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Beyond Viral: Using The Web To Nurture 'Contagious Behavior' Among Customers

Leveraging the Web to get customers to do free product marketing and design work for you might sound like a dream come true, but you might not have the belly--or the luck--to succeed at it. Control freaks need not apply.

Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson doesn't see any reason for startups to budget funds for marketing anymore.

Indeed, Jurvetson, a partner with the legendary Silicon Valley venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, has one question for companies that do.


Instead, Jurvetson tells businesses to go for "zero cost" marketing, where customers themselves spread the word about the products and services for sale. "If they have other plans, we wonder what on earth they are thinking," says Jurvetson, who coined the phrase "viral marketing" back in 1997 in an influential note published in Netscape's M-Files newsletter.

Sam Warner agrees. As president of Whish Body Products, a maker of shaving products for women, he bought keywords on both Google and Yahoo when launching his firm three months ago. Although click-throughs were plentiful, there were very few conversions to sales on his Web site. It wasn't until his PR firm decided to "seed" product mentions in key blogs that orders started pouring in. Bloggers from influential beauty sites like Cosmo Girl and Beauty Addict began raving about Whish products, and word quickly spread.

Whish sales rose a whopping 75%. Customers began providing extensive feedback on what they liked--and what they wanted to see next. Now Warner's whole business strategy has changed.

"We send bloggers samples of our products, and let them write about their own experiences in their own words," says Warner, who says that the "conversations" taking place online within the beauty products community have actively influenced his company's direction. "Given the nature of what we do, this is critical. We have to get people talking--to us as well as to each other."

Indeed, Whish is just one example of how businesses are beginning to harness the power of the Web to actively promote what psychologists have long called "contagious behavior," where the actions of one person trigger similar actions in others.

More recently, observers of emerging technology trends have started using the phrase to describe the way that individuals who belong to networked communities "infect" fellow members through their passion and enthusiasm for a topic.

On the surface, "contagiousness" might seem like nothing new. After all, the term viral marketing--which involves leveraging Web-based social networks to exponentially boost product or brand awareness--was coined nearly a decade ago.

But although similar to viral marketing, there are some key differences. Viral campaigns come largely in the form of one-way marketing messages that companies release as e-mails, videos, URLs, and--more recently--blogs that they hope people will forward to others.

Calling something contagious, on the other hand, stresses the more holistic, iterative, and enduring aspects of the process.

"Contagiousness takes viral marketing a step further by paying attention to the conversations between people, nurturing them, and using them to develop collaborative communities," says Perry Klebahn, a consulting professor at Stanford who was formerly the head of sales and marketing at retailer Patagonia. Rather than being the flash-in-the-pan that most viral campaigns are, contagious conversations "significantly affect the general customer experience over the long term," he says.

Not incidentally, when communities are centered around or become attached to particular products--as they do with increasing frequency--this can result in increased sales as well as product design input.

"It used to be very clear: you were either part of an organization or not part of an organization," says Gil Penchina, formerly a senior executive at eBay and now CEO of Wikia, which offers free hosting for community-based wikis. "That determined whether you had an economic interest in contributing to its goal--and whether you had any influence on it." But now something else is happening, he says. "The Internet is making it so easy to contribute in small amounts that it has become reasonable to expect people to join in on someone else's project," regardless of whether that project is commercial in nature.

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