Op-Ed: Forget Viral Marketing And Focus on This Instead

Based on what today’s marketing experts will tell you, one would think that a company with a knack for viral ad success would be a major brand name...

We have all seen the type of advertisement where: a man loads a gerbil into a cannon and then fires it at the logo of an online computer store. Instead of sailing through the “O” in the logo, as intended, the poor animal smacks into the wall. So the man tries again, and again, pounding the poor little animal, time after time.

It was weird. It was controversial. And it was one of the first viral ads that we ever encountered on the Internet. Then this company produced two or three more similar ads that went viral.

Based on what today’s marketing experts will tell you, one would think that a company with a knack for viral ad success would be a major brand name these days. However, Outpost.com failed and joined Pets.com in the graveyard of companies with “great viral ads”.


Viral Marketing Is Overrated

For every company that has spent millions of dollars chasing the viral craze there are small restaurants, cafes, retailers, and businesses (in every city in America) that have been succeeding for decades; and spent next to nothing on this type of marketing.

These are the places your friends tell you about. When a friend recommends a business, or a product, you listen. There is an element of trust. Trust outperforms viral marketing every time. It’s considered good old fashioned word of mouth (WOM); which is easily confused with viral marketing.

As Martin Zwilling, founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, Inc. explains, “First of all, Seth Godin pointed out a few years ago that viral marketing does not equal word-of-mouth. His view is that word-of-mouth is an unsolicited consumer action, positive or negative, which usually fades quickly, like a good or bad restaurant review. Viral marketing is a deliberate marketing action, designed to grow attention at a compound rate, without further stimulus, by word-of-mouth. It usually implies an opportunity to win big, like a lottery, or experience something sensational, like an incredible video or free product.”


Giving Good Word of Mouth

Generally speaking, companies that succeed have a common marketing strategy – building good word of mouth – and it works for them better than anything a Madison Avenue executive could dream up on his best day.

But, word of mouth isn’t just for the mom and pop shop around the corner. It is something that the ‘big boys’ recognized long ago as being incredibly valuable. Ad executives and brand marketers know that word of mouth is the main marketing tool that keeps their message in the minds of consumers long after the impact of their latest million dollar commercial has worn off.

Word of mouth is powerful and authentic. Viral is almost always fake.

Word of mouth is natural. If your sister says that the new restaurant in town is great, you will probably check it out. Her one good experience turned into almost guaranteed new business. When you get home and tell her that you also loved their food, it makes it even more likely that she will return. And when the rest of your family hears that both you and your sister liked the place, what do you think will happen?

Word of mouth marketing translates into a stronger social media presence on popular networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social sites. People are using social media every single day to share their opinions of products and services with a large audience. For example, YouTube is full of testimonials and product reviews from real customers sharing their real experiences. Each one of those testimonials is worth thousands in advertising dollars.


Don’t Bet on Viral Marketing

But the main reason you should forget about viral marketing and focus on building word of mouth is simple. Viral marketing efforts almost always fail. Even if they succeed, there is no guarantee that they will help your business. Viral is good for a laugh, but mostly it’s like consuming empty calories.

Word of mouth is generated by businesses that have a solid, positive customer experience. A testimonial from a satisfied customer almost guarantees new business. A viral ad guarantees nothing. Which would you prefer?


This article has been edited and condensed.

George Meszaros is a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder of Success Harbor. Success Harbor is dedicated to document the entrepreneurial journey through interviews, original research, and unique content. Connect with @successharbor on Twitter.


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