How Viral Marketing Can Kill You

Flu Shots Sign picture from Confluence! by smilla4 @ FlickrViral Marketing, or the spread of ideas (also called Word of Mouth Marketing) is usually thought of as a good thing. You create a video or a campaign and everyone starts talking about it. You go home happy and maybe even get a promotion. But sometimes the “viral” element more closely resembles the bad kind, the on that kicks you in the teeth and puts you out in bed for a week.

Scott Stratton, author of “UnMarketing: Stop Marketing. Start Engaging.” tells in his book a personal account of how a viral marketing campaign went wrong. It is the best example I’ve seen so far of a)someone owning to his mistakes, and b)a marketing idea backfiring really bad.

The Start of a Good Idea

As Scott tells in his book, he was into motivational speaking and decided to put out a short video (this was in 2004, way before YouTube became the default video sharing site) in his website. It was really a rotating slide show with background music and some inspiring text on top, nothing fancy but was well done. You can watch it at www.thetimemovie.com.

His intent was to get people to watch the video, and contact him for a speaking engagement. Did he get what he wanted? Well, yes and no. He did get over 4 million views (yes, 4 million!) but… things didn’t necessarily work according to plan. Here’s why.

Breaking the Bank

After creating and uploading the video to his server, which was just a regular ISP that hosted his site, Scott emailed a couple hundred people from his list about it. Emails started coming back saying they were getting a “Page not found” error. Oops, what’s wrong? Well, his server had a monthly bandwidth limit, meaning only a certain number of hits to the page and downloads were allowed based on the plan he had at the time. That meant people were going to his site and because he had already exceeded his monthly allotted bandwidth, the server was denying visitors the video!

As he called the ISP and asked them to remove the bandwidth limit, the video went back online and people starting watching it. In droves. He got a $1,400 bill (a bit more than the typical $9 per month he had before the video went up) due to the hundreds of thousands hits he was getting on his video page. And that was just for that last week of the month! Ouch!

Engaging Viewers

Having put up a landing page to capture people’s email addresses was a good idea, but a friend pointed out that it was too confusing, there was just too much about him on the page and no clear call to action. With a quick redesign, he increased conversion from 8% to 24% and started amassing 4,000 new emails per day that he would later use for his newsletter.

Trying to avoid even more expenses (the scar left from the monthly hosting bill was still visible) Scott then decided against using an ESP (email service provider) and went ahead to email his newly acquired list using Outlook Express. Yup, not the full featured MS Outlook businesses use via an Exchange server, but the stripped down consumer version that used to come free with every new MS Office installation.

The process was simple, but time consuming. He would download the new emails captured by the landing page (19 hours downloads) and manually cut and paste each one into the email client. Out of frustration he deleted 140,000 email addresses. In the first couple weeks.

After also playing with free open source scripts to help get the email addresses imported into his email client, and not being able to do so, Scott caved in and went with Aweber, an email service provider which made the job of getting emails and sending out newsletters much easier.

Successful Failure?

There are those who would love to win the lottery, and those who actually play it. That’s what this next episode of his viral marketing gone wrong reminds me of. Scott was trying to get speaking engagements and created a great video that went viral. The problem is that he never actually believed, or was prepared, for the number of speaker kits he received. Back in ’04 when you wanted to screen someone prior to offering an speaking engagement, you would ask for  a “speaker kit”, which consisted of a resume, pictures, and tape reel showing snippets of that person actually giving a talk.

So after two weeks of the movie going live, 50 requests came in. How many speaker kits did Scott have prepared for the eventuality? Zero. And he was personally doing every speaker kit himself (printing, making copies, punching holes, and mailing). About 785 speaker requests came in before he was able to work out a good process to fulfill them properly. Requests for one of his “Relaxation on Demand” CDs were so many he had to refund people’s money because he couldn’t have burned the CD’s (yes, he was doing it himself) on time… and people complained they just wanted the product!

So, in the end was it all a waste? I wouldn’t say so, since Scott was able to book over $100,000 in new business but he definitely lost some potential business. The worst that could have happened I guess is if his reputation had been ruined because of that, which didn’t happen.

A Viral Marketing Lesson

“Please learn from my pain” – Scott Stratten

What can we learn from Scott’s mistakes?

  • Define success: what do you consider success? How will you be able to tell whether your viral marketing campaign was successful? Define metrics that you’ll use to make sure you haven’t wasted your time or money.
  • Be prepared for the traffic: can your website, call center, sales reps, and other relevant operations handle the potential surge in traffic? Sure, today you have YouTube to host videos but make sure you have all pieces in place before you start the viral engine. You don’t want it to break as the user is clicking your “buy now” button or similar.
  • Collect and Engage: make sure you have a way to collect information from those interested in learning more about your products or services, and have a process that will make collecting such information easy on you. Tweak your landing page, and test different versions. Also have a plan for following up and keeping up the interest and dialogue.
  • Plan for the success, and for the failure: be prepared, and react fast. Whether your success is bigger than anticipated or the idea failed miserably, know how you will handle it and make sure your team (if you have one) is ready.

Failure stories abound on the Internet, I just had not seen such a detailed account of “I screwed up” from someone like Scott. For more info on his book, check out the link below.

P.S.: If you’re in San Francisco you should come to the San Francisco Marketing Book Club where we’ll be discussing UnMarketing during our upcoming meeting.

Amazon Link to UnMarketing

UnMarketing Book cover

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One Response to How Viral Marketing Can Kill You

  1. […] How Viral Marketing Can Kill You THE EFFECTIVE MARKETER | WEDNESDAY, JULY 13, 2011 […]

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