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FutureNow Article
Monday, Oct. 22, 2007

Going Nuts Over Viral Marketing & Word-of-Mouth

By Robert Gorell
October 22nd, 2007

Is viral marketing the same as word of mouth? Seth Godin asked the question after receiving an email from a college student whose professor wouldn’t allow the phrase “viral marketing” in a paper, insisting the term was meaningless proxy for word-of-mouth.

First of all, yes, viral marketing does exist. But it’s a combination of tactics that, hopefully, eventually, enable positive word of mouth to spread. (In a moment, I’ll share a remarkable story of one family-owned e-commerce shop that saved a network TV show from extinction with a few viral marketing tactics, a strong will, and 20 tons of nuts. But first… ) Let’s take a look at how Godin explains the difference between viral marketing and word of mouth:

Word of mouth is a decaying function. A marketer does something and a consumer tells five or ten friends. And that’s it. It amplifies the marketing action and then fades, usually quickly. A lousy flight on United Airlines is word of mouth. A great meal at Momofuku is word of mouth.

Viral marketing is a compounding function. A marketer does something and then a consumer tells five or ten people. Then then they tell five or ten people. And it repeats. And grows and grows. Like a virus spreading through a population. The marketer doesn’t have to actually do anything else. (They can help by making it easier for the word to spread, but in the classic examples, the marketer is out of the loop.) The Mona Lisa is an ideavirus.

Word of mouth expert Andy Sernovitz sees it a (slightly) different way:

Word of mouth marketing is the big category. Viral marketing is one of the many techniques used to help word of mouth travel (usually by email).

Think of it this way:

  • “Advertising” includes TV, print, billboards, etc.
  • “Direct Marketing” includes catalogs, mail, telemarketing, etc.
  • “Interactive” includes web, search, email, etc.

and

  • “Word of Mouth Marketing” includes viral, blogs, communities, etc.

Are these two very smart people that far apart in their thinking? If not the category itself, it seems both would agree that word of mouth is the ultimate goal of viral marketing. So, when Godin calls word of mouth “a decaying function,” what he means is that it’s an effect that can be nurtured with various marketing tactics (e.g., blogs, video, remarkable PR). The surest key to successful viral marketing is having a great product. But the other key is having that something extra, that, je-ne-sais-quoi that, as Godin likes to say, makes a company a purple cow.

When the CBS drama Jericho was canceled earlier in the year, the folks at NutsOnline.com saw a chance to sell — literally — tons of product by rallying a wave of new customers to send nuts to the network’s midtown Manhattan offices. Using viral marketing tactics to attract fans of the show, NutsOnline bombarded CBS with 40,000 pounds of nuts from Jericho fans around the world. But here’s the amazing part: The network listened, and pledged to return the show to its schedule.

This video shows how it all came together:

Not only did NutsOnline save their favorite show by selling $55k worth of nuts, they gained tons of positive word of mouth — and new customers — in the process. (Read the letter from CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler or watch this video for details.)

As a matter of disclosure, both NutsOnline and CBS are clients of Future Now. We weren’t involved in the Jericho campaign, but we remain very proud of the outside-the-shell thinking from both companies; NutsOnline for seeing the opportunity to save the show (they got the idea because one of the characters says “Nuts!” a lot at the end of the show instead of surrendering*), and CBS for being savvy enough to respond so gracefully and smart enough to use existing grassroots support to attract viewers. (I had never even heard of the show until it was off the air!)

In a nutshell, viral marketing is only as good as the concept it promotes — something granular enough for people to grok instantly. Otherwise, the result is difficult to digest, let alone share. Don’t you think?

Seth is right, by the way. Momofuku is a great restaurant — but don’t take my word for it. As far as the 3 triggers of word of mouth are concerned, Momo is both kinetic and generous. And apparently, you might run into famous people like Jodie Foster or Seth Godin.

[*UPDATE: My colleague Jeff Sexton informs me that "Nuts!" really is taken from The Battle of the Budge Bulge -- easy now -- in which U.S. General McAuliffe gave the response to the German Commander's eloquent call for surrender. Sorry for missing the tie-in, Jericho fans. Please don't send truckloads of peanuts to my alma mater. ;) ]

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Comments (12)

  1. Since I set up the blog Lehman’s Country Life I have seen an increase in traffic to our retail site lehmans.com. The word of mouth/viral marketing concept is nothing new, the idea of blogging is just a new channel. One note I would like to underscore about the success of the nutsonline effort: it was obviously born from a passion. I read elsewhere that one of the secrets of connecting is passion.

  2. Greg,

    You’re absolutely right about passion. Customers are human hypocrisy detectors. Watered-down viral marketing feels store-bought, fresh from the board room. At best, customers ignore passionless viral marketing efforts. At worst, they spread negative word-of-mouth about the brand.

    Yes, blogging is just one new channel — and it’s probably not the answer for every company. But what I find especially interesting about NutsOnline is that they took hold of someone else’s campaign to save this show they happened to love, and they quickly coordinated the entirety of their small company’s sales, distribution and PR efforts to show how much they supported their newfound customers. Ultimately, they were rewarded with a lot of great publicity and word-of-mouth. And, although that word-of-mouth may still be decaying, as Godin insists, there’s plenty more brand awareness than there was pre-Jericho — and the bigger customer base that goes with it.

    Glad to hear that blogging has helped Lehmans.com!

  3. As you can see in the video, nutsonline.com did not contact anyone. They had no idea what was happening. The orders just started coming in on May 17th. The campaign swept the company into it. They did not know who or what Jericho was at the time.

    Where did those orders come from? A fan had the idea to send nuts. Another had the idea where to order from. So the campaign took off and Jericho fans were lucky enough to sweep nutsonline into it – they embraced it and Jericho fans everywhere are grateful for it. They went above and beyond what I think most companies would do, and it paid off for them. They’re now Jericho fans themselves to boot. :)

    During the campaign, fans networked, e-mailed, had mailing lists, had conference calls, sent bulletins, kept chatter going on fan boards on a daily/nightly basis. There were other methods to the madness. Fans paid for full page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter(x2). Most nut shipments were documented via video and posted on youtube and spread throughout communities. Each new video or graphic was inspiring and created renewed energy among campaigners.

    Passion. I think you’ve got it right there. A passionate and determined fan base that was unrelenting, desperate to show the network they had made a mistake by canceling Jericho. We weren’t giving up until they got the message. The campaign was very fluid. A hundred different “Save” tactics were being discussed as “the next step” but at the same time everyone in the moment moved in the same direction.

    When nutsonline.com embraced the campaign, that added more fuel to the exciting journey. They blogged as they watched the first season. We were able see them “become” fans. In everything most fans do now, is stick by those businesses who were involved in the campaign. So although there is decay to some extent, it’s probably not quite as much as most main stream marketers think.

  4. Correction: Battle of the Bulge — The troops were trying to do much more than “budge” the enemy.

  5. My two–pennyworth from over here in the UK is that virtually [sorry] all e–marketing / e–commerce terms and phrases are still evolving and it will be a while before things sort themselves out.

    My issue with the story is that there are ‘professors’ [presumably in marketing?] out there who are [a] bad teachers because they try to stop students thinking for themselves, and [b] not open to what is happening in contemporary marketing. Shame on them.

    As one Simpsons episode cried: ‘think of the children’. That poor student is going to come out of college ill–prepared for a contemporary working environment.

    As if it really matters, I go along with Steve Jurvetson – who is attributed with coming up with the phrase – that viral marketing is ‘network-enhanced word of mouth’. I also think that everything is based on the concept of the traditional ‘word of mouth’, but viral is a more strategic concept ie a ‘message’ is deliberately conceived and put out in the public domain – WoM was always down to chance.

    Disclosure : Yes, I am a lecturer in marketing.

  6. Trish: Thank you so much for writing in, and for sharing your insider’s perspective on this campaign. It’s inspiring to see such a unique relationship evolve between a business and its customers.

    S. Evans: Thanks for the typo correction. :)

    Alan: Very good points. Yes, this conversation’s just begun, and the definitions will continue to evolve. Always reassuring to hear from a teacher who’s not as rigid as the bloke Seth was addressing.

  7. I see interchangeable uses of many terms: Viral, Worth of Mouth, Guerrilla, etc. I agree with Alan – the conversation has started and definitions are evolving, yet these tactics have existed for much longer than their name du jour. Let me make an attempt at categorizing some of these terms. I welcome all your thoughts and comments!

    Word of Mouth (WOM): Impulsively sharing a (hopefully) great product/service experience with other people. The product has to be inherently great; a purple cow (to use Seth Godin’s words) disrupting the existing market. Some great brands were built by virtually word of mouth alone. Examples:

    • Google
    • The Body Shop
    • Yellow Tail Wines
    • Pretty much any product before the advent of mass advertising

    Word of mouth is inherently viral – each recipient of the communication (positive or negative) can in turn forward/tell multiple successive recipients, thus potentially resulting in exponential growth of the “infected” base.

    Product Viral (Based on product exposure): The product usually allows for a 2-way (or more) interaction requiring only the sender to have the service. The recipient of that communication is exposed to the product/service and decides to adopt it as well. Examples:

    • Hotmail: Receiving a free email
    • GoToMeeting: Attending an online meeting
    • FedEx: Receiving an overnight package
    • Western Union: Receiving cash

    A good product experience, especially for the recipient, is necessary to ensure that exposure to the brand evolves into adoption. The advantage lies in the reduced dependency on customers’ spontaneous WOM activities.

    Social Product Viral (Need to use the same product) The product usually allows for a 2-way (or more) interaction but everybody participating in the interaction must use the same product (usually) to enjoy its benefits. Examples:

    • AIM or Skype: All users need to use the same chat/voice program to interact with each other for free
    • Facebook: All users need to be Facebook users to exchange and see information
    • MCI Friends and Family: All subscribers had to use MCI (long-distance telephone service) in order to qualify for bigger discounts

    This tactic still relies on the endorsement (WOM) from users to convince others to sign up. It has had great success with many brands, but it also carries a risk: If the value proposition is not strong enough to overcome the “sign-up inertia,” it will not be heavily adopted.

    Entertainment Carrier: Something is passed along for entertainment purposes, and the brand is somehow associated with the communication piece. Examples:

    • Monk-e-mail (http://www.careerbuilder.com/monk-e-mail/)
    • Snakes on a plane (http://dev.snakesonaplane.varitalk.com, now offline)
    • Fight for kisses TV spot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuSBCIV1zuQ)
    • Big Ad TV spot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eH3GH7Pn_eA)

    Probably the riskiest strategy of all. The pass-along rate is completely dependent on the entertainment value of the item. As everybody who is involved in entertainment-content creation knows, there are many more failures than successes. Even for successful items, like the ones above, the original brand might not see any tangible benefit beyond a higher awareness of its name. Examples include Budweiser’s popular “Wassup” campaign and Carlton Draft “Big Ad” TV spot. While immensely popular, both failed to produce positive business results for their brands.

  8. Having a viral product beats viral marketing. Saying you need a great product to have great viral marketing misses the mark. What you don’t want is the bad news catching up with the positive viral marketing. You can make plenty of money between the reception of both of those messages.

    Product marketing usually has very little to do with marcom, so the viral nature of the product and the marketing are independent. A viral product will make the marketing look viral.

  9. Hello Robert Gorell,
    Thank you for this article.
    I believe, today the best viral campaigne is aladygma, if you know it.

  10. Thanks for the post. Interaction with others is an really important factor for marketing. Different strategies can be applied but the ones e hear from others that we belive makes the difference and brings the success.

  11. How funny that a little thing like nuts can make such a big difference. Good for the peanut company taking advantage of the opportunity. Very well executed campaign by the fans of Jericho.

  12. [...] recently wrote that exponential marketing was the same as viral marketing. .. and of course viral marketing is the same as word-of-mouth marketing you might [...]

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