Viral Marketing Online II: How to Spread the Bug

You’ve got yourself a stellar online experience, a mean, green construction of persuasion architecture that meets your visitors’ needs in all possible ways – for viral stuff to work, you have to begin with substance and value. Now you’re ready to encourage your visitors to become word-of-mouth marketers, spreading your glory deeper into cyberspace.

Most people who are pleased with you and your product or service are happy to spread the word. You just have to make sure you ask them to do this by providing the opportunity. The opportunity you provide is a call to action.

A call to share

At a minimum, your call to action must satisfy five requirements. It must:

  • Visually stand out from the clutter of the page

  • Be optimally placed

  • Be instantly understandable

  • Be worded as a clear call to action

  • Provide clear instructions for how to act

You can take an even more active role and move beyond mere suggestion by offering your visitors an incentive to spread the word. If you decide to offer a reward structure:

  • Keep the reward intrinsic – a contest entry, a coupon, points against future activity.

  • Make the offer unambiguous

The button versus the link

In viral marketing, clicks are the conversational way people share your site with others. You provide click opportunities with buttons and links, designed and placed so they are obvious and easy to use.

A button is eye-catching and graphical. A link is textual. Both serve their respective purposes – your choice will depend on what you refer and the context for the referral.

  • If you want people to share content items on your web site – articles or white papers – a button is generally a more effective way to grab attention.

  • If the context is your site as a whole or a specific product or a service on your site, choose a button. Use graphical buttons that will load in virtually all browsers regardless of bandwidth.

  • If the context is e-mail, whether you are mailing your own opt-in list, doing a targeted promotion or simply sending "Thank you" e-mails when customers submit an order, use a link. Not everyone reads an HTML version of your communication, and even if they did, buttons can easily get chewed to bits in cyberspace when moving across platforms and programs.

A good rule of thumb is site = button, e-mail = link.

Your button

Your button should not take up too much above-the-fold real estate, but shouldn't be so small that it’s no longer “visually available.” Simplicity is the key – a pleasing and eye-catching design that doesn’t offend the viewer (no inappropriate icons, strobing effects, or horrific colors). If your users can’t figure out your button, they're probably not going to use it. Clearly spell out what the button is for and how folks go about using it.

Buttons belong at the points in your process where your visitors are focused and motivated. The best location for a product referral is the page where the product appears by itself or where it is differentiated from other products. At this point, the diversion of a referral is least likely to disrupt your visitors in their overall conversion path. If you place your button too early in the conversion process, while your visitors are still qualifying their needs, you risk distracting them from their own site goals. If you place your button within a checkout scenario, you risk losing the referral and your visitor to shopping cart abandonment.

When you provide a referral tool for an article or white paper, put a button at the beginning for shorter pieces, and at both the beginning and the end for pieces that require scrolling.

Other prime locations for referral buttons, depending on your site and your needs, include your home page, your product or service pages and special offers announcements. Determine what you want visitors to pass along and place your buttons accordingly. Place the button close to names, icons or logos that are, in themselves, attention-grabbing, while keeping the important elements of your conversion process “above the fold” as much as possible.

Your link

You can embed a link in a larger block or text or let it stand alone as its own design element. Phrase your referral link as a call to action: pair an imperative verb with an implicit benefit.

Placement guidelines for links mirror those for buttons.  Put links at the point where visitors are fully focused - at the beginning of an article, when they're first interested in the material, and at the end when they've read it. In e-mail, place your viral marketing links at the point where you've given your readers the strongest incentive to act on their own behalves. If you place the link well before or after your compelling reason to take action, you undermine your visitor's interest in making the referral.

Just the facts, ma’am

You aren’t screening candidates for a space mission, you are simply sending George something Fred thought he’d appreciate. Of course you have ulterior motives, but as far as your visitors are concerned, they’re conversing with each other about what matters to them, not you. You’re just the facilitating agent in their conversation. So keep a low profile. In handling the referral on Fred’s behalf, ask only for the bare minimum of information necessary to make the exchange: Fred’s name and George’s email address. The second you start requiring Fred to fill in information he’s quite certain you don’t need is the second you lose a referral. Possibly even a customer.

The requisite point-of-action assurance

Every time you provide a visitor with an opportunity to take action, you also create uncertainty. Your visitor wonders: What happens when I click here? Will I be stuck with this decision? Is it safe for me to take this action? What happens to my information? Do you offer a guarantee? You answer your visitors’ questions through reassuring copy placed at the call to action: Subscribe (we value your privacy); Submit your Order (your satisfaction is guaranteed); Enter your Credit Card (this session is secure); Add to Cart (you can always remove it later); Download Whitepaper (no strings attached). The conversion effect of these reassurances is astounding!

Privacy of information is the major hurdle you must address in soliciting referrals. You are asking your visitor to give you contact information for someone else, and this someone else has not agreed to be on your email list (yet) or to have personal information distributed to third parties. Friends don’t like to put friends at risk.

  • Clearly state what comprises the referral

  • Offer a point-of-action assurance that the provided email address will only be used for this referral and won’t be added to your data base

  • Reinforce your integrity by honoring your word

When individuals start seeing lots of unsolicited email related to a referral they got from a friend, your viral campaign starts generating negative publicity that can seriously damage your credibility. Don’t even think of allowing this to happen!


Test, measure and optimize … it’s one of our biggest mantras around here. Don’t just assume you know what is going to get the largest number of folks clicking. Test it! One element at a time. Test the design, the language, the size, the color, the location.  Stay tuned for more about the analytics side of viral marketing in my next issue.

Tell a friend

Whether you can benefit from peoples’ predisposition to share the good, the bad and the ugly with each other depends first and foremost on your ability to create the comprehensive online experience that makes people want to tell their friends - you really want them promoting rather than deriding!  Only when you have brilliantly sorted the value side of the equation are you ready to provide the tools that help folks share.

Online viral marketing offers an appealing, cost-effective way to get your audience marketing on your behalf, but always keep in mind this strategy is predicated on customers helping customers – as with most things online, it’s all about them, not you. Internalize that message, develop accordingly, and you too can reap the rewards of all those conversations taking place over virtual fences and cyber coffee cups.

Volume 115: 7/15/05

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