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When Viral Marketing Turns Epidemic

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Does anybody out there use Yahoo Messenger’s chat rooms?  If your answer is “not anymore” you’d be in the majority.  If your answer is “yes,” then you’re probably a viral marketing robot.

This post on theYahoo Messenger blog a little while ago inspired 872 comments.  The post was supposed to be about some technical problems that Yahoo is having, but the common thread in all the comments is that all the accessible chat rooms are full of bots making automatic sales pitches.  These bots need eyeballs to justify their existence, and they’ve driven those eyeballs away en masse.  Yahoo’s chat rooms have instead become echoing chambers where bots hawk products to each other.  This isn’t viral marketing anymore.  It’s become an epidemic.

The first online viral marketing success story that I remember was with the independent movie The Blair Witch Project.  The filmmakers cleverly promoted it as a true story using a TV show, the press, and guerilla marketing to drive traffic to the film’s Website.  Although I can find no proof of this, if memory serves, the filmmakers also hired people to go into chat rooms and promote the film, also as being “real.”

The film may not have been real, but the buzz it generated certainly was.  The public consciousness elevated it to epic proportions, to the point where I suffered through an hour and a half of motion sickness just to be a part of this event.  Their viral marketing campaign worked like a charm because it was original, fresh, and, most importantly, people believed it.

Good luck pulling that off nowadays.  People can smell a robot in a chat room from a mile away.  Viral email chains, you know, those annoying emails you sometimes get from your friends that say “if you forward this to ten friends, we’ll give you half off,” have more or less gone by the wayside.  And user-generated product reviews have been completely polluted by the epidemic.  Web users are well aware that positive book reviews on Amazon might be written by the writer, the editor, or the publisher posing as an anonymous reader.  At the same time, a negative review might be written by a jealous rival with an axe to grind. 

Word to viral marketers out there, don’t insult your audience by sending out robots to pose as people, posting anonymous user feedback, or creating incentives for people to annoy their friends.  The audience knows that you’re not one of them, that you are in fact a businessman with an agenda.  The only way to gain the audience’s trust, and the key to viral marketing in the age of the tech-savvy consumer, is reaching influencers.  And as the Internet becomes increasingly social, you’ll be able to find ways to reach influencers.

The most likely candidates for online influencers are power users.  They’re the people who modify their Facebook profiles every day, and communicate constantly with other users.  Online communities are getting closer and closer to being able to track these power users and discern their likes and dislikes. 

Suppose that one power user is connected to two hundred people on Facebook.  Those two hundred people might get a message from Facebook saying that their friend (the power user) has just watched the trailer for a certain movie, or just bought a handbag from a certain designer, or a certain brand of jeans.  Maybe one of those two hundred people is also a power user, who then goes out and buys the same product that the original power user bought.  Now the second power user’s two hundred friends get the same message, and so on. 

If online communities can offer a package similar to what I’ve described to advertisers (and rumor has it that they’re getting closer and closer) that will be the new word of mouth.  Because if you think about it, face to face meetings with friends are gradually being replaced by phone meetings, chat sessions, and social networking Websites. 

On the other hand, chat room robots, viral emails, and user generated feedback have done the one thing that a successful virus never does–they’ve killed their hosts.

When Viral Marketing Turns Epidemic
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