Even though most viral marketing campaigns fail – many companies are jumping on the bandwagon based on the few well-documented case studies that keep being recycled. The same Harvard Business Review quoted yesterday has another interesting forethought on the mechanics of viral marketing campaigns and how to increase their success ratios – this one by Columbia University Prof. Duncan Watts and Jonah Peretti, co-founder of the Huffington Post.
Standard viral marketing is based on an analogy with the spread of infectious diseases. If you start with a seed of individuals who spread the message by “infecting” their friends, the expected number of new infectious people generated by each one is called the “reproduction rate,” or R. If R is larger than 1 then you have a successful viral marketing campaign, if it is smaller than 1 then your campaign will fizzle out.
The point that the authors are making is that unlike infectious diseases marketers have a few more controls than diseases. First they can start with a much bigger seed. And with some of the new social networking/sharing tools that enable people to more easily forward messages to friends, they can also improve their message reproduction rate. And both those factors add up. Say that you have a reproduction rate of 0.5 in your campaign and that you send it to 10,000 people, then those people would pass it on to 5,000 and those would pass it on to 2,500 and so on – eventually reaching 20,000 people, twice your original seed. By having the ability to tweak both the size of the seed and the reproduction rate, you can optimize your campaigns – even when they are not totally “viral.”
One interesting piece of software that they mention is ForewardTrack, an open source applications originally designed to promote online activism. The system tracks and maps the diffusion of email forwards, political calls-to-action, and online petitions. It can trace email forwards, map the impact of blogs, and facilitate web-based sign-ups and social networking. Many commercial entities, including P&G, are now using ForwardTrack as part of their email campaigns.