Originally written and published for Ski Area Management in May 2006. It’s an oldy but goody!
There’s a secret new marketing strategy circulating through the ski industry. It’s basically free, almost always entertaining, and rarely involves a visit to the doctor.
In the old days, marketing was considered a function of your organization, and managing your message was an art. You used “visible” methods, such as printed materials, press releases and ads, TV, and radio spots to build brand awareness and generate sales leads. It worked, but the majority of these tools were expensive and inefficient. As the old adage went, “50 percent of marketing dollars are wasted, we just don’t know which half.”
That’s so last century. Today, marketing has become more personalized. It’s become more of an interactive experience. Instead of being an “art” and a function of your business it’s now an “act” of an organization, one that relies on “invisible” science and technology. We still use technology to generate leads, but also to talk directly with consumers. This is why “viral marketing” is rapidly replacing traditional marketing methods and has become the latest strain of marketing.
Traditional Visible Marketing
Invisible Viral Marketing
|Mail in Sweepstakes
||Individual Camera phones
||Gossip & rumor mill creation
||Instant Message/RSS Feeds
||Mobile text message marketing
|In-house sales manager
|Customer comment cards
|Broadcast ski reporting (Snocountry.com)
||Desktop ski reporting software (Snowmate)
Driven by consumers, viral marketing is rapidly gaining momentum and acceptance in the mainstream business world. A handful of early adopter ski areas are realizing the power the Web has to target the right consumers with the right message and to deliver the message inexpensively. These resorts have come to understand that their guests want three things: segmentation (talk to my group), personalization (in a way that I understand), and conversation (let me have a say). And they are shifting some marketing dollars into online efforts, including viral marketing.
What is viral marketing?
Have you ever visited a website and found an article, a coupon, a special offer, or something else that impressed you so much that you immediately sent an email to a friend about it? If you have, you’ve experienced “viral marketing.”
Viral marketing is a highly effective way to “bug your customers” by marketing your products or services using web-based technology. It is enticing because of the ease of execution, relative low-cost (compared to direct mail), good targeting, and the high and rapid response rate.
The term viral marketing was originally coined by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson in 1997 to describe Hotmail’s email practice of adding advertising for themselves to outgoing mail from their users. The strategy was simple. On the bottom of each and every Hotmail email was the phrase, “Get your free private email at www.hotmail.com.” According to Jurvetson, this simple sentence helped to make Hotmail the largest email provider in India without spending a dime.
Viral marketing campaigns are used to generate awareness or to stimulate specific action. By harnessing the network effect of the Internet, viral marketing can reach large numbers of people rapidly, like a bug or flu virus in humans. Instead of propagating itself by human contact, it does so by computer contact (in a good way). One minute no one’s heard of a product or service like Hotmail; next minute, it’s everywhere.
Viral marketing is effective because it capitalizes on referrals from an unbiased and trusted third party—your consumer. Let just one of your customers catch your “marketing bug,” and they will happily “sneeze it” to everyone they know. Viral marketing campaigns can have a long life expectancy and are usually much more cost effective than other marketing methods, since your “sneezers” take it upon themselves to spread your message for free—more precisely, as the by-product of your customers’ normal online activity.
Building the Bug
A viral marketing campaign should focus on something you do, NOT on who you are. A viral campaign is something that is so cool, so exciting, or so creative that it gets people very excited; they can’t wait to share it with others. Often the ultimate goal of viral marketing campaigns (and the proof of their success) is to generate media coverage worth many times more than your entire advertising budget.
“Bob,” an animated character created by Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Pennsylvania, is a great example of a concept that “went viral” due to its broad appeal and loyal following. “Bob” is everybody’s Elk insider-buddy who gives them the scoop on what’s happening. He came to life on the web in January 2006. According to general manager Gregg Confer, “Bob is just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job… especially for an animated character.” Customers can’t get enough of Bob, so he will soon be appearing in the resort’s coloring books, new clothing line, and on employee uniforms.
The “Bob” concept was developed to appeal to consumers in a fresh and entertaining way that differentiated Elk from its competition. For about $3,000 in development and implementation costs, “Bob” helped drive the resort website visits up 92 percent over a three-month time span during the 2005-06 season. To see how cool Bob is, go to www.elkskier.com.
Making the bug cool
Since viral marketing is relatively new, most organizations are confused about what viral campaigns are and how they work. The method is still evolving. However, there are three basic types of viral marketing: word-of-mouth, pass-it-on, and virtual tools.
1. Word of mouth involves integrated web technology that encourages you to “Tell a Friend,” “Send this coupon to a friend,” or “Recommend this website to a friend.”
Killington has done a great job of word of mouth viral marketing with their weekly email newsletter “The Drift.” Unlike traditional (and boring) newsletters, this one is off-beat, with a personal writing style that caters to Killington insiders. Besides entertaining content, there’s a contest in every issue. Named “Gimme, Gimme,” the questions keep readers coming back for more. One “Gimme, Gimme” question asked, “If you weren’t planning to go skiing or riding on a given weekend, what could a resort do for you to get you motivated (hint, hint, wink, wink, and a nudge)? Free tickets and a foot of snow are not acceptable answers only because I can control neither.” Respondents could win two 2-Day lift tickets valid for the rest of the season.
Nick Polumbus, Killington’s marketing brand manager (and the personality behind “Drift”), was not able to share the area’s in-house subscribers numbers, but admitted that “our email subscriber list has stayed pretty consistent for the past 3-4 years. We’ve worked hard to deliver content, giveaways, and cool new things such as podcasting to keep our subscribers reading and hopefully coming to Killington.” He admitted that The Drift receives an average of 600-900 email responses to every “Gimme, Gimme” contest. Considering the only cost involved is a bit of creativity, that’s viral! To get the drift of The Drift, go to http://www.killington.com.
2. Pass-It-On is the ultimate viral technique. Ever pass on a joke or political cartoon? Sure, you and everyone else. A January 2006 study by Sharpe Partners revealed that 9 out of 10 adult Internet users in America share content with others via email.
Pass-it-on viral marketing relies on social networking, where the receiver feels compelled to “pass on” and share an article, cool tool, funny video, etc through email to a friend, family member, or associate. Echo Mountain, Colorado, has exploited this in a most unique way. To spread word of the all-park area’s impending opening last March, the resort tapped into the social networking power of snowboarders and freestyle skiers through Myspace.com. For those who have somehow escaped news of this infamous and wildly popular social networking website, it offers a plethora of instant communication (i.e., viral marketing) tools, including music & photo sharing, blog creation, anonymous matchmaking (match people of similar interests), community group space, and an internal email system to send messages to other MySpace.com friends. MySpace.com has recently been criticized for allowing members to post indecent pictures and use high levels of profanity, and for some advertising that violates good taste, none of which deters its fans. According to Alexa’s web report in March 2006, MySpace is the world’s fifth-most popular English-language website.
According to Eric Pettit, marketing director for Echo Mountain, “we chose to build a page on Myspace.com after listening to recommendations from our interns, who are closest in age to our target market. It made sense for us to go where there’s already a [freestyle skier and snowboard] community interacting online. The fact that it’s free didn’t hurt, either.” As for the controversy that surrounds Myspace, Eric said, “People are going to talk to their buds online. We can either join in and help lead the conversation or let it go on without us. We just try to watch what WE say.”
Their viral thinking has paid off. Just a few weeks after creating their page on Myspace.com they had already gathered hundreds of “friends,” comments and pictures. The best part? Their network of sneezers continues to grow, all without spending one single penny. You can see it online at www.myspace.com/echomtnpark.
3. Virtual tools are usually product- or service-based. A viral tool is used online and embedded with a marketing message, like Hotmail’s free emails.
In January of 2004, Vail launched “Snowmate,” a downloadable computer program that website visitors and resort guests could leave on their desktop to get up-to-the-minute information on weather, snow conditions, video clips, and travel offers. Snowmate lets users seek information in a fun, unique, and playful way. It includes “Trevvor,” an animated cartoon character, and animations such as piles of snow on the computer screen when it was snowing at Vail. Vail included “tell-a-friend” tools in the program that made it easy for users to email others favorite images or deals.
Although this type of viral tool is more expensive than most, it is still relatively cheap by traditional standards, and it produced significant returns. According to Kam Rope, director of online marketing and sales for Vail Resorts, there were 55,000 downloads in the first five months, and more than $200,000 in measurable revenue from click-throughs (users who used their mouse to click on a link in the program to visit a website or get additional information). The 2006-07 season will see the third generation of the application, with new elements to make the viral tool more compelling for the user and more rewarding for Vail Resorts.
Spreading the Bug
Coming up with a cool concept that people will embrace and share with others is not easy. But if you can get your “sneezers” involved in building the concepts, they will be more likely to spread your bug. That’s just what Snow Trails Winter Resort in Ohio did this past season.
The Snow Trails “Wanted Video Contest” focused on creating a place where terrain park enthusiasts could show off their best video tricks to all their friends. Snow Trails created a micro-site on their website that allowed registered contestants to upload personal video for “fame and prizes”. Here’s the viral part: to win fame and prizes, the contestants had to engage their network of friends to visit snowtrails.com and vote for their videos. By integrating “tell a friend” and “voting system” software into the micro-site, it was fun and easy for contestants to “spread the word” about their video—and the Snow Trails brand as well.
Snow Trails marketing manager Nate Wolleson says, “For less than $1,000 we were able to excite a target market that is normally very hard to reach, and to generate ten times our investment in sponsor money and prizes. The Wanted Video Contest not only generated a 12 percent increase in visitors on snowtrails.com during the campaign but also spiked an 18 percent jump in people that spent two or more minutes on the site. And, as you know, the longer they hang around, the longer they think about Snow Trails.”
How to Keep from Getting Sick
One of the most exciting things about viral marketing is the fact that anyone can do it. No matter if you are a 25,000 skier-visit area or a 250,000 skier-visit resort, the only thing you need (besides an open mind) is to create something that people WANT to share with others.
Remember that. Many marketers will be tempted to quickly throw together a campaign while viral marketing is still relatively new. Unfortunately, most will fail for one simple reason: lameness. To become viral, the email, website, application, or video being shared must be unique, informative and/or entertaining, or create a definite value by solving a problem. If it doesn’t appear to originate from a credible entity (i.e., a relevant organization or individual to the sneezer), it can be seen as blatant advertising and immediately discredited. Finally, if the leave-behind message doesn’t resonate with the target/intended audience, or provide a meaningful call to action, it’s a waste of time and money.
Spreading your own Bug
So don’t be lame! Inoculate yourself against failure—follow the top 10 best practices of the six areas mentioned above.
Ski Resort Viral Marketing Best Practices:
1. Know your audience
Start with something relevant to your sneezers to get their attention and encourage them to act. Understanding and delivering what your sneezers want is the key to “going viral.” This includes going to where they are (Echo Mountain and Myspace.com) and speaking their language (Killington’s The Drift).
2. Remember who you are
The tone and personality of your viral campaign will either build long-term relationships or destroy them. A fun and friendly viral campaign (Elk Mountain’s “Bob”) will reinforce how your customers see your resort. A borrowed campaign that is not aligned with your overall marketing objectives or your personality will almost always backfire.
3. Keep it short and sweet (K.I.S.S.)
Always keep your content brief and relevant. You have 7 seconds to make an impression that captures the reader’s attention. Use bullet points or short paragraphs to make information and sentences easy to absorb.
4. Layout and design
Appearance and style can play a major role in making your viral campaign a success. Build your viral tool around the niche group you are trying to attract. Keep in mind that not everyone has broadband. Readability and quick on-screen reading should be number-one priorities. For those that do have broadband and are web savvy, exploit it (think Snow Trails, Wanted Video Contest).
5. Covertly embed promotional concepts into your viral tools.
Encourage people to visit your website more often by offering the things that appeal to them the most, such as coupons, e-specials, contests, and fresh content (Vail’s SnowMate).
6. Be unique.
Do things that are unique and grab attention. Be subtle, not forceful.
7. Provide a call to action.
Tell people what you want them to do. Make it simple. Make it intuitive. Make it easy. Vail encourages visitors to download the application and start having fun.
8. Offer an incentive.
Greed is the most common motivator. Use it to encourage your sneezers to act on your behalf: “Tell a friend and be included in a drawing for …” Then, leverage, leverage, leverage! “Tell five friends and get a free …” Snow Trails’ video contest compelled contestants to get their friends to visit the snowtrails.com website to vote.
9. Trust no one…
10. Be prepared for a big response.
Viral tactics are designed to grow exponentially and are uncontrollable. You tell two friends, then they tell two friends, then they tell two friends, and so on. Often, these hordes will jam your web site, registering, downloading a large file, requesting a freebie, or buying something. If the campaign is strong enough, you might see a 10- or 100-fold increase in traffic within a day. Make sure whatever technology you use can handle the spike. There’s nothing worse than offering something you can’t deliver on.