The Profits and Perils of Viral Marketing

By Steve McKee President, McKee Wallwork Cleveland | May 06, 2010

Viral marketing. It's all the rage today, and sometimes it seems like everybody's going viral. But what exactly is viral marketing? How does it work? And when should you try to employ it?

Contrary to popular belief, viral marketing has been around forever. It's basically word-of-mouth, only instead of the "virus" spreading through conversation it's spread through user groups, websites, email, instant messaging and a host of other technologies.

There are two main differences between today's viral efforts and yesterday's word-of-mouth marketing: intent and intensity:

  • First, intent. Word of mouth has always been the most valuable form of marketing, for the simple reason that when a trusted friend or colleague recommends a product or service, a) they have a level of one-on-one intimacy with the "target audience" (typically a friend or family member) that no marketer could replicate, and b) they have no ulterior motives. That makes their recommendations personal and trustworthy.

    But while companies have always respected and valued word of mouth marketing, for most of recorded history they had no way of generating it beyond providing quality customer experiences. If they did a good job people would spread the word, and if they let customers down the same would happen. While the people on the operations side of the company made it their goal to please customers so that positive word of mouth would be generated, it was rarely a task the marketing department tried to take on.

  • Second, intensity. Word of mouth, by definition, has always been spread person-to-person. In the past that transmission took place one conversation at a time, at whatever pace life allowed. If you had dinner with a friend you might tell her about a wonderful hotel or vacation experience you had, but there was no reason (or ability) to email her the news. Except for the occasional consumer boycott or letter-writing campaign, the virus spread slowly.

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Social Media: Getting Personal

There Social media platforms have revolutionized the hotel industry. Popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Tumblr now account for 2.3 billion active users, and this phenomenon has forever transformed how businesses interact with consumers. Given that social media allows for two-way communication between businesses and consumers, the emphasis of any marketing strategy must be to positively and personally engage the customer, and there are innumerable ways to accomplish that goal. One popular strategy is to encourage hotel guests to create their own personal content - typically videos and photos -which can be shared via their personal social media networks, reaching a sizeable audience. In addition, geo-locational tags and brand hashtags can be embedded in such posts which allow them to be found via metadata searches, substantially enlarging their scope. Influencer marketing is another prevalent social media strategy. Some hotels are paying popular social media stars and bloggers to endorse their brand on social media platforms. These kinds of endorsements generally elicit a strong response because the influencers are perceived as being trustworthy by their followers, and because an influencer's followers are likely to share similar psychographic and demographic traits. Travel review sites have also become vitally important in reputation management. Travelers consistently use social media to express pleasure or frustration about their guest experiences, so it is essential that every review be attended to personally. Assuming the responsibility to address and correct customer service concerns quickly is a way to mitigate complaints and to build brand loyalty. Plus, whether reviews are favorable or unfavorable, they are a vital source of information to managers about a hotel's operational performance.  The February Hotel Business Review will document what some hotels are doing to effectively incorporate social media strategies into their businesses.