Recently, I wrote about what I thought were going to be the big e-business trends of the coming year, and word-of-mouth marketing (aka viral marketing) was one of them. In short, word-of-mouth marketing is a strategy that encourages individuals to pass a marketing message along informally to others in their social network.

True to prediction, over the holidays, a very creative e-card designed by Michigan-based marketing company Enlighten began making its way around North America. According to MarketingSherpa, the Holiday Excuse Generator “was so creative that it landed major media and blog attention, 50,000 mainly viral visits [to the company microsite], and gained the agency proposal requests from five new brand-name clients.”

The concept was simple: Show off the company’s skills by developing a slick, interactive, creative campaign with a purpose to drive people to pass it on by email.

The result, a holiday e-card, automatically generated excuses for reluctant party-goers according to their feelings towards their host (‘mild disdain’ or ‘unadulterated loathing’), desired believability of the excuse (‘within the bounds of credibility’ or ‘make me look like Pinocchio’) and more. Prepare your holiday excuses early this year and try the Holiday Excuse Generator for yourself, here:

Like so many other good viral campaigns, the Holiday Excuse Generator did what it was supposed to do — it generated buzz about the company and the brand, sent users to their site, and ultimately brought Enlighten more business. Not to mention that we’re now examining their success in a case study

In fact, the Internet has developed viral or word-of-mouth into the kind of tool that can be harnessed to build a brand and drive business in a way traditional marketing never could. According to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, “The Internet has created a vast new social network of people. These online connections may be as profound as any offline relationship, such as [members of a support group], or they may be only fleeting, such as one consumer reading another’s recommendation of a hotel on a travel site. But whether the connection is long or short, the person-to-person information exchanged online carries a weight that traditional corporate messaging simply can’t match.”

Of course, all the hype surrounding viral marketing online means more and more businesses want to get in on the action. But not all businesses have the budget or the skills to successfully develop ad creative as sophisticated as the Holiday Excuse Generator.

In fact, I’d argue that a smaller business should think seriously before investing significant dollars in any marketing strategy that depends solely on viral circulation for its success, since these kinds of campaigns do live up to their name. Like viruses, they are very difficult to control and measure.

Instead, I’d suggest an approach that integrates word-of-mouth marketing with your overall marketing strategy. Remember, the goal is to get people talking about your product or service and your company, and send traffic to your website to drive business. Use traditional marketing strategies in combination with tools and strategies that encourage word-of-mouth, and the resultant leverage will reduce your marketing costs and increase your chances of success.

With that in mind, here are some tips for integrating word-of-mouth techniques into your marketing strategy:

  • Ensure your product or service exceeds target customer expectations. Remember word-of-mouth is not always positive. If a product or service fails to meet consumer standards, people will talk about it — in the negative.
  • Know your market. Learn your potential customers’ ‘triggers’ and use strategies that target them. For example, if your market is culturally diverse you’ll want to use humor carefully, as it often translates poorly. Focus on highlighting your unique selling proposition and your brand over outrageous or funny concepts that may fall flat.
  • Identify and target influencers. These are people who are predisposed to you, have some clout within your industry, and would be inclined to talk about your product or service. Look for these folks among your current customers, in industry publications and blogging community.
  • Use existing communication networks, including blogs. Listen to and participate in conversations happening online in your industry. When you sign your name to a comment, always include your URL ( or dedicated email address to encourage visits back to your site (
  • Get people to participate and they’re more likely to engage in word-of-mouth. Create a community on your website or in your emails where you ask for input about your industry, product or service. In other words, market with your consumers instead of to them, and they’ll be more apt to take an active interest.
  • Make messages easy to pass on. It may sound simplistic, but it’s easy to forget. Case in point: The GAP’s Watch Me Change campaign obviously cost a bundle, but marketers forgot to include a critical ‘forward’ button on the ad, resulting in missed opportunities to spread the message. So, remember to use ‘forward to a friend’ options wherever you can, on your e-newsletter, in email campaigns, or on your website beside products or information of interest.
  • Make it ‘free’. Write articles on relevant topics and offer them as free web content to others in your industry. Be sure to provide a website link and other contact information. If you’re lucky your articles will be passed on.

Offer free products or services on your site in exchange for an email address or answering a survey. Draw attention to your free offer in a newsletter or through a press release. This strategy draws users in, and encourages them to pass on the deal to their friends.

  • Integrate with traditional media. This is particularly important if you are dedicating significant dollars to a word-of-mouth campaign. Look for opportunities to pitch to local newspapers, radio or TV. Send out news releases and call local journalists who may be interested in your ‘story’.

And finally, it’s important to remember that the nature of word-of-mouth of marketing means that the user is in control, not the marketer. In other words, success in this arena is dependant on what Internet users like and what they don’t — and that’s something that’s difficult to predict.

So, if your campaigns don’t get the anticipated response from the get-go, don’t get discouraged. Marketers have proven that testing and tweaking is part of the process. Even small changes to better target a campaign can take a lukewarm concept and make it work. Read One Degree’s discussion on the Cyborg Name Generator as an example.

Speaking of concepts that work, a friend emailed me a certain fast food giant’s catchy viral, the Subservient Chicken and I’ve spent so much time playing it, I’ve missed lunch. Maybe I’ll make a trip to Burger King. I’m feeling like a chicken sandwich….

Reprint. Originally published in’s The Server Room