Anatomy of a Viral Marketing Campaign

've been talking about the power of Web content as a viral marketing tool for ages. It's an obsession of mine and one key subject in my latest dead-tree book: Cashing In with Content: How Innovative Marketers Use Digital Information to Turn Browsers into Buyers. Everyday I see more and more cool examples of smart marketing people at companies promoting products and services through thought leadership in the form of Web content. Blogs, email newsletters, white papers, Webinars, great Web site content, and ebooks are all examples of terrific—and authentic—ways to communicate to a market. Web content shows that the leaders of an organization understand the problems that buyers face. The viral effect kicks in when someone reads what you've produced and says, "Hey, this is interesting," and blogs about it themselves, emails it to a friend, or prints it out for a colleague.

Communicating with target audiences through Web content initiatives is also an extremely cost-effective form of marketing. If you've got an hour or two a week to devote to it, a blog is virtually free to produce. Contrast that to, say, an expensive direct mail campaign. Other forms of marketing also take time to produce, but cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to execute.

As much as I rant about Web content as a viral marketing tool on the speaking circuit and riff about it on my blog, I've never had detailed insight into the specific metrics around one viral marketing effort using Web content—until now. In mid-January, I put my marketing money where my mouth is: I published a complementary ebook, The New Rules of PR: How to Create a Press Release Strategy for Reaching Buyers Directly. Since then, I have been happily watching the wave of interest from this effort and am amazed by the metrics. If the results I've achieved are any indication, Web content, particularly in the form of ebooks, is one of the best viral marketing initiatives today.

My ebook, The New Rules of PR, is about how the Web has changed the rules for press releases (though most old-line PR professionals don't know it yet). Today, savvy marketers use press releases to reach buyers directly. While many marketing and PR people understand that press releases sent over the wires appear in near-real time on services like Google News, very few understand the implications for how they must dramatically alter their press release strategy in order to maximize the effectiveness of the press release as a direct consumer-communication channel.

The media has been disintermediated. The Web has changed the rules. Buyers read press releases directly, and you need to be talking their language. This is not to suggest that media relations are no longer important; mainstream media and the trade press must be part of an overall communications strategy. In some cases, the press remains critically important and the media still derives some of its content from press releases. But your primary audience is no longer just a handful of journalists. Your audience is millions of people with Internet connections and access to search engines and RSS readers.

In mid-January, I quietly released this ebook via a post on my blog Web Ink Now ( and by emailing a link to the ebook to select friends and colleagues. Within hours, hundreds of people had downloaded the ebook. In the next several days, alert bloggers including Jonathan Kranz, Dee Rambeau, Steve Goldstein, and Melanie Surplice picked up on the availability of the ebook and posted links. Over the next three days, the ebook generated just over 1,000 downloads per day. I was thrilled at the response. The power of a half-dozen bloggers telling the same story is tremendous. And an added bonus is that the Web allows me to measure the results in real time.

That was just the beginning, however. Several days later, two heavy-hitters jumped in: Seth Godin wrote a post about the ebook called "What Would David Do?" Then Steve Rubell wrote on his blog Micro Persuasion a deliciously controversial post, "Direct-to-Consumer Press Releases Suck." (Turns out there's nothing like a negative viewpoint to drive viral marketing!) In just the next three days, 15,000 people downloaded the ebook. Then, with the wide reach of Godin and Rubell adding to the momentum, nearly 100 bloggers posted their thoughts on The New Rules of PR.

As I write this column, it is just seven weeks since the release of my ebook. When I first put it out, there was precisely one hit on Google for the phrase new rules of pr. Seven weeks of viral effects later there are more than 1,000 hits on Google. Amazing. More than 50,000 people (and counting) have downloaded it. Not bad for a little ebook that cost virtually no money to write, produce, and promote. Viral marketing works. And you can do it too.

[Note: Scott's New Rules of PR ebook campaign was selected for the Marketing Serpa "Viral Marketing Hall of Fame." See #3. --Ed]