With viral marketing, the principal objective is to increase awareness of a product, service or concept using word-of-mouth behaviours. To put it into context, where spam is based on massive distribution of unsolicited emails, viral emails use popular social networking aspects to achieve their goal of reaching the masses.
The development of a viral email is pretty straightforward. An individual will receive a message that can be of any nature really (something with a humorous tone is almost always effective, but try not to insult), which they then pass on to their friends using the “forward to a friend” or “share on a social network” button, strategically placed in the email campaign. Secondary recipients can clearly see and trust where the email comes from and therefore the chance of it getting opened is greatly increased. They in turn then do the same thing, and so forth. The concept is similar to that of an email chain letter, except of course there is no explicit requirement to forward it. A viral email is spread because the content that’s in it is relevant and (this is important), there is true value in passing it on.
A viral email is very similar to a real virus, and is in fact where the name comes from. Think about it like this: a virus starts out as a single entity, with the potential to increase exponentially to the point that it dominates. It uses a host and their resources to grow, replicate and double with each interaction. Clever little organisms really, the hard work is done for them, they just have to find the right host to start out with – much like choosing the right recipients for your first viral email campaign.
Recently there have been great examples of hugely successful viral email marketing campaigns. One that you might be familiar with is that of Threshers – the UK off-licence retail chain. They emailed vouchers to staff and suppliers, which were then redistributed by them. This proved so successful that many branches ran out of stock when people went to cash in on the deal. On top of this, the story made headlines all over Europe and the Internet was filled with news of this viral campaign. According to Threshers, however, it was not an intended viral email campaign. Due to its phenomenal success, they initiated a similar campaign the following year, with similar levels of success.
Hotmail.com is another superb example of a viral email campaign that resulted in a number of people registering for a free Hotmail account climbing rapidly into the millions, literally within a few days. The strategy was unbelievably simple; each email that was sent out from an existing Hotmail account had a tag at the end of it which read: “Get your private, free email at www.hotmail.com.“
To give you an idea of the potential success of a viral email here are some stats, courtesy of EmailStatCenter:
- 20% of Facebook, MySpace and/or Twitter users have posted or shared something from a permission-based email to their social account(s) via a share option.
- 32% of marketers say they'd share promotional email offers with members inside a social network and open emails from others.
Based on the above examples and stats, you might very well be thinking at this stage that it’s something you’d be interested in trying out. Here are 7 best practices for you to follow to help ensure your viral email campaign gets sent off without a hitch.
1. Make it Unique
Think about what makes you respond to an email and take action. It’s probably because it contains something unique, something that makes you laugh or shocks you, something that excites you or maybe even something that makes you rethink your perspective on an important issue. You want your campaign to have a similar effect, so think very carefully about your content and the information you are about to potentially have sent to thousands of people. Think outside of the box and don’t be too quick to fall back on ideas that normally work. People are naturally curious about anything that's 'new' and your fresh approach could help you reach higher levels of success.
2. Offer a Reward of Substantial Value
Make sure what you are offering has substantial value – this can be in the form of giving something away for free (products, services, white papers or reports for example) or offering a tempting discount or coupon (with an expiry date.) Of course, if your offer is of material value make sure that you have enough stock, or the capacity to deliver on your promise, in a timely manner. There is little worse than offering a reward and not being able to make good on it. You’ll immediately lose the trust of your customers and any further campaigns you send out will inevitably get ignored. On the other hand, deliver as promised and word of your company will spread like wildfire.
3. Send to a Select Target Audience
You don’t want to appear as a spammer, which is why your initial email should be sent to a select audience. It’s also why you’re going to tell your recipients not to just forward the message any old way to any old person. If they’re going to pass it on, it’s important that they use the special ‘forward to a friend’ or ‘share’ button in the body of your email. This will allow you to track it easily and get the stats you need, as opposed to if they just forwarded the email regularly, in which case you won’t be able to track it from that point on.
A viral email might start off small, like a real virus, but it grows and spreads extremely fast. Remember that offering incentives for forwarding may increase the amount of forwarding but it might also increase the chances that recipients will spam their entire mailing list, which could have negative effects on your company’s brand. Therefore it’s vital that you make it clear to your readers that they too should be highly selective over who they choose to share the email with.
4. Check and Optimize Your Message Format
Have you checked the format for your message? Do you have an HTML and plain text message and have you optimized it for recipients that open and share emails on mobile devices? According to an article on Econsultany.com, 20% of email sent by retailers are opened on a mobile device. Use this to your advantage and plan strategically.
5. Bold Branding and Logo Placement
How clear is your branding, logo, website and contact details, are they immediately visible? Without this, it won't matter how huge your campaign becomes if it can’t be attributed to you then what’s the point?
6. As Always – Don’t Forget a Call to Action
Make sure you’re telling your recipients exactly what they need to do and how. Including a strong call to action in your email might be advice that’s drummed in your ears all the time, but it’s for good reason. If you don’t tell someone what they need to do, they won’t do it. Simple. In the case of a viral email, your call to action might be along the lines of “share on your social networks” or “forward this to a friend now”. Make sure this feature is also immediately visible.
7. Your Follow-Up Campaign
Based on the stats and feedback you get when you’ve sent out your first campaign, you could consider sending up a follow-up campaign, targeting those that responded positively to your efforts the first time. This could be in the form of a survey of the campaign results; people are often interested to see how their actions affect the overall results of a project. If you previously sent a video you could consider sending the unedited version, especially if it has humorous footage. This will also help you appear as more ‘human’ to your customers. Another idea would be to let them know if you have any further promotions or specials running or remind them where they can redeem their vouchers or coupons if you included one in your first campaign as a reward for forwarding your message.
Although concocting a viral email campaign might be considered ‘fun’, if only to see how far it goes, it’s vital that you still follow best practices to help ensure that it adheres to anti-spam laws and reaches the inbox of your target audience. The purpose of your campaign remains the same as that of a traditional email campaign in that it is there to inform your subscribers, make an offer, share important (or humorous) news, create awareness for your brand and ultimately develop lasting relationships with your customers.