CONSUMER PR: Infectious marketing - It's a cheap, easy and fun way to communicate. Mary Cowlett reports on the viral marketing phenomenon spreading across the industry

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

communications alight

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, 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 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, 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.

Executive attraction

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

relationship marketing.'

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

windscreen washer.

'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

associate director.

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.'


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

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

theatre tickets.

'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

the building.'

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 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 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,, 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.

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