5 steps to a successful viral promotion

You might have seen our holiday greeting card, A Christmas Gory. We sent a special box to 265 friends and clients pointing to the Christmas Gory website. As of today, over 100,000 people have visited the site - and it's been covered by BoingBoing, EBaumsworld, iFilm, The SF Chronicle, About.com, America Online, and hundreds of other online media outlets. Admitedly, 100K is a smaller audience than even some of our own client's sites - and only a small-scale success when compared to legendary virals - but still absolutely amazing considering the original audience of 265. I mean, it's just a christmas card, right?

Here's five things that we believe made our production a successful viral promotion:

1. A timely message. Obviously, a holiday themed site is timely during the holidays. We launched our site in the first few days of December, to maximize the amount of time that the message would be deemed valid. In retrospect, (and if we were ready in time), we could have launched on the day after Thanksgiving. When a viral communication is snowballing, every day counts - and we only had 25 days in December. While this is obvious during the holiday season, the same can be said during any other part of the year. Make sure your message is topical in some way. Perhaps it could tie to a current trend, something hot in the media, a popular television show, or some other seasonal event. Think JibJab.

2. Cool factor counts. Your message can't speak to everyone. We chose a cult film, popular with geeks, marketing types and pop culture enthusiasts. Some people on our original mailing list no doubt said "what the F is this?" (In fact, a few people really did call us and ask.) If we tried to please everyone, we'd please no one. Our production struck a chord with a select audience - on a few levels. Geek sites covered it for it's value as a "mashup." Pop culture and humor sites covered it for its satirical value. And advertising industry sites covered it as a unique agency promotion. We were able to create something that felt cool to a variety of focused audiences, which resulted in a more diverse distribution.

3. Safe for work. Realize that the majority of your distribution will happen in the workplace. Many developers believe only the most over the top productions will go viral. But think about it. When was the last time you sent something with boobies in it to everyone else in your office? I can think of only a handful of succesful non-work safe viral examples (Paris Hilton, Tommy & Pamela, etc). But I can can give you a list a mile long of virals that are "work safe." This is also important to the timing of your release. Over a weekend, a funny site can be forgotten about, and lose steam. Release it on a Monday, and you've got an entire week to grow, before losing a couple of day's momentum.

4. Seed it, and if it's good, it will grow. There's a little secret sauce here. We've developed some fairly successful methods of getting a site noticed online. (Hire us, and we'll tell you more.) We've seeded unsuccessful virals too - and we've learned that seeding alone isn't the answer. Putting a product into a retail store doesn't move it off the shelves - and that's true on the internet as well. The message has to be just right - and if it is, it will take flight. If it doesn't hit home with a particular audience, it's just going to sit there on the shelf.

5. Promote at every opportunity. We built some site promotion into our piece - with AOL instant messenger icons, send to a friend options, wallpapers, etc. But we also used them. Everyone in our office (and some of our friends) used the AOL screen icons. We included a link in our email signatures. We blogged about it. Every company resource for getting the url out there was utilized.

There are absolutely no guarantees on the internet. Dumb luck helps as much as any of the above tips. And we've all seen brilliant work go unnoticed. But we also see promotions every day that don't meet these basic criteria. So be brilliant. Go viral. Or hire a good agency to do it all for you ;-)

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