Although I consider myself an internet marketing pro, after 12 years in the industry, it is amazing how quickly the online marketing tactics change and your skills can go stale. So, to make sure I was fully up to speed on the current trends in the industry, I enlisted the help of Katy Lynch, an expert social media consultant at www.SocialKaty.com, to help me create this post on best practices used today by viral marketers trying to drive word-of-mouth via social media, a very cost effective strategy for startups.
First of all, why focus on social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs) at all. The simplest answer is: there is nothing cheaper than driving new leads from word-of-mouth marketing, and social media has made it easier than ever to directly identify and engage with your customers and target audience. And, with the current generation of social media analytics technologies, tracking a direct ROI from these efforts has never been easier. Not to mention, with all the clutter from marketers these days, "likes" and "tweets" from your friends and colleagues carry a lot more weight in terms of stimulating interest and demand for new products and services.
Based on Katy's direct experience with clients (e.g., the Where I've Been travel site grew from zero to 145,000 Twitter/Facebook followers in 2.5 years from very inexpensive efforts), she believes that a successful startup needs to focus on the following five things in setting their social media strategies, and hopefully terrific viral growth with follow: (i) stay educated on the latest trends in the social media industry; (ii) create domain expertise within your own industry; (iii) identify and motivate brand ambassadors that help you spread the word; (iv) integrate social media throughout your entire user experience, not just in marketing activities; and (v) hire a social media expert whose sole job is to grow your business through these channels. We will tackle each of these points in the below paragraphs.
Study The Latest Trends. By the time this post is written, there may already be a new favorite tactic being used by social marketers. So, it is important to stay on top of these key tactics. As an example, the hot strategies today include the use of viral videos (like Evian's roller-blading babies), social gaming tactics (like Farmville) and customized Facebook company pages (like Coke). The other key tactic being used today, is the use of hashtags within Twitter posts, to assists users looking for similar content within Twitter (just like users search keywords in Google). Hashtags.org is a great resource to see what topics users are searching and to see what topics you should be engaging with for your business, to get in front of an immediate and targeted audience.
Create Domain Expertise. People are more likely to spread viral messages from people they trust, or whom are experts in their field. So, for example, Katy not only helped Where I've Been increase their follower base, she tried to position them as a domain expert in anything and everything related to the travel industry, whether it was directly related to their core business, or not. So, when consumers would be looking for travel tips, news, forums or whatever, Where I've Been would come up within the results as an expert in the space, hence attracting a large follower base of passionate travelers. A great way to position yourself as an expert on a topic, is to write compelling content on a blog, as I am doing right now in this post, hoping you forward these lessons to your colleagues (driving new leads for my business).
Seed The Community/Identify Brand Ambassadors. You typically need a 100-1000 follower base, before viral marketing magic kicks in. And, this base is the hardest part to build. So, Katy recommends buying advertisements on Facebook around your targeted demographic to help get your base up to this level faster than you could on your own. Based on Katy's history, it will cost you about $1 per follower, so budget $1,000 for Facebook advertising to get your base up to 1,000 followers. In addition, don't forget to leverage any other in-house marketing lists you have, to help jump-start your efforts. As an example, one of Katy's other clients used an in-house email list of 40,000 names to help seed 1,000 Facebook fans after only one mailing.
From there you need to identify and motivate your brand ambassadors. This could be your most empassioned followers, continually singing your praises to their network. Or, it could be third party ambassadors who are domain experts themselves (e.g., key influencers/bloggers in your industry). Good places to identify these prospective ambassadors are: (i) from Google searches around your keywords; (ii) researching members of key Twitter Lists for your key topics, which you can search at www.Listorious.com; and (iii) www.invesp.com/blog-rank/ to identify key bloggers and domain experts by topic. And, don't forget to reward your ambassadors for their efforts, with thank you gifts or other giveaways over time based on their activity.
Integrate Within Your Business. Social media should not be a marketing tactic, in needs to be integrated into your overall user experience. As an example, there needs to be "like" and "tweet" buttons around your core product pages on your website. The reason social media-based games, like Mafia Wars and Farmville, built into huge successes with millions of users was the fact that each time the player played the game or reached a new level, the activity posted to their Facebook profiles, exposing the user's entire social networks to the game, driving viral word-of-mouth and new users for their business.
Hire An Expert. Managing your social media efforts is more than writing a blog, tweeting on Twitter or posting information on your Facebook fan page. You should constantly be looking for new followers and trying to figure out how to create a "personality" for your business. And, the odds are, you as a startup executive are going to be too busy to do this any justice on your own. So, hire an on-staff expert, or engage a third party agency, to help you focus on these efforts full time. And, the advantage of an agency is they have access to and expertise with the sophisticated engagement and analtyics software you will need to implement and track your ROI from this campaign (e.g., TweetDeck, HootSuite, Twitter Analytics).
In addition to Katy's list, I would add a couple other things. Firstly, the more you can build your entire business model around word-of-mouth driven engagement, the better. The one example I am specifically thinking about is Groupon. The whole idea of a 500-person tipping point for the deal to go through, bound by a 24-hour ticking clock before the deal expires, was pretty genius. That means every day, users are forwarding deals to all their friends trying to get their desired deal fully subscribed, day after day. It created a viral marketing machine, and the rest is pretty much history. That said, don't fool yourself that viral marketing was the only key to Groupon's success. Groupon was also spending millions of dollars of marketing each month to help drive their meteoric growth.
The second thing I would add is that there are some great tools out there to help you forecast the timing and scale of your word-of-mouth efforts based on: (i) how engaging your message is (e.g., what % of forwarded information gets acted upon); and (ii) the viral cycle time (e.g., how much time before the recipient forwards the message to their friends). Check out this terrific Viral Growth Model and Tutorial by David Skok, a five time serial entrepreneur turned VC at Matrix Partners.
Thanks again to Katy Lynch, for her terrific insights. Be, sure to reach out to her at www.SocialKaty.com for any additional help from here.
For future posts, please follow me at: www.twitter.com/georgedeeb