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Friday, September 01, 2006

Thumbs up...Viral marketing...Ellen Feiss, Starbucks, and Samuel "MF" Jackson...

August was a good month for viral marketing.

The Samuel Jackson movie, Snakes on a Plane, looks like a profitable exercise in what might loosely be called filmaking, largely because of word-of-mouth and an interesting viral promotion in which you could have Jackson's voice delivery a customized phone message about the movie to others. The Snakes site took advantage of gobs of viral strategies... Freebies, fan site encouragement, tell-a-friend opportunities, etc.

Meanwhile, coffee giant Starbucks has decided to stop honoring an online coupon for frozen coffee drinks because their "little" viral project went crazy on them. Starbucks seeded the coupon with a handful of employees and told them to pass it on so that others could do likewise. It didn't take long for every person in America to get the freebie email and the company realized they had created a highly caffeinated monster.

This is, by and large, a blog about writing. Much of the writing I do is of the copywriting variety. Some of the more "straight content" work that I do is designed to feed marketing efforts, as well. One of the main reasons I advocate hiring a professional content writer is because it gives one a chance to tap into viral distribution channels. A creative content pro can not only write 20 articles about dog food, he or she can also help a client to find a way to create online materials that will self-replicate in order to let the whole world know about Brand X dog food. That's why I love watching viral marketing success stories in action.

My personal interest in this phenomena really took off with Ellen Feiss. Sure, I was already down with "All your base..." and Mahir, but I started to really consider the marketing lessons of such things with Ellen, as her appearance coincided with my interests in the field.

About four or five years ago, Ellen Feiss appeared in a thirty-second spot for Apple computers. It was part of their "switch" campaign, encouraging PC users to take a bite out the apple instead. Feiss, who was then a high school student, delivered a soliloquy lamenting the fact that her dad's PC "devoured" a school paper and went "beep beep beep."

Ellen looked a little under the weather in that spot. Okay, so she looked downright stoned. As it turns out, she was just taking some allergy meds, but she definitely gave off a very herbal vibe, so to speak. The online community found the ad irresistibly entertaining, and Ellen Feiss became a household name, at least within geeky households.

I don't know if that helped Apple sell one extra computer directly, but all the exposure certainly didn't hurt them. What fascinated me was the way that one little ad moved via word-of-mouth so quickly and powerfully. After watching Ellen's moments of Warholian fame, I started looking at those annoying forwarded "Bill Gates is giving away money" or "Call your Senator now before the atheists get permission to bomb churches" emails a little differently and started really studying viral marketing and its possibilities.

As a writer, I hate to admit this, but it is easier to create a viral effect these days with the right piece of video. It is however, possible to develop viral distribution using text if the right approach is utilized. Besides, someone has to write the text for the video, anyway (unless it is a cat flushing the toilet or something).

Article marketing is a great example of viral distribution in practice. From the tiny acorn of a single article carefully planted in a few article databases, a mighty oak of backlinks and traffic can grow. A free special report can go from hand to hand at a record pace, with each "infected" reader exposed to the right links and the right branding message. Presenting truly useful information in the right manner can lead to tremendous word-of-keyboard distribution. Giving the right "psssst...you gotta hear this" to the right people can make a star (and good press releases are a handy way of doing that).

No copywriter can guarantee that a project will end up bringing Starbucks to its knees or creating a cult following for a high school girl. However, working with someone who does have an idea of how viral marketing and distribution works is a great way to improve one's end results.

Enough of the thinly-veiled self-promotion and advertising. The bottom line is that viral marketing works and that it had a helluva month. Thus, I am giving it the weekly Thumbs Up.

By the way, I've heard that Ellen Feiss will be co-starring with Samuel L. Jackson in the sequel to Snakes on a Plane. It's already in production and is tentatively called Snakes in a Coffee Shop. Plenty of Starbucks product placement money is involved and free tickets will be available via an email from the chain.

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