Building buzz: 3 e-commerce brands that went viral

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One of the biggest challenges any e-commerce brand faces is acquiring new customers. The Holy Grail of customer acquisition is, of course, the ever-elusive concept of viral marketing.

Viral marketing is based on the potential of exponential customer growth as existing customers share your product with their friends and network. If each customer brings in one or more new customers you’re business has cracked a magic code of “viral growth.” Of course, this code isn’t easy to crack. However, the idea of stimulating sharing and creating “virality” can be viewed through several lenses. So let’s discuss three strategies, and various tools, that e-commerce companies can use to encourage customer sharing with the hopes of igniting viral growth.

Creating a Product or Product Experience that is Viral

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Likely the aspiration of many e-commerce brands, building “virality” directly into your product is a clear strategy for taking advantage of viral marketing. What does it mean, however, to have virality built into your product? Clearly there needs to be something unique or compelling about your product for it to naturally spur customer desire to share/talk about it. Perhaps it’s the brand-story, a feature or a product benefit. This article actually developed from a conversation with Justin Winter, founder of Diamond Candles, one of the most successful examples I’ve seen of an e-commerce company that built “virality” right into their product.

At core, Diamond Candles sells candles with a ring inside that is revealed once the candle has melted down. The surprise factor is that the ring could be valued anywhere from $1 – $5,000, even though a candle costs around $20 – $25. Given that customers won’t find out whether they’ve won the $5,000 ring until they burn through the candle, it builds a tremendous amount of excitement. It’s something that Diamond Candles has capitalized on in the form of “Ring Reveals” where they share any customer videos/photos as these customers ‘reveal’ the ring their candle contained. It’s a totally unique and brilliant model that helped propel Diamond Candles to over $1 million in sale sin their first year of operations.

Unfortunately, this article isn’t intended as a brainstorm to make your specific product viral, that’s up to you, but there are interesting things to observe around why customers might share a product or product experience. The first reason –sharing a product would be valuable to a customer’s friends or network. If they found value in the product and have friends of similar taste, they would naturally receive the social benefit of being the one to introduce that friend to said product. The second reason –by sharing a product, especially if you’re the first in your network, can make you appear ‘cool’ to your friends. These are both basic concepts but important to understand.

Knowing that people want to help their friends and appear cool, what are the methods by which a customer might go about sharing this “viral product?” There are three primary means of sharing. The first –customers simply want to state they’ve purchased a product with no/minimal additional commentary, such as posting on Facebook. The second –they want to review a product in fair detail, such as via a review tool. Third –they want to share their experience with the product, such as via a Youtube video.

Here’s a few tools that help encourage these types of sharing behaviors:

Creating Content that is Viral

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When the term viral is heard, most folks think of wildly-popular YouTube videos, such as the Old Spice Man and Double Rainbows, both great examples of viral content. Creating this type of viral content is what most companies go after in their viral marketing strategies, however, it’s hard to attain. Great viral content takes the right message, to the right audience at the right time – certainly luck is involved. Although it isn’t easy to duplicate, viral content is a strategy to consider as an ecommerce company. Look at the e-commerce brand Dollar Shave Club,whose “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” video has received millions of views and helped drive the company to reach millions in revenue within a few years.

What is it that drives people to share content in the first place? Very similar to viral products, it’s about satisfying the customer’s ego, either allowing them to deliver value to their network by sharing something funny/relevant or experiencing the cool factor of being the first to share and demonstrate they’re in-the-know.

What exactly do people tend to do in terms of sharing viral content? The first is the basic repost to one of their social networks. The second is providing a deeper commenting/reviewing on a platform such as Tumblr or a blog. The third would be to remix that content in their own fashion, possibly creating a spoof version. In any case, e-commerce brands should make it a priority to help customers interact with their content in any method they choose.

Here are a few tools that help encourage these types of sharing behaviors:

Creating an Offer that is Viral

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The final approach to viral marketing is the idea of creating a viral offer. Rather than viral products and viral content, where customers share primarily to create value for their network or boost their personal brand, a viral offer focuses on using incentives to motivate a customer to share your product. One example highlighted in a more detailed case study by PropelAd, is the e-commerce brand Lilly Pulitzer. Lilly Pulitzer ran a contest that gave away 50 of their most popular product, a vibrantly-colored Agenda, where entering the competition required that a customer to share their contact information and then share the competition with their friends. In this case, Lilly Pulitzer captured over 9K email addresses, received 23,000 likes and 40,000 page views, as well as huge ROI in new orders following the conclusion of the campaign.

Taking a moment again to look at why customers would share something like a contest. Any time a customer has a financial incentive to promote a product they’re likely to think about sharing it. E-commerce brands have many options in structuring those incentives. The first decision is whether the incentive goes entirely to the referer, the referee or is split between the two parties. A few examples of incentives might include discounts on future product purchase, free upgrades/add-ons, loyalty points or larger contests for free giveaways, such as with Lilly Pulitzer.

So how might e-commerce brands encourage customers to share their viral offers? First, allowing for any sort of direct invitation via email is a great channel. Second, social sharing, promoting viral products and viral content, is a natural. Third, however, could include setting up more structured relationships with customers via an affiliate marketing platform or referral management platform where customers are given specific links, access to reports and payouts for their active promotion of specific offers.

Here are a few tools that help encourage these types of sharing behaviors:

Each of the above strategies lays the groundwork for thinking about adding “virality” to an e-commerce brand. In parting, there are a few other tactics worth mentioning to ensure the above strategies are maximized. The first is to “square your sharing” by highlighting any of your customers who active share your product/content/offer via your website or social media channels.

That additional public recognition can help fuel customer participation. Second, ensure you have good analytic platforms configured in your website so you can measure the effectiveness of your strategy. Lastly, focus in on one or two channels. Based on your audience, pick one channel where they’re encouraged to share your product/content/offer to ensure you getting the maximum value possible.

Photo: Bloomua / Shutterstock.com

Ross Beyeler
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January 20, 2015
Ross Beyeler

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