Word spreads about viral influence
Dr Margaret-Anne Lawlor writes about how viral marketing is imposing its presence
A recent promotion in the UK drew attention to an intriguing integrated campaign where a promotion and its dissemination by way of direct marketing generated huge publicity. The customer reward promotion for Threshers off-licences was an online voucher offering 40 per cent discounts to specific suppliers.
The voucher could be used in any of the 2,500 Threshers UK stores, against the purchase of wine and champagne up to an amount of £500. The recipients were also invited to pass the voucher on to friends and family.
AROMA THERAPY: Starbucks had to get its coffee chain in order when a promotion proved too good to be true. A regional coupon giveaway got more response than intended after it was extended to internet users across the US and soon had to be abandoned.
The voucher was then syndicated online via chatrooms, blogs and email. Such was its appeal that it was the top hit for Google one day in December, while queues formed at some Threshers stores with shoppers seeking redemptions.
Some commentators alluded to this as a promotion that was too good to be true. The Times claimed the offer had spun out of control. Threshers acknowledged on the BBC news website that the offer "was never intended to get this big…this is a better offer than normal and it could end up hitting our profit margins".
A parallel can be drawn between this campaign and what Starbucks did in the US last summer. A number of Starbucks employees in the south east were emailed a coupon offering a free iced drink. As envisaged by the coffee chain, these employees circulated the coupons to family and friends.
But things got out of control when the coupon was made available to consumers across the US via the internet and Starbucks had no choice but to end the promotion. Some consumers were unhappy about their coupons not being honoured in coffee shops and began taking legal action in the hope of being awarded bigger bucks.
But an interesting lesson from the Threshers' and Starbucks' cases is the power of customer word of mouth/word of mouse harnessed by the nature of such viral campaigns. Viral is a fairly new form of marketing based on a small number of people being exposed to advertising or promotional campaigns.
The 'targets' circulate details to family and friends by word of mouth, email or text and become brand ambassadors. Viral marketing relies on customers who act as reference groups, or opinion leaders, in their social circles and cliques.
The critical consideration is that the marketing message can carry more weight with the ultimate recipients due to the power of personal endorsement, as opposed to a mainstream message originating from a commercial interest.
Viral has also been driven by consumers who may be jaded with and sceptical towards traditional broadcast advertising. They may baulk at companies perceived to be actively wishing to influence their brand preferences and behaviours.
Generation Y tend to be attracted to viral marketing. They are consumers born between 1977 and the mid-1980s. Gen Ys tend to be 'techies' and fans of social networking sites such as MySpace, Bebo and YouTube.
They resist mainstream overtures from companies but may be attracted to under-the-radar forms of marketing where they feel that they are not only part of a select group, but are setting the agenda, as opposed to the instigating marketer.
But viral marketing involves companies setting the agenda and actively seeking to influence consumers. A good example is Burger King's Subservient Chicken website used to promote a chicken burger. The site showed a man dressed as a chicken who was seen to obey commands typed in by the online visitor.
The agency behind the concept claimed the site attracted 15 million hits. Apparently, only 20 people were initially told about the site. The success was based on Burger King attracting early visitors to the site who then passed on the word to friends.
Another viral benefit is that it can help the marketer in generating customer information which can be captured and employed in direct marketing (DM). An emerging trend with clothing shops in Ireland and the UK is to promote 'secret sales'.
It involves customers who are existing members of the retailer's database being offered an online promotion, such as 20 per cent off any stock bought by a certain date. They then send the voucher to family and friends for their use.
To benefit from the voucher, they must give their name, postal address and email. Other information such as date of birth and occupation may also be sought. The marketer, with the customer's permission, then adds their details to a database.
The social networking aspect of viral marketing means that information about and access to a DM offer, such as the Threshers online voucher, originates through word of mouth as opposed to the marketer communicating it unsolicited.
Dr Margaret-Anne Lawlor is lecturer in marketing communications at the faculty of business in DIT
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