition, the agency approached the webmasters of fan sites and
developed relationships offering free, exclusive programme footage and
inside information, all of which was easy to pass on and download.
'If you understand the audience, speak their language and send them fun
stuff they have never seen before, then people just love the thought of
helping you out, while making themselves look really great,' says
Often this can involve some sort of incentivising, with competitions
offering exclusive prizes. Last June, Yell.com organised a Yell For A
Beetle viral competition, to support its lead sponsorship of the
internet zone at the Tomorrow's World Live exhibition at London's Earl's
To win a bright yellow, new-look beetle, consumers were encouraged to
enter the online competition at the event itself and via the web.
'It was part of a huge integrated marketing campaign,' says Yell.com PR
manager Nadia Schofield. 'But by asking four simple questions, all
related to a different section of our new-look site, it was a good way
of getting consumers to go into the site and familiarise themselves with
the different services we offer.'
In total, the competition attracted 5,000 entrants from an initial
e-mail base of 15,000 people, which perhaps proves the theory that some
incentives are just too attractive, even among friends.
But Yell was so pleased with the results that it has run similar viral
competitions since, offering prizes such as WAP phones.
In addition, this activity has provided a means for Yell to build up its
own online customer database for further permission marketing.
However, others feel that it is better to offer incentives or prizes
that have intrinsic worth rather than monetary value for target
audiences. 'Because we only talk to UK universities, we can do
promotions where the offer isn't necessarily that high value,' says
James Layfield, Virginstudent.com brand director.
In the run up to Christmas last year, his company was offering pounds
1,000 worth of online prizes each day, ranging from a chance to drive a
Ferrari, to short trips to Amsterdam. However, these were integrated
into an animated game, so that students had an incentive to push offers
onto their friends.
And when the content is right, VM is by no means restricted to consumer
activity, nor the youth market. 'The key to being successful, is working
out what is going to get your particular audience excited,' says Vanessa
Magnani, Firefly Interactive head.
Her organisation has been working with PrimeResponse a leading player in
the eCRM market, devising VM campaigns to attract business executives to
a quarterly Marketing Directors Club, featuring invitation-only events
based around specific 'new marketing' topics.
This involved designing a simple targeted e-invite to entice recipients
to register and attend events, including details on speakers and links
to their sites.
'Using an e-invite allowed PrimeResponse to practice what it preaches
and give an example of branding in the digital economy,' says
'It also circumvented the need for call rounds or waiting for responses
to arrive by post or fax,' she adds. Indeed, the PR team found that
reservation spots filled up within the first four hours of e-mail
However, it is very easy for viral marketers to get their campaigns
Recipients not only want fresh, entertaining material, they also demand
that messages are subtly branded, non-intrusive and hassle-free.
'Online marketers have to tread a tricky line between getting noticed
and getting on people's nerves,' says Tim Carrigan, Ogilvy Interactive
managing partner. His organisation was behind the highly popular
Friskies Petcare downloadable Felix campaign, which reached tens of
thousands of consumers last year.
Worries about potential spamming issues and user-friendly formatting are
likely to increase, as VM embraces wider technologies. On its website
Budweiser has already branched out into text messaging and downloadable
images for mobile phones, and others are following suit.
'There are lots of exciting things happening in mobile telephony - like
WAP - which mean that viral can also become wireless,' says Simon
Beales, managing director of Brighton-based marketing communications
agency Minds Eye. His agency is currently creating a VM campaign for
PDAs - personal organisers.
'A user could be playing a branded game on a train, show it to a friend,
pass it on to him and then play against him,' he says. 'That's true
But with campaigns typically remaining within the web environment and
legal restrictions on e-mail tracking there is a downside to VM's
current vogue, that of proving success.
'The challenge of evaluating VM campaigns is a particularly interesting
one, given that many successful campaigns can take place with no
information or coverage surfacing in the traditional media,' says Fergus
Hampton, Millward Brown Precis managing director.
As with other forms of communication measurement, he feels that
currently, there is too much emphasis on how much noise has been
created, rather than an in-depth examination of what has been
'There are two key strands to measuring PR impact and effectiveness,' he
says. The first is to track the awareness gained throughout the audience
it reaches and, secondly, to analyse the quality of the media coverage
that follows the launch.'
This is something his organisation performed on behalf of Honda last
year. To raise the profile of the Honda HRV, the car manufacturer
created a Squeegee campaign, featuring a viral clip of a Honda driver
pulling up at traffic lights, winding down his window and emptying a
bucket of water over the scourge of drivers nationwide, a touting
'You can get information about where viral messages have gone and see
how fast they've spread,' says Hampton. 'But on its own that is useless,
until you know what effect messages have had.'
To this end, his organisation quizzed people who had bought small
utility vehicles (SUVs) from new, in the previous two-year period, to
assess how the Squeegee clip had changed their perception of Honda and
their purchasing behaviour.
As VM's star continues to rise, it is clear that with its emphasis on
content, greater ownership needs to be taken by the PR profession.
'Despite its name, VM should be considered as public relations. This is
because the concept of getting others to pass on your message and do
your selling for you is not new: that has always been one to the main
functions of PR within the marketing mix,' says Simi Belo, Text 100
However, for this to happen, practitioners need to move away from their
obsession with counting clicks, to examining how activities have tapped
into the psyche of specific communities.
As Manning Selvage & Lee executive director Fiona Cohen says: 'The
evaluation of viral campaigns demonstrates very clearly why public
relations has to move away from output measures - that is gross
calculations of how many people have been reached - to understanding the
impact that a campaign has had on its target audience.'
LASTMINUTE.COM FLIRTS WITH ROMANCE
In the run up to Valentine's Day last month, 'Are you the office flirt?'
was the e-mail poser that had the nation tapping their keyboards. By
answering a simple questionnaire, people could discover whether they
were the office lizard, cat, monkey, vulture, or dog, thanks to the
folks at lastminute.com.
Well-known for its travel options, the e-tailer created the e-mail to
drive traffic to its Valentine's Day pages, where online shoppers could
pick up late offers on romantic gifts, such as restaurant bookings and
'A lot of the time, the way people market romantic stuff is stale, so we
made the theme of our marketing really good fun, by focusing on
flirting,' says lastminute UK head of marketing Carl Lyons.
In the traditional media, this was executed by two bus ads urging
consumers to 'Do something to really wind-up her husband' and 'Do
something that says I fancy the pants off him'. This was reflected
online, with similarly themed ads and a customer newsletter.
'One of the most important things about VM is that you can't just do it
off the wall, in isolation, it has to relate to your brand and the rest
of your marketing strategy,' says Lyons. So, 1,000 companies received
Office Flirting Kits - containing a secret Valentine's postbox with
posters and postcards - addressed to 'The most gorgeous receptionist in
To tie these activities together, lastminute and its outsourced creative
teams - comprising Gnash PR, M&C Saatchi, and NewPHD - developed the
e-mail questionnaire. This was then distributed by stealth in chatrooms
and by staff using their hotmail accounts, to avoid any lastminute
'Design-wise we also kept it very simple, making it look like the sort
of thing a US student had built in their bedroom,' says Lyons.
In addition, the marketing team ensured that access to the lastminute
site was kept to the end of the questionnaire. 'It's an easy mistake to
think about your corporate objectives first and the consumer experience
second,' says Lyons. 'But we created something that people would enjoy
and had an element of comparison - 'If I'm a lizard, what are you?' -
which meant they passed it onto their friends.'
A formal evaluation, examining business measures has yet to be
But according to Lyons, by 13 February the officeflirttest.com site had
gained 400,000 page impressions, with traffic to the Valentine's Day
pages rocketing and sales impressive.
'The key thing to recognise is that this sort of activity is a gamble,
you can't guarantee the audience it will deliver to,' says Lyons. 'We
could easily have created a damp squib, but we did something that was
good fun and relevant to the brand. It cost virtually nothing, so the
return on investment is all incremental profit.'
AFTER SHOCK - A CULT AMONG THE YOUNG
After Shock was launched in the UK in April 2000. Owned by Jim Beam
Brands (JBB), the pink alcoholic shooter was an enormous cult success
among 18 to 24-year-olds in Scotland, outperforming its rival alcoholic
beverages Southern Comfort, Baileys, Archers and Malibu.
Part of its appeal was the 'Take a Deep Breath' ritual, whereby drinkers
were encouraged to down a shot in one and feel the heat, then breathe
out and experience the cool after shock.
'We wanted to raise awareness of the brand in London and establish this
'Take a Deep Breath' ritual, which is so essential in differentiating
After Shock from alternative shooter brands,' says Glen Gribbon, JBB
international marketing manager.
His organisation briefed Hill & Knowlton, to put together a low-budget
campaign aimed at early adopters and a youth audience in the
'We felt it was essential for consumers to find the brand with their
friends and to establish relevance,' says Bridget Jacottet, associate
director of H&K's youth and consumer division. 'Taking inspiration from
the 1980s, we developed a strong creative, built around the brand ritual
that was appealing to this audience in its irony and humour.'
Taking key elements from the overall PR campaign - entitled 'So Hot,
It's Kool' - the communications team developed an animated viral e-mail
teaser in association with online advertising agency Web Marketing.
Timed to coincide with the launch of the After Shock website,
www.shockingtimes.com, this was targeted at H&K's database of style
leaders and featured 1980's kitsch symbols the audience could identify
with, including a funky electro soundtrack, handbags, mullet wigs and
To ensure that the idea would go down well with its target audience, H&K
tested the creative among its early adopter contacts, including Adam
Dewhurst maketing director of underground magazine Sleazenation and
Radio One DJ Emma B. The teaser was then forwarded to 150 key
According to H&K, the VM campaign was one of its biggest creative
successes of 2000, eventually reaching around 4,000 18 to 24-year-olds
in the London area.
As a result of the overall campaign, JBB estimates that its share of the
developing shooter market is now around 25 per cent. On the back of this
success, After Shock is planning to make an even bigger splash this
year, using grassroots marketing and web-based activities.