Viral marketing is one of those poorly defined notions that is often misunderstood. For the sake of clarity in this article, I am using the term viral marketing to encompass the notion of spreading a message by word-of-mouth (in the many forms that word-of-mouth can take).
Viral marketing is a hugely powerful tool and one that every author should be aware of, if for no other reason that other people (those doing the word-of-mouth thing) are doing your marketing for you. However, it is marketing, not selling—you still need to do something to ensure that any interest generated from viral marketing is converted into sales.
There is no one "right way" to go viral. Indeed, successful viral marketing probably embodies a combination of small ideas.
Before we look at the techniques for going viral, let's look at some of the benefits. There are many benefits of viral marketing—here are the main ones:
- You can reach people you don't know about. You know your friends and you know your social network, but you probably don't know who your friends' friends. More importantly, you don't know your friends' friends' friends. With viral marketing you can reach those people (and beyond).
- Other people do your marketing for you. This has two advantages. First, they do the work, so your book is actively marketed by other people even when you're asleep, on vacation, and so on. The second advantage is credibility. If people are personally recommending your book (without any obvious personal gain, such as a payment from you), then the recommendation has far more credibility in the eyes of the person receiving the recommendation.
- Cost. Viral marketing is, in effect, free marketing. You pay nothing to make it happen, you are simply taking advantage of people's goodwill, connections, and interest in your book.
- Crossing language/cultural barriers. People's networks of friends and associates are not limited by geographic or cultural barriers. By tapping into these networks you are able to spread your message across geographies, languages, and cultures in a way that is difficult and expensive when using conventional media.
If I've sold you on the notion of viral marketing, the next question is how do I do it?
In short, you don't. Viral marketing is something that happens—you cannot "make" people virally share your ideas (by the way, you're going to hear me say that a lot in this piece). The best you can do is to foster an atmosphere/create tools that make it easy for people to share virally. These tools can be cheap—unlike conventional marketing, viral marketing can be as close to free as you will get.
And once your message is spreading virally, then you need to be able to take advantage of the spread so you can convert "noise" into interest in you, and that interest into book sales.
The other thing to remember is that people communicate in a wide variety of ways and through many channels, including:
- email/chat programs
- internet forums
- the social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, and
- their own website/blogs.
In the same way that you can't control whether something goes viral, you can't control how it goes viral if it goes viral.
Of course, there are other forms of communication including face-to-face communication, broadcasting, and the press. However, for this piece, I'm more interested in looking to ensure that the easier ways of electronic communication are employed to take advantage of viral spread.
The Motivation to Share
Viral marketing relies on someone choosing—of their own freewill—to tell their friends and associates about your book. If someone is going to tell their friends about your book (or about something else which is associated with your book), then there must be a benefit to the sharer.
The greater the benefit to the sharer, then the more chance there is that they will choose to spread your idea. If there is no benefit to the sharer—or worse still, there is a downside, such as losing face/looking daft, and so on—then there will be no sharing.
This piece is about helping to spread your ideas virally, it is not a psychology 101 piece. When I talk about a benefit to sharer, this benefit needs to be considered in the broadest sense, so for instance, the sharer may be motivated to share by any one of more of the following reasons:
- The sharer can derive a direct benefit whether financial or in terms of kudos.
- Kindness, perhaps to you, but primarily to the recipient of the sharing. If someone sees something and thinks "this will be useful/interesting for…" then they may share it.
- The item they are sharing is fun/quirky/interesting. In essence, these are variations on the theme of kindness.
- It casts the sharer in a good light, for instance, it makes them look cool/educated/on the cutting edge, and so on.
- It benefits humanity. This is a subset of the themes of kindness and casting the sharer in a good light.
Apart from someone choosing to do you a favor because you have asked them to help, none of these reasons has anything to do with you. And this is the essence of viral marketing: it happens because something about what is spread appeals to the person doing the spreading. The viral marketing happens without you and the message starts to travel without you having any control.
What Goes Viral?
It is also important to understand what can get marketed virally. For an author, there are two aspects that you want to market:
- The product. For most authors, this will usually be their most recent book (but of course, authors always like their back catalog to sell too).
- The brand. The author's brand (in effect, their name/their reputation) is as important, if not more important than any one book.
For the author, both the product and the brand will often confused, indeed, it is often quite hard to separate one from the other, but this is not a bad thing.
However, neither a specific product nor the brand lends itself particularly well to being spread virally. Equally, the messages that would usually be projected through conventional marketing do not necessarily lend themselves to being spread virally.
For instance, you will often want to tell people when a new book is published. Hopefully, you will tell people who will be interested and so will take action following that communication—usually that action would be buying a book. However, simply telling someone that your latest book has been published will not necessarily encourage people to tell other people about your book. Why would they? Their first action may be to buy your book—if they then read it and enjoy it, then they may tell other people. If they're going to start spreading the word, then it could take a while and is dependent on them liking the book.
So this gets us back to the question of what goes viral? And in short, what goes viral is not what sells. What goes viral is what has a benefit to the person who spreads the message. So for instance, a chapter of a book made available electronically could be spread. If a chapter is freely available in this manner (and the copyright relating to the spreading made clear), then there is clear benefit for people to pass copies to their friends. More than that, if the chapter is in electronic format, then the spreader doesn't have to have read the chapter before they spread it (as they would if a chapter were included in a print publication).
By taking a chapter or a chunk of a book, you are creating a "thing" which can be spread, and giving the sharer a clear motivation to share (kindness to the recipient of the sharing).
Compare the simple message of "my new book has just been published" with "here's a chapter to read and share". There are obviously several differences:
- The first directly promotes the product.
- The second offers benefits for the recipient (something free) and offers further benefits (something with which to be kind).
However, the book extract does not reinforce the message that the book is available, nor does it necessarily remind people where they can get the book, so it would appear to be a less than useful marketing tool.
But take a moment to think about this: if you're with me so far that a book extract is far more interesting and is far more likely to be spread, then I'm sure you'll see that it's only a short step to considering how this attention can be converted into action, rather than worrying about not reinforcing a marketing message. And to be frank, if you're going to do more than put your name and web address on anything that gets shared, then people will see what you create as advertising (which won't be shared unless it is very interesting).
The point to emphasize here is that the thing that goes viral is not what you're trying to sell. The viral strategy is all about getting attention and generating interest. Once you've got the interest, then you need to do something with it.
If you want to encourage viral marketing, then you need to look at opportunities to create "things" that can be spread virally. Some examples may include:
- Chapters of a book. You could share one chapter, alternatively, you could share several (or any other chunk, perhaps even the whole book). If you're going to share several chapters, then you could share them over a period of time, perhaps one chapter a week. This could build interest over time and the whole process could then become something people talk about (thereby increasing the viral spread).
- Audio extracts. For instance, you could share an audio version of some of your book, again, perhaps one chapter a week.
- A video of some sort. Again, I'll talk more about these later in this article.
- A prize/competition. While not a "thing" as such, there is a strong motivation to talk about a competition if the prize is sufficiently interesting.
- Anything free. People like free stuff—free stuff that you can share is even better.
Catching Other Viruses
As well as manufacturing your own viruses, it's important to catch other viruses that may be going around. To do this, you need to be "discoverable": in other words, people need to be able to find you.
There are several ways to be discoverable. Let me highlight two:
- Most obviously, you need to be findable by Google and the other major search engines. In short, this requires some good text which includes the appropriate search terms, so for instance, if your book is a medical thriller and the page on your website which describes this book doesn't use the words "medical" and "thriller" then people coming from Google are not going to find you.
- Another basic necessity is hashtags (particularly for Twitter, but also for Google Buzz, YouTube, and many of the other social networks). Hashtags are words or phrases preceded by the hash sign (#hashtags) which are used to indicate the subject of the message or as a shorthand to encapsulate the topic. With the growing use of social media, hashtags are a much quicker way to be found by strangers who are interested in a certain topic. As people increasingly rely on social media rather than search, hashtags will become more significant.
Giving away a section of a book, or even a whole book, is an obvious answer to creating a thing. While giving away a whole book will probably get you some viral spread, this may create an issue for you when you want to convert the viral message into cold hard cash.
But there are also other reasons to be cautious about giving away your whole book, for instance, once you have given away the book, what do you do next? You can't give your book away for a second time.
This is where you need to get creative and make things that people can spread and talk about: one obvious example of a "thing" is a video.
Creating an Ecosystem
Another important part in viral marketing is the ecosystem. You can do a lot to create and foster your own ecosystem. I can probably best illustrate this by talking about my experiences with video.
I've written a number of music-related books, many of those have been about creating noises with synthesizers. Having written the books, it became clear to me that there is a steep initial leaning curve when someone first tries to control the sound creation process with a synthesizer, and that a book wasn't the best way to help someone through those initial steps. There are times when video and audio are the ideal medium to communicate a concept introducing synthesis, and this was one of those times.
So I decided to create Synthesizer Boot Camp, a series of videos introducing synthesizer techniques to new users. I could have made these commercially available, but instead I make them freely available on YouTube. There were a number of reasons for this decision, some of which are relevant to viral marketing, others of which are not. However, every video has my name, logo, and URL on the front, and at the end, there is a direct reference to some of my books on the subject, so there is a good opportunity to sell something on the back of the videos.
YouTube videos are ideal for creating small chunks of information which can be released regularly (rather than a book where you have a large chunk of information released infrequently). For me this meant that I could build up a body of work over time and now I'm in a position where I have about an hour's worth of material introducing people to synthesis.
Of course, the videos are great for viral marketing. People can share the videos—whether by directing people to my website or to my YouTube channel (which then links people back to my website). Also, people can embed videos in their own website or blog, and this is where things get very interesting and a whole ecosystem starts to form. Let me try and explain what happens:
- I have created something that has a use for the viewer. In this instance, I have told them how to create sounds.
- Each video has a "value", but rather than charge, I give it away by making the video embeddable (in this instance, by putting the video on YouTube).
- Anyone can take that video, embed it in their site/blog, and take an element of credit for finding and sharing the video with people who visit their site.
- They can also generate income (for instance, they can put advertising around the video).
- So I do something for free… but someone else generates income and gets some credit for sharing.
- However, I have put my branding on the video, so people can find me.
- Equally, when people see one of my videos, they will be able to find that I'm a knowledgeable person, and the fact that the video is embedded means that I am being endorsed as an "expert".
- Because I create stuff from which others can derive value, those people follow me on YouTube, so they immediately pick up on my new videos. This gives me an immediate distribution network for anything that I create.
- I am getting access to an audience that I may not know about—equally, I am being aggregated with other people, so while a single video (or a small number of videos) may not have critical mass (and without critical mass, sharing is harder and discoverability is lower), I am part of creating the critical mass.
As you can see, through this process I am building an ecosystem where the "embedder" of my videos and me live off each other. And every now and then I can create a video solely about one of my books and this advertising also gets shared throughout the network.
Now, of course, the creation of an ecosystem goes beyond simple viral marketing and video is not the only way to achieve this end. However, there are several reasons to adopt this style of approach in conjunction with the more straightforward techniques:
- First, you have a group of people who will share—very often these people are at the center of hubs and are well-connected. You are tapping into a group of people who are looking for material to use for their own purposes and who have a group of followers ready to consume the material that is being shared.
- You are reaching a wider group of people than you could reach on your own—even if you reach everybody who sees your first video (or whatever else passes into the ecosystem), there will be people who come along afterwards, so you will reach existing people and the new people that have been found.
Measuring the Success
The temptation with any marketing is to try to measure it. This is particularly sensible if you are spending money on marketing when you will want to assess your return-on-investment.
But viral marketing is different, and let me be frank; you can't measure its success. Or rather, you can't assess the cause and then measure the effect. You cannot know what you have done that leads someone to start sharing. Equally, you cannot accurately assess the extent to which any end results (such as web traffic or increased sales) have been due to sharing.
Viral marketing requires a very different mindset to that needed for conventional marketing. It also requires much more patience—you cannot know how or when anything you do will get picked up and shared. Equally, you cannot know how long something will last… and these things can last a long time. To give you an example, in early 2005 I started giving away a free copy of my book How to Make a Noise. I'm still giving away copies and I'm still selling hard copies of the book too.
However, there are some obvious measures you can put in place:
- First, you can track web statistics. If you're going to following statistics, then you should start tracking the performance of your website at the earliest opportunity. That way, you will be able to measure the before and after level of your stats, so you can see how many views you are getting before and after you publish a video (or share another "thing").
- You can track generally or specifically—for instance you can tag your links to make them more trackable. The Google Analytics help pages explain the process in more detail.
- As well as measuring how many visits you get, you can find how many inbound links you have. The number of inbound links is a (crude) measure of how much interest you have generated. Equally, these links give you an interesting view on what sort of people are interested in what you have to say.
- Another crude measure is available at YouTube where you can see how many times one of your videos has been viewed. If you believe you have competitors, then you can check out their comparative statistics. YouTube also gives you Google Analytics-like statistics so you can gain an insight into who may be viewing your videos.
Perhaps the most obvious measure of viral activity is if you find some interest arising from something that you didn't initiate.
I'm not a fan of saying "don't do this", but there are many mistakes, both of commission and omission, when you want to encourage viral spread. Here are some examples to think about:
- Saying "please tell all your friends" or "please re-Tweet this message". This doesn't work and isn't a scalable strategy. OK… let me finesse this point: when you first ask for help, people may be quite willing to pass on a message. The second request is a drag, and with the third request you will be alienating people leading to them unfollowing and unfriending you. In short, the repetition of the request is going to cut you off from your source of income and make you look desperate.
- Making it hard for people to pass on the message. For instance, you will see that every page on this site has a range of share buttons. These buttons may not do much but (1) they remind people that they can share, and (2) they make it easier to share.
- If you are using a system where the URL of a page isn't clear, then they won't be able to share, or if they do, then people may end up in the wrong place negating the point of sharing.
- Associating your material with a negative message. For instance, if you are writing a book featuring a serial killer, then you may have trouble getting any viral traction if it appears that you endorse violence.
- Relying solely on a specific group of people. The purpose is to reach people who you wouldn't normally reach. If you're just marketing to people within an effectively closed community—for instance, you're only marketing to authors—then before too long your message is going to bounce back to you. Once you find yourself in an echo chamber, you have lost.
- Confusing something that interests you with something that interests other people. Just because something interests you, that doesn't mean anyone else will care. Remember, there has to be a benefit to the sharer.
- Trying to control the message. You can try, but you can only do so much. For instance, if you create a video, it may be shared. However, it may be shared as an example of the worst video ever made…
There are many other mistakes. But this is a good list to start with.
If your sole marketing strategy is a viral marketing strategy, then you have no strategy—you cannot "make" viral marketing happen. However, you should focus on the areas where you do have control. In particular, you can:
- Create an environment where the viral spread of your message is supported (and in particular, any friction is removed).
- Ensure that you are able to benefit if your message starts to spread virally.
The second point should not be ignored. Even if you take no action to help, encourage, or support the viral spread, you may still go viral. If you're not ready to take advantage of your message spreading, then you will lose out on a heap of free advertising.
In creating the environment, remember, people don't do this because you ask. People share because it brings value to them. This value may be financial, kindness, kudos, or fun.