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David Meerman Scott is an online-thought-leadership and viral-marketing strategist whose programs have won numerous awards and are responsible for selling over one billion dollars in products and services worldwide.

He will be delivering the luncheon keynote on June 10, during the MarketingProfs Business-to-Business Forum 2008, Boston, June 9 & 10. He will discuss "B-to-B Viral Marketing: How to Trigger 'Word-of-Mouse' that Spreads Your Ideas for Free."

Viral marketing has been all the rage in recent years: Companies are intoxicated with the idea of creating the next video that spreads across the Internet and becomes a viral sensation.

But for every successful viral effort there are countless attempts that totally miss the mark. That's why every company that wants to learn more about viral marketing should consult an expert in the field such as David Meerman Scott.

Scott understands why ideas spread in a Web 2.0 world, and he educates his clients on why the "old school" rules of PR and marketing are totally irrelevant in a time of content-sharing on YouTube and Twitter.

Q: Can you explain what exactly viral marketing is, and how it can benefit the B2B marketer?

A: One of the coolest things about the Web is that when an idea takes off, it can propel a brand or company to seemingly instant fame and fortune. For free. Whatever you call it—viral, buzz, word-of-mouse, or word-of-blog—having other people tell your story drives action. One person sends it to another, then that person sends it to yet another, and on and on.

The formula for success includes a combination of some great—and free—Web content (a video, blog entry, interactive tool, or e-book) that provides valuable information (or is groundbreaking or amazing or hilarious), plus a network of people to light the fire and links that make your content very easy to share.

Viral marketing—having others tell and spread your story for you—is one of the most exciting and powerful ways to reach your audiences. It's not easy to harness the power of viral marketing, but any company with thoughtful ideas to share—and clever ways to create interest in them—can, after some careful preparation, gain fame and success on the Web.

Q: We've all heard about how easily an idea or video can go viral on the internet. What makes one video go viral while another doesn't?

A: Viral-marketing success means thinking like a venture capitalist (VC) or film producer. While I think it is difficult to purposely create viral marketing buzz, it is certainly possible, and the best strategy is to emulate the way VCs invest in startup companies and studios create films.

A typical VC follows a maxim stating that most ventures will fail, a few might do OK, and—hopefully—one will take off and become a large enterprise that will repay investors many times the initial investment when it is sold for a lot of money or goes public on the stock market.

Record companies and movie studios follow the same principles, expecting that most of the projects they green-light will have meager sales but that the one hit will more than repay the cost of a bunch of flops.

The problem is that nobody knows with certainty which movie or venture-backed company in the portfolio will succeed, so finding a success is a numbers game requiring investment in many prospects.

The same goes for viral marketing efforts, so think of your viral marketing campaigns in much the same way. Many will be duds that won't spark any interest; a few will generate some notice and basically pay back your investment of the time required to create them; and a handful will go viral and make the entire program of 10 or 20 viral marketing campaigns worthwhile.

Thus, if we apply our venture capital/viral marketing analogy, we might suppose that one needs to think of hundreds of ideas and then choose a handful to "fund" (i.e., actually create).

I've worked with organizations that have thought up literally hundreds of viral marketing ideas over the course of a day's brainstorming session. That's great! You never really know which one is likely to succeed, so the more good ideas, the better.

Q: I'm excited about the idea of creating content that goes viral and spreads like wildfire. But how can I measure the effectiveness of my efforts? How can I tie my viral marketing initiative back to the bottom line and tell if my efforts were a success?

A: Viral marketing is not about sales leads. It is about spreading your ideas.

One of the most important aspects is to step back for a moment and consider your goals in planning a viral marketing initiative.

For decades, B2B marketers have measured against a goal for the number of "sales leads." But a lead requires that people give you their personal information. Most people won't bother, because they don't like being spammed by email once they give an email address and they don't like to receive phone calls from salespeople.

With viral marketing, forget about leads and focus on spreading your ideas. Make your information totally free with no registration required. Give away that e-book or whitepaper. Point people to free video and audio.

Here are some things you can measure:

  • How many people are exposed to your ideas?
  • How often bloggers are talking about you and your ideas? (And what are the bloggers saying?)
  • Where are you appearing in search results for important phrases?
  • How many people are engaging with you and are making the choice to speak with you about your offerings?

Viral marketing is about creating great Web content that people want to consume (and share with others) rather than coercing them to fill out a form to get something.

Q: What if I don't want to start creating videos? Are there ways I can increase the chances of my existing marketing going viral?

A: Viral marketing success comes from self-publishing Web content that people want to share. It's not about gimmicks. It's not about paying an agency to coerce people into doing something. It's not about using something like a whitepaper as "lead bait."

For B2B companies, viral marketing is the most empowering form of marketing there is. You need to think about your buyer personas in order to create something that goes viral. Most organizations fail to create things that go viral because they are too focused on their own egotistical, internally focused "messages" to be successful.

A buyer persona is essentially a demographic group of buyers that you have identified as having a specific interest in your organization or product or a specific market problem that your product solves. By doing some basic research on your buyers (just listen to them!) and then creating content that appeals to them, your viral marketing efforts will be much more effective.

In any business, viral marketing will be more effective with targeted content developed for buyer personas (an e-book, an interactive tool, a Facebook application, a blog, or a contest are all examples). And done well, this more appropriate content will also be beneficial for search engine optimization because the words and phrases used in the copy are targeted specifically to real people with problems that your organization solves.

Q: Let's be honest: The idea of customers spreading marketing messages for a company likely scares many marketers to death! If a company is reluctant to involve customers in distributing its marketing messages, how would you allay such fears?

A: OK, let's really be honest. B2B marketers aren't scared of viral marketing—B2B Marketers are scared of the unknown.

If we're really honest, we admit that B2B marketers are comfortable doing the same old crap year in and year out. They spend tons of money at tradeshows. They spam their customers with inane email "campaigns." They celebrate when they get a mention on page 60 of a Gartner analyst report that only Gartner clients have access to. They pay PR agencies big bucks and all they have to show for it is a two-sentence mention on paragraph ten of a story in a trade magazine that nobody reads. (If this sounds like the marketing at your company, I'd ask a simple question: "How's it working for you?")

If we're really honest, we must realize that buying access with expensive advertising and begging the media and analysts is not effective online. What works online is creating content ourselves—content that people want to share.

If we're really honest, we must realize that we no longer control the sales process. We can't assume that a million dollar direct mail campaign targeting the CIOs of the top 5,000 companies in the world is doomed to fail. That's not what succeeds today.

If we're really honest, we all realize that the way that people find answers to their problems and research problems is to turn first to Google. Viral marketing spreads your ideas so that people find you.

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image of Mack Collier

Mack Collier is a social-media strategist based in Alabama. He helps companies build programs and initiatives that let them better connect with their customers and advocates. His podcast, The Fan-Damn-Tastic Marketing Show, discusses ways that brands can turn customers into fans. His first book, Think Like a Rock Star: How to Create Social Media and Marketing Strategies That Turn Customers Into Fans, was published in April 2013 by McGraw-Hill.

Twitter: @MackCollier

LinkedIn: Mack Collier