ANALYSIS: Are consumers resisting viral ads? - Do the recipients of the e-marketing equivalent of chain letters still pass them on to their friends, or has viral marketing reached its sell-by date? Claire Murphy reports

If you have yet to launch a viral marketing campaign, you might already be too late. In the high-speed world of internet marketing, where yesterday’s hot tools are tomorrow’s big yawn, e-mail chain letters have almost reached critical mass.

If you have yet to launch a viral marketing campaign, you might

already be too late. In the high-speed world of internet marketing,

where yesterday’s hot tools are tomorrow’s big yawn, e-mail chain

letters have almost reached critical mass.

Viral marketing often means e-mails that contain commercial messages,

created in such a way that people are motivated to forward them to

friends. There are, broadly, two kinds - messages that contain something

branded that stays on the computer (a Felix the cat icon did the rounds

last summer), or a message that directs you to a web site address.

Executed correctly, you can tap into the power of personal


Executed poorly, you risk being as irritating as a virus and alienating

your target audience.

The other problem is that consumers, particularly the clique of

net-savvy young ABC1s, are getting wise to the technique as the volume

of viral marketing increases.

Latest into the fray is Elida Faberge. Last Thursday it sent 13,000

people an e-mail with details of the Timotei Power Pod, accessed via a

link to its web site at

Directing consumers to the site meant that its new media agency, Good

Technology, could track numbers of people logging on, and the volume who

entered the competition and downloaded the branded screensaver.

By Thursday lunchtime the fact that it took a number of minutes to

access the site reflected the deluge of interest. By Monday, the site

had scored 17,471 hits.

The goal, says Good Technology account director Louisa Moya, is either

to create something that is fun, or that contains enough of an incentive

for people to want to forward it to their friends. She hopes that three

times the number of people who were originally sent the Timotei e-mail

will ultimately see it.

Virgin territory

The Virgin Group established itself as connoisseur of viral marketing

last year. Its e-mail campaign for Virgin Net, promising people free

tickets if they left their e-mail address on a site, has entered

internet marketing folklore. Virgin Net e-mailed 25 people offering free

cinema tickets.

In under three hours all 20,000 tickets had been taken; 34,847 people

entered through the competition URL and 62.5% opted for the regular

bulletin service.

Realising that getting something for nothing is a fairly hot motivator

for the British public, it employed a similar technique on launching

Virgin Wines in June. An e-mail invited people to enter a competition to

win a holiday for a group on Richard Branson’s Necker Island. But there

was a catch; entrants had to nominate the group of friends they would

take if they won - and those friends then had to enter too.

This ensured that it would be in people’s interests to forward e-mails

and, most crucially, add personal messages encouraging their friends to


This, says I-level chief executive officer Charlie Dobres, is the kind

of technique that will be the signature of the successful viral

marketing campaigns of the future.

’If you are sent a message where you are at the end of a long list of

forwarded addresses, there is little motivation to open it. But if

marketers can find ways of encouraging the most recent sender to be more

involved, to personalise it, that could work.’

Viral overkill

Dobres is, in general, sceptical about the value of most viral

campaigns. ’It’s getting to the point where the volume of them means

they’re annoying. There’s a natural shelf life to ideas like this and I

think we’re approaching the end of it. There may be room for some more

subtle approaches, but you can’t expect people to forward blatantly

branded messages on to their friends, and even if they do forward them,

where’s the value to the brand?’

But marketers are continuing to be seduced by the holy grail of personal

recommendation and the chance to get their brands into their customers’


However, most fail to crack the motivation for people forwarding


Scurrilous or abusive humour generally works, but is inevitably

difficult ground for a commercial organisation.

A chance to make your views heard also tends to strike a chord. Pressure

group Jubilee 2000 and Comic Relief’s e-mail campaigns, asking people to

e-mail Tony Blair about the debt relief issue, resulted in the prime

minister receiving 100,000 e-mails on the subject.

A genuinely good offer, such as Clinique’s current e-mail campaign

offering consumers free skin care products worth pounds 15 if they leave

their e-mail address, also attracts results. As a sampling exercise,

combined with the branding effect of a TV campaign, it is well thought


Perhaps the litmus test of whether you have created an attractive e-mail

campaign is to cast yourself in the guise of your target list. Send the

message to a few friends and see how popular it makes you.’


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