It's the internet sales tool par excellence ­ simple word of mouth. Matthew Tod explains the power of viral marketing A new marketing tool has been born on the internet ­ viral marketing. Sounds offputting but viral marketing is simply a new name for the oldest, most powerful communication vehicle in the world ­ word of mouth. There is now a booming business in marketing programs that generate word of mouth promotion by creating messages or offers compelling enough to be spread by the people exposed to them. And it's getting easier for them to spread those opinions. The internet lets consumers share their opinions globally, in a simple low cost way through tools like e-mail and newsgroups. In a recent survey it was found that word of mouth is the most important driver of visits to a web site. Some 57% of respondents cited word of mouth as the reason they visited, far ahead of traditional media such as TV at 12% or printed adverts at 20%. For the young online target audience, word of mouth is of even greater significance ­ 65% say it is the main reason they visit a web site [Jupiter Communications 1999 ­ Guerrilla Marketing]. The same survey noted that the average pass-on rate for a recommendation is 3.37 people. It doesn't require great mathematical prowess to work out that if you could launch a viral marketing program to 100 customers and get them to pass on the message to 3.37 people, within 10 turns of the program you would reach more than five million people. So, if you can devise a program to get your customers to pass along your message to their friends, you have a viral marketing program. Good examples include the Kiss campaign run by Scope Mouthwash in the US, which allowed people to e-mail a customised, animated e-mail kiss to their friends. Millions of people sent e-mail kisses and were exposed to the branding message carried with it. The result was a measurable increase in brand awareness and intention to purchase. Another example was the launch campaign that featured a prize draw. People were encouraged to enter their friends, who were then emailed saying that they had been entered, and would they like to enter anyone else? The examples illustrate the one fundamental of viral marketing that you cannot avoid ­ your service or product must be good enough for people to want to pass on details to their friends. You can dress up mutton as lamb for a short while, but in the end the truth will out. Do not think that viral marketing is a substitute for brand advertising ­ it is not a brand building tool. But it is an ideal tool for driving traffic to your web site in short, highly intense bursts. Good creative ideas that bring a smile to people's faces are the key. Hopefully, the idea is so good that no incentive is needed, but these are rare and hard to achieve, so the number of incentivised campaigns is growing. The key to a good program is really understanding the target audience, and then working out what will engage them. This can only be achieved by spending time talking directly to the end user, and then using that information to inspire the creative team. In the ideal scenario, users of your web site will create a viral program themselves. This has been tried successfully by the record and film industry as a means of harnessing the genuine enthusiasm of fans, but as yet we have not seen it in the grocery sector. This type of marketing program is one of the most traceable forms of marketing ­ you can count the numbers of people involved, the redemption rates, even the number of e-mails that get opened, so there is no excuse for not knowing the value of the campaign This new found power to reach consumers and use them as your own sales agents has to be treated with care, however. You cannot push too hard without causing offence and you need to remember word of mouth can be used negatively as well as positively. One program which went wrong is an Ikea campaign in the US that offered visitors up to $75 off their next purchase if they forwarded details of the promotion to 10 other people. After one week they had 37,000 participants, but also a stream of e-mail from unhappy people objecting to the Spam (junk e-mail). As a result, Ikea was forced to abandon the viral elements of the promotion, and offer money off to all customers who registered. The outlook is bright for viral marketing, but only if it is used responsibly. Over time, it will become increasingly sophisticated. There will be event-driven and date-sensitive e-mail programmes to cut through the online clutter. Events will move from being vendor focused (sales, special offers, member rewards) to customer focused (Wimbledon, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race). Viral marketing will also become increasingly integrated with other marketing activities, both on and offline. Expect to see the Andrex puppy up to no good on a web site near you. Matthew Tod is chief executive of Publicis Technology, an Internet Architect and marketing agency whose clients include Asda, MFI, Hewlett Packard and BT. Contact {{MANAGEMENT FEATURE }}