Does Viral Marketing Really Work For Small Businesses?

BY: ON TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 2013

Everyone loves a good buzzword, don't they? These days, there's plenty of talk about the need to “go viral.” Small businesses are being instructed to engage in “viral marketing” in hopes that they'll become sort of overnight, Internet sensation.

We live in a marketing world full of trends, memes and flashes in the pan. Just as the Internet causes us to move so quickly as a society, so does the buzz surrounding the businesses and companies we know and love. We obsess over hashtags and trending topics one day and they're forgotten the next. Momentum and attention shift from one company to the next almost simultaneously with every commercial and campaign.

It's hard to keep up with this frantic pace, meanwhile it's difficult to break through the noise and get noticed in the midst of the hype. Where do small businesses fit into all of this?

Truthfully, it's hard to say.

The principles of viral marketing are relatively sound. Create brand awareness? Okay, sounds good. Create something that can be shared and spread through word of mouth and the web? Fantastic. Every business wants attention. Likewise, every business would love to have something of theirs go viral.

It's all so much easier said than done, especially for SMBs that are currently strapped for cash.

We see big brands dump millions of dollars into attempted “viral” campaigns that simply don't pan out. Consider the recent buzz concerning this year's Superbowl commercials. Can you name more than a handful? Do you remember the companies the commercials were for? Do you remember what exactly they were pushing?

Simply put, viral marketing isn't what it used to be. The market is oversaturated and it shows. How often do we see vague commercials or movie trailers asking us to visit some site, text some number or download an app and all we can do is roll our eyes?

The truth is that most viral sensations happen organically or by complete accident. It's not a forced meme, trend or hashtag; it's something that people legitimately like and are eager to evangelize and spread. Businesses can benefit from some of the principles of viral marketing, but that's about it. If you want a billion hits on YouTube by tomorrow or expect your company become a trending topic on Twitter overnight, you may find yourself disappointed.

It's a false notion that an everyday small business can simply become the next "Gangnam Style" or "Harlem Shake" through viral marketing. There are steps you can take, however, to get noticed in the social sphere and increase brand awareness by applying some basic principles of the viral marketing to your business' own strategy.

News You Can Use

While you may not be the big story, your business should be able to integrate itself into relevant news, current events and pop culture. You may do this through either status updates of entire blog posts. For example, some sort of sports or game-themed articles during Superbowl weekend (something like “10 Reasons Why Running a Business is Like Playing in the Superbowl”) would have made sense, likewise something Presidential and patriotic would make sense over President's Day weekend. When a major story occurs or a new trend hits the scene, your business may get part of the buzz by integrating itself with the news. With this in mind, however...

Don't Be Late to the Party

Don't attempt to capitalize on trends or news stories that are long gone or aren't so relevant. For example, trying to make a post about the Superbowl now wouldn't make much sense. As information moves so quickly, so do people's attention spans. There are new memes and viral sensations going on just about every day; there's plenty of fresh material to work with so that your business keeps up with the times.

Don't Overdo It 

Taking advantage of new stories, trends and memes is fairly simple; however, make sure not to overdo it. Don't clog your news feed with image macros and news stories that will leave your followers bewildered. Be smart about how often you integrate viral trends into your social strategy and, as always, don't look like a spammer.

This holds especially true if you're attempting to take advantage of hashtags or trending topics on Twitter. In fact, 50% of commercials during the Superbowl mentioned Twitter or attempted to capitalize on a hashtag. Although there is certainly and time and place for them, clogging up your status updates and posts with hashtags is rather tacky these days. Once again, keep it simple. Filling your updates and posts with hashtags isn't going to magically make it better or more clever. Instead, integrate them appropriately and don't go overboard.

Link Bait Works

In conjunction with the above tips, link baiting is still an effective practice when it comes to getting people to interact with your site via Social Media. With this in mind, however, many businesses tread the line when it comes to link baiting and end up making themselves look bad instead.

In short, link baiting involves some sort of hook to entice users to click through. The keyword here is entice; not trick, not deceive. Headlines that are seem shocking, exclusive, entertaining or even controversial remain popular forms of link bait. Be sure to deliver content that your users would want to click on and tread lightly when it comes to controversial topics. Otherwise, you may be turning some of your followers off.

It Never Hurts to Ask

In addition to link bait, questions and articles which ask questions tend to perform well when it comes to Social Media. Feel free to ask your followers what they thought the big game, event or holiday. Such questions can result in engagement or discussion on your behalf, which puts your brand out there and allows people to connect to your business. Try to ask questions that are compelling and go a bit beyond “How are you today?” If you manage to integrate the aforementioned tips into the form of a question, meanwhile mixing current events and link bait, you'll be much more likely to elicit a response.

The Bottom Line

While your small business may not be primed to “go viral” in the traditional sense, there's no reason why you can't grow a more loyal, viral following. Instead of trying to make your business an overnight sensation, consider applying some principles of viral marketing to your existing social strategy. Keep the interest of your followers and build up your brand by engaging users with relevant topics and trends.

About the Author

Brent Barnhart
Brent Barnhart is a regular contributor to ChamberofCommerce.com. He covers a wide variety of topics through the written word, including content marketing, Internet marketing and small business trends. ChamberofCommerce.com is dedicated to helping small businesses grow their presence on the web and facilitates connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 Chambers of Commerce worldwide.
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