A few years ago plenty was being written about the potential goldmine that viral email marketing offered online marketers who learned how to take advantage of it. At the time it was generally acknowledged that viral campaigns were generally a stroke of luck rather than a stroke of genius. To have a message that somehow was deemed worthy of getting passed from one person to another was the thing of dreams, and plenty of pointers were offered to help email marketers reach the heights.
Now that we've had a few more years to ponder the value of viral email as the shangri-la in online marketing, we ask the question: "Is it possible to design a successful viral email campaign or is it still just luck of the draw?" Add to that the question, "Is it possible to plan out a branding campaign that people will actually want to pass along even if it's not associated with a game, silly video clip, or an animation spoofing presidential candidates?"
Certainly we've seen successful examples, with the Burger King Subservient Chicken being the latest example. But other contenders in the past few years have been the 2-minute "Cog," the Honda car commercial from the UK that showed that people, despite what TiVo detractors would say, will not only watch a long form commercial but will pass it along as long as the creative is outstanding.
In most cases, the viral emails that we receive are unformatted links to Web sites that offer a video clip or some other interesting indulgence. However, there have also been a good number of commercially formatted e-mails that we may or may not see. Fortunately the folks at Viral.3dge.net have created a huge repository of viral emails and other shared experience documents that have made the rounds. Spending some time in their stacks should give you an idea of what seems to work best.
Many of the agencies around have found the mix to launch these emails. It is one part planning (bandwidth), one part creative, and one part seeding the distribution. At most agencies they have friends and contacts at other agencies. They use these contacts to send these emails to and ask them to send them on to others. If you can get 50-100 people to start the chain with something that is good, you can watch it flood the web.
The success of viral email marketing has its basis in the sharing of experiences. We like to share things that amuse, shock, intrigue, and anger us with others whom we feel will have a similar experience. Not every message has to have great meaning: sometimes it's nothing more than a really good ad.