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One of the most powerful email marketing techniques is viral marketing. Viral marketing is simply defined as getting recipients to do your marketing for you, by forwarding your message to their friends and associates. This simple action can allow for exponential growth in the number of people who are exposed to your email marketing campaign.

Does this sound just like word of mouth advertising? The difference is that growth of so-called "word of mouse" campaigns can continue to accelerate as new groups of people are exposed to the campaign. This is quite different from the leveling off of growth that occurs in real-world word of mouth advertising, where the natural limits in the number of other people that a person encounters on a daily basis results in a smaller number of potential people to whom they can pass along the marketing message. Some of the most successful companies have attributed their rapid growth to well executed viral marketing.

Hotmail: The Viral Marketing Success Story
The classic example of highly effective viral marketing is, of course, Hotmail. Hotmail has been able to use their own service (free email) to convince other people to signup for the service, just by getting people to use the service itself. How they achieve this, is by appending a simple but effective advertisement ("Get your own free Hotmail email address") to the bottom of every message they send. By leveraging their user base to grow itself, and by making the very act of using the service spread the word, Hotmail has been the most wildly successful example of viral marketing to date.

The Four Reasons Why People Will Forward Email
There are four main reasons that people will take the time to forward an email to someone else. They are: to share information, to share a deal, to share information about an event, or to obtain a mutual benefit.

  1. Share Information
    People will gladly share information with other people who have similar interests. For example, someone might forward information on how to build your own Macintosh to fellow computer hardware enthusiasts. This can also include a group of business associates. For example, an attorney might forward information about changes in employee benefits law to people in the human resources department.

  2. Share Deals
    People like to forward coupons or other forms of savings. Individuals love a bargain, and will forward offers from a trusted source to friends and family members for anything from travel offers to computer hardware. Business recipients will also forward offers to their business associates. For example, a graphic designer might forward a discount notice about a new software upgrade to a purchasing director, in particular when a purchase is already planned.

  3. Share Happenings
    People like to forward information about events and happenings to each other. For example, a recipient forwards notice of an upcoming musical performance at a local club to their circle of friends. This is especially common among online connected groups of friends, who are increasingly using email and text messaging aware cell phones to stay in touch.

  4. Mutual Benefit
    A new twist on an old idea is to apply viral marketing to reward referrals, but only to reward both parties. For example, Vonage (an excellent voice-over-IP telephone service) rewards people for referring new business as follows: if you forward an email to a friend or associate, who then signs up for the service, Vonage gives both you and your friend a free month of service. Only if your friend signs up do you receive anything; if they ignore the offer, you receive nothing. Since both you and your friend can potentially benefit, you have an excellent incentive to forward the information without seeming exploitive.

This Web Marketing article was written by Ron Evans on 2/14/2005