Friend-Get-A-Friend: The Original Viral Marketing

Viral marketing describes the electronic version of word-of-mouth marketing. One of the first identified electronic viral marketing concepts was Hotmail. A footer was placed at the bottom of every outgoing Hotmail e-mail, encouraging the recipient to sign up for Hotmail; this was credited with growing the Hotmail user database exponentially.

The hallmark of all viral campaigns is to spread a marketing initiative via user/buyer influence with friends and family. But long before Hotmail, companies like Book-of-the-Month Club ran “member-get-a-member” campaigns. Over the years, “get-a-friend” programs have been a staple for some direct marketers. Why? “Get-a-friend” programs consistently deliver quality customers at a lower cost than just about any other customer acquisition promotion effort available.

The critical key to success with get-a-friend programs is offer. You must offer something to the friend and to the current customer. Yes, some customers will be happy to suggest your brand to friends or family without prompting or inducement, but that number is very small. In asking your customer to recommend you to others you must answer the question “What’s in it for me?”

What kind of offers work? For the prospective new customer, the same offers you would use to acquire new customers in other venues are the most sensible. Free shipping for a first order with your brand is certainly a popular choice. For the existing customer, consider offers that appeal uniquely to existing customers. Discount on orders, free gift with purchase, points for your loyalty program if you have one, etc.

Creative for these offers can be a little tricky in that there are two offers being described. Take pains to make sure that each offer is clear and shown separately so as to not confuse either your customer or prospect.

Ensure that you do not give the existing customer their offer until their friend has completed their first order. This means you may need to consider programming to track these orders in your order fulfillment system – adding in the ability to verify that each existing customer that attempts to collect on their get-a-friend offer actually had a friend make a new purchase with you. An initial program can be tested with a simple manual tracking system but once you roll a get-a-friend program out you will want to automate the process.

Where and how do you promote get-a-friend offers? Inserts in outgoing shipments and e-mail promotions are particularly effective. Inserts in outgoing shipments work because when the consumer received their product they will be in a positive attitude towards your brand. Email works because it becomes very easy for your customer to forward the offer to a friend. Certainly offers in outgoing catalogs or separate postcard mailings can be done, however these are both more expensive and thus not where I would recommend starting with a get-a-friend program.

Remember “birds of a feather flock together.” Utilize your relationship with existing customers to maximize your opportunity to acquire prospects with the same types of interests as your existing customers. Viral, word-of-mouth, get-a-friend marketing—whatever you call it—can be a very profitable method to acquire new, good quality customers.

Shari Altman is president of Altman Dedicated Direct.

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