Viral marketing fails to infect consumers says report

Viral marketing appeared to be reaching fever pitch levels earlier this summer but it might be coming down with a cold, according to a recent survey.

While the key goal of viral marketing is to get consumers to promote a product or service to their peers, only 15 per cent of American social marketers reported success in this area, according to a survey conducted Jupiter Research LLC, a marketing analysis and consultancy firm in the U.S.

“Viral activity eludes marketers,” said Emily Riley, lead analyst for the Jupiter Research report entitled Viral Marketing – Bringing the Message to the Masses.

The report incorporates results from several Jupiter Research surveys including: an online poll of 3,580 online consumers conducted in cooperation with Ipsos U.S.; a survey with Incisive Media of 335 qualified advertisers and 135 agencies on their use of online advertising; and a survey of 251 advertisers and 203 agencies on their use of online advertising and social marketing practices with e-Rewards Inc.

Viral marketing techniques employ pre-existing social networks to generate brand awareness through word-of-mouth endorsement. Promotional tools may include e-mail and online ads as well as currently popular Web 2.0 media such as video clips, interactive Flash-based games, digital photos and images, blogs or text messages.

The report indicates that marketers are using the wrong tactics.

For instance, marketers plan to decrease targeting messages to influential decision makers by 55 per cent within the next year even if this strategy has proven to be effective.

Instead, 45 per cent continue using discussion boards on their sites even if such efforts drive away consumers.

About 70 per cent of the respondents reported their campaigns succeeded in “increasing brand awareness but the confidence is unfounded,” the report said.

Not only did marketers fail to generate word-of-mouth activity, they also failed to track it and many “do not know how to improve matters.”

The report noted that only 19 per cent of the viral marketers had trouble pinpointing their audience — a surprising response when figures indicate that generating traffic or getting consumers to promote their product was a top problem for companies.

Despite their ability to evaluate a range of metrics such as clicks, sales and time spent on the creative, many advertisers complain that new metrics like “engagement” and “buzz” are hard to quantify with the tools at hand.

Riley said metrics are rarely used in the industry: Only 17 per cent of marketers use brand surveys and only 15 per cent employ buzz monitoring.

She said marketers should work closely with their partner’s Web sites to establish metrics early in the planning process. Unfortunately, lack of standard metrics across sites is a reigning industry problem. One site might count the number of comments beneath a video clip, while another might count time spent watching the video or the number of friends added to a marketer’s profile.

One Toronto-based social networking expert noted “a lot of the campaigns are mis-targeted.”

“Most marketers are either using the wrong venue or serving up irrelevant material,” said Colin Smillie, managing partner or, a Toronto-based boutique marketing agency specializing in social media tools.

An example of this, Smillie said, is the Cisco Systems video clip on YouTube. The ad features an executive who is having a difficult time getting Internet connection in a hotel. The clip then invites viewers to click on where a “pseudo psychiatrist” discusses systems problems using hilarious faux clinical names. The viewer is then prescribed various Cisco Systems products.

“The ad is actually funny, but it’s airing to the wrong demographic,” Smillie said.

The content called out to a more mature audience and would have been more effective on trade show booth. Marketers should also have sought exposure on IT related blogs and sent e-mail ads to decision makers.

Smillie’s views are bolstered by the Jupiter Research report.

The top three challenges of viral marketers are: campaign tracking; 33 per cent, competing with increased online ad clutter; 30 per cent, and determining the sites that reach the targeted audience; 29 per cent.

According to the survey, e-mail enjoys a 90 per cent usage among consumers. Ninety-three per cent of people 45 and older use e-mail frequently compared to 83 per cent of those 18 to 24.

Only three per cent of respondents 18 to 24 forwarded an ad to a friend compared to 10 per cent in the 45 to 54 bracket.

Adoption rates for new online tools such as video and social networking sites are inversed. Thirty one per cent in the 18 to 24 age group watch videos on a regular basis – three times more than respondents 55 and over. About 54 per cent of consumers 18 to 24 use social networking sites compared with only seven per cent for people 55 and over.

Viral marketers should shun the shotgun approach and concentrate on seed groups or “sneezers” that can spread the word about their product or service.

“The key to success is finding the sneezers – highly influential industry or community personalities who will spread the word just like the common cold,” Smillie said.

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