9,000 Uniques in One Day: A Viral Marketing Case Study

Posted by ViperChill

One of the most popularised examples of viral marketing is that of Microsoft’s Hotmail (now Outlook Online) email service. Every single email sent using the site came attached with a small signature which read “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail.” Doug Rushoff was one of the first people to use the phrase viral marketing online, and likened the concept to someone who is susceptible to an idea being infected by another, and then sharing it with others, in turn “infecting” them.

The Hotmail example fits this ideology perfectly, and helped propel the service to a point where it was adding in excess of 270,000 new users every single day.

The concept of something going viral doesn’t just apply to the internet of course. Another phrase associated with the idea—word of mouth—is definitely more relevant to the offline world. It may be watching a TV show and going into work to talk about it, reaching more people who then watch the show and tell even more people. It may be having a great experience at a restaurant and telling a friend, who visits that very restaurant and then tells even more people to go.

The end result is that one person can help something spread to far more people than themselves. The internet has simply made it much easier for one person to reach a huge audience with a message that’s worth sharing. In the last 10 years, the number of people using the Internet has gone from being measured in millions to being measured in billions.

This was a version of the planned introduction for the book Viral Marketing for Dummies which Wiley asked me to publish a little over a year ago.

Though I actually quit my contract and stopped working on the book (long story), I’ve still been involved in various viral marketing campaigns. The one I would like to share with you right now was built purely to show that the ideas I was sharing in the book actually had merit.

Join a story rather than creating a new one

Though it’s certainly not impossible to create your own viral category to get some buzz, it makes your job much, much easier if someone is already talking about a topic that you can leverage for your own gain.

Lyndon Antcliff, most notable for fooling the world’s media into thinking that a teenager stole his Dad’s credit card to play Xbox with a hooker, is very good at this. He often tweets the latest viral trends and helps his clients to capitalise on hot topics of the moment.

Again, you don’t have to only take advantage of what people are saying now. When Monster Slippers wanted their slipper company to go viral, they created an elaborate story to say that a Chinese manufacturing incident left one customer with a size 1,450 shoe, almost as big as a car.

The story was picked up by multiple news outlets, all linking to Monster Slippers as they were the one to break the story. That was until they all figured out the customer who received the unusually large footwear actually looked identical to a staff member of Monster Slippers.

I didn’t have anything I actually wanted to promote in my example, besides a cause that I believed strongly in, so decided to pick up on a news event that a lot of people were talking about: The demise of Google Reader and, potentially, Feedburner too.

Stick to one core theme

“What did the fox say?” just wouldn’t be the same if we also wanted to know what the eagle, walrus, and piranha say too.

The Old Spice videos featuring actor Bruce Cambpell basically ran as an idea that you couldn’t be Bruce with his great physique and confidence, but you could at least smell like him. They didn’t run with this theme just once, but used it in multiple highly successful commercials.

Old Spice is a smell. It doesn’t necessarily make you smell better than any other product. There’s nothing inherently amazing about it. Yet after those commercials ran, you couldn’t walk into a supermarket and find it on shelves very easily. They found one theme and stuck with it, even creating unique videos for Redditors in an AMA format.

Another reason for sticking to one core theme is that you really have to give sharing a purpose (next section). If there’s no clear message that you want to spread, it’s hard for people to get behind the idea and want to share it with others, whatever it may be.

I’ve already mentioned that I wanted my idea to focus on the news events surrounding the demise of Google Reader as well as the potential demise of Google’s Feedburner product. I think it was much better for me to pick one of these rather than try to get the message across about both.

You couldn’t save Google Reader after it was announced to be shut down, but Feedburner still has some legs (for now) and that’s the one I care about the most.

Make it easy to share, and give sharing a purpose (!)

This is possibility the most overused advice when it comes to teaching people how to get ideas to go viral but it is still relevant. Of course, you can’t just stick social media buttons onto a site and expect something to instantly spread across the social stratosphere (that’s what we’re calling it these days, right?).

Not only did I put sharing buttons on my site, but I also decided to actually give people the text they could use on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Going back to my earlier point about purpose, people had to believe that they would actually get a response and that sharing would do something productive. Whether that’s positioning themselves as someone who is intelligent and in on the latest news (whether it’s movies, the next viral video, etc.) or, like me, they wanted to rally behind a cause.

One of my good blogger friends actually tweeted the story without knowing about it.

Thanks Steve!

Execute properly

Though I had no real idea if the Feedburner minisite would actually take off, it was worth a try. I wasn’t actually promoting anything besides having a case study for the book I was writing, but even still, I wanted to at least make it look semi-professional and not just like a random blog post on a website.

I thought about not only the big details—like why Feedburner might actually shut down—but also the small details, like having an upside-down Feedburner logo as the website favicon. I also decided to take a comic strip style approach and use my limited skills in Photoshop to put together something hopefully, as least slightly, humorous.

There was even a comment that said I ripped off the style of the Oatmeal which I’ll take as a compliment judging by Matt’s huge success after working here at Moz.

Finally, I also enlisted the help of three others to throw in the ever-important cat pictures with the hashtag #pleasedontkillfeedburner. Thanks to Ramsay and Chris for kindly sharing pictures of their cats which I could also use in the comic.

To put together the theme of the site, I simply headed over to my usual design haunt, ThemeForest, and picked up a template. Then I got to work in Photoshop without caring too much for standards or usability. I viewed the project as time-sensitive, so I wanted to get something up as quickly as possible.

Just be careful which font you use…

Funny; that’s not even Comic Sans.

The end result

Just to clarify, the only piece of promotion I did for this was around two personal tweets and I emailed no more than six people about the idea. If you consider that a tweet of mine would only get a few dozen clicks, I was quite surprised by what happened when I woke up the next day: The site made the homepage of Hacker News.

Here are the stats for the first week of the site going live:

To give even more transparency, here’s a list of some of the sources which sent traffic. Notice that a lot of the tweets sent a surprising amount of people to the page:

There are a lot more but that screenshot was getting long enough as it is. Here are a few other results from this campaign:

  • The site has between 300-500 backlinks (!) depending on which link checker you use
  • The domain is now a PR 4
  • It has been shared on social media over 1,400 times
  • The entire website was built in less than one day

Some people might argue that I’m fortunate that the article went viral on Hacker News (I didn’t submit it, and don’t know who did). If you’re one of those people, well I’ll just say that I’m also “fortunate” to have the idea for the site, to register the domain, to contact people for cat photos, to spend a day in Photoshop and to actually execute my idea.

Of course, not everything you create with the idea of ‘going viral’ is going to be a hit. But if you keep focusing on creating content that follows this outline (relevant to hot topics, gives people a reason to share, execute the idea properly) then no doubt that something you create is going to get a lot of attention.

Even with this campaign there were a few mistakes I made:

  • The site looks terrible on mobile devices. Seriously, don’t bother opening it in your iPad
  • I lost the account access to the email used in the graphic so I have no idea if Google responded after the initial buzz (duh!)
  • Ideally this would have been a campaign I could have linked to other web properties after the traffic burst subsided

Though in recent months I’ve been a very public advocate on the ViperChill blog that, quite simply, quality content doesn’t rank as well as it should, I still believe in it. Every time I’ve showed terrible websites ranking highly in Google, I’ve always stated that I would love for the opposite to be the case.

If you would like to hear more about this topic (I wrote 20,000+ words for the book before scrapping the idea) then please let me know in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do. There is a lot more to cover, but hopefully this post gave you a bit of inspiration about taking action on those random ideas I’m sure you have from time to time.

As a final plug, I’ve actually just started a brand new niche site case study (introduction post here) where 3 people will be tackling the same niche from three different angles. One of us is using only SEO, I’m relying purely on creating great content and the third contributor is a total beginner to creating sites who has all options available to him.

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November 6, 2013  Tags: , , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

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