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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In a recent global consumers report, 97% of the participants said that customer service is a major factor in their loyalty to a brand, and 76% said they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them. And since there is no industry more reliant on customer satisfaction than the hotel industry, managers must be unrelenting in their determination to hire, train and empower the very best people, and to create a culture of exceptional customer service within their organization. Of course, this begins with hiring the right people. There are people who are naturally service-oriented; people who are warm, empathetic, enthusiastic, pleasant, thoughtful and optimistic; people who take pride in their ability to solve problems for the hotel guests they are serving. Then, those same employees must be empowered to solve problems using their own judgment, without having to track down a manager to do it. This is how seamless problem solving and conflict resolution are achieved in guest service. This willingness to empower employees is part of creating a Culture of Yes within an organization.  The goal is to create an environment in which everyone is striving to say “Yes”, rather than figuring out ways to say, “No”. It is essential that this attitude be instilled in all frontline, customer-facing, employees. Finally, in order to ensure that the hotel can generate a consistent level of performance across a wide variety of situations, management must also put in place well-defined systems and standards, and then educate their employees about them. Every employee must be aware of and responsible for every standard that applies in their department. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.