One of my philosophies on being a consultant is I should be absolutely comfortable sharing information with current or prospective clients. In my early meetings with potential clients I typically go straight into making suggestions as to how the companies can best leverage social media, communities, “the blogosphere”, and other so-dubbed “viral” marketing activities.
I know this is an atypical practice, as many consultants believe it’s important to hold every tactic close to your chest. In my opinion, if I can’t add more value over the coming months than I did in the first hour, there probably isn’t much point in hiring me. In that spirit, here are a few “DIY” viral marketing activities any company can easily incorporate into their strategies.
- Have a half-decent product!
This is actually the most important item on the list. You can’t spread word-of-mouth on a bad product (although you can do so with a gimmicky one, but that’s a different matter altogether). If you are having trouble accepting this, just look to the movie industry for literally hundreds of examples. For an easy one, think back to last summer’s Snakes on a Plane – it had huge buzz prior to opening, the word was a-spreading and everything looked rosy until one critical moment: audiences saw the movie, which was terrible (I got 23 minutes into it on Moviebeam before stopping). So much for the buzz. The counter-example, by the way, was Borat, which had mild buzz prior to opening, however was funny enough to get audiences recommending it to friends.
One of the reasons we have a “product polish” team in my consultancy is specifically to help companies with mediocre products transform them into better ones. It’s much more fun to create marketing activites for a quality product than a subpar one, and I personally make a practice of not taking clients whose products I don’t feel can capture their customers’ hearts and minds.
- List your product on Wikipedia and other sites.
Before you go out and spend a ton of money on Google AdWords and SEO consultants, take a few minutes (yes, minutes) to make sure you’ve listed your product wherever you can. Any open directory, any technology/product/service database, etc. Look up your competitors’ products, make sure you are in every place they are. Also, be sure to put up posts or articles that aren’t overwhelmingly biased as these’ll get edited out by the community quite quickly. It’s free, it’s fast, and it helps contribute to the groundswell of sources your customers may be using to find products like yours.
- Have a blog, post thoughtful articles, and link link link.
Jason Calacanis once wrote a blog post titled “blog or die” – it’s not specifically on target with my point here, but it’s a good read nonetheless. Customer behaviors are changing unbelievably fast, and brand loyalty today only seems to exist for a certain company that uses more white lexan plastic than the rest of the world combined. Consumers are showing increasing interests in company’s personalities, services, and behaviors – and, of course, pricing policies. Companies that look to the future are seeking ways to engage directly with their customers, and one ridiculously simple way to do this is to write a blog. It doesn’t have to be updated daily, or even weekly, but it also can’t be as sparse as a quarterly dollop of chatter. Also, when it comes to company blogs, quality is much more important than quantity. Finally, the blog should link out. A lot. Linking to other bloggers helps show them how you are actively engaging in the conversation. My rule of thumb on linking is this: any article I read that helped me form an opinion on a topic deserves a link from me when I blog about that topic. As a corollary, don’t overlink or link just because you want attention – you won’t win brownie points through insincerity.
- Start a dedicated community and engage your customers.
This is usually on the top of the list of my ‘freebies’ – there is no more effective online tool that I know of to support word-of-mouth marketing than an online community. This can be a fairly vague and nebulous area for some, so to be clear: at a minimum, it’s a discussion forum on your Web site (phpBB is free), or at the other end of the spectrum you can outsource the community technology and even the moderation services to a company. At Sling Media, for example, I worked with Chicago-based Capable Networks to set up slingcommunity.com. They were responsible for all the technology and moderating (both of which can be massive infrastructure requirements, so don’t downplay their importance!), and we were responsible for engaging with our users. As a result, our customers got the opportunity to directly interact with us, provide feedback, and praise or complain about the products. While it wasn’t rosy at all times, having the presence helped (and still helps) us be on top of whatever issues were important to the customer base, and helped current and prospective customers get a better feel for what type of company we built.
- Enable tinkering.
While I am strictly not a believer in “if you build it, they will come” marketing philosophies, I do believe “if you let them hack, they will market your product for you.” Amongst the dozens of reasons why Friendster lost the initial round of the social networking wins, one was they were more uptight about their product than Cameron Frye. No ‘fake’ personalities. No API. No nothing! And then there’s MySpace, possibly the ugliest combination of Web pages since Geocities enabled the blink and marquee tags. But MySpace was more interesting to individuals because you could uglify it so much. You can build widgets. You can build badges. You can make themes. It’s extremely extensible. Take a look at Facebook’s recent moves – all about extending their platform. Give people the opportunity to make your product/service their own, and it will signficantly contribute to your word-of-mouth potential.
- Create and live by an open & honest communications policy.
This one is a little trickier for most companies. First up, keep your spin to a minimum. No, you don’t have to bare the company’s soul to the world, but admitting mistakes wins a lot more praise than making up implausible stories. Consumers are much smarter than most marketeers give them credit for, and they can sniff out a lie mid-sentence. When you consider the power of discussions and the individual’s ability to create noise, the less opportunity you have for dumb scandals, the better. As an example, at Sling Media I implemented a strict policy that no employee was to add comments about the Slingbox on any blog or review site (such as CNET or Amazon) without disclosing their employment status. Why? Well, look at the Amazon page for the Slingbox Classic – it’s averaging 4.5 stars from 176 reviewers (at the time of writing). If the company can honestly state that none of them are employee-fed, then they gain a heck of a lot more trust than if there’s suspicion about shills. Again, if you have a good product, there’s no need to artificially pump it up – trust your customers to do this for you, they will.
- Improve upon your product.
1.0 is never perfect, so don’t stop there. For a consumer electronics device, I recommend software updates at a minimum of 3 times per year. Fix bugs, improve your UI, add features – do whatever you need to strive to make your product the absolute best in category. This shows your customers you are supporting them in the long-term, which increases their loyalty to you, which increases the chance they’ll praise and recommend your product to their peers. This is especially effective if done in conjunction with your community, as it shows them you are paying attention. There’s nothing more frustrating than buying into some product or service, and getting the feeling they only care about new customers. Give a little something back to your existing ones, and it’ll go a long way.
So there you have it, seven easy things any company can do to inexpensively help get the word out. You’ve probably noticed that none of these fall into the classic “outreach” marketing programs – but that’s part of what makes them so effective. I’m sure some people will find these obvious, but I hope others will find value in them. If you have any other tips like these, please leave comments – would love to hear them.