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Soapbox: About the Industry

Viral Marketing Invitational

by Sandy Antunes
Nov 05,2004

 

Viral Marketing Invitational

by Sandy Antunes

So, here I am, unclean. I just infected myself with a viral marketing scheme. And I'm hoping to pass it to you, too. In fact, I hope you'll invent one just for gaming. Let's infect the world!

Viral Marketing is a premeditated version of word of mouth, where you provide an incentive for others to pass your message along. "Get $5 off for anyone new you, our existing customer, refers to us" is viral. Anyone who signs up has an incentive to rope their friends in, too. And those friends will rope in still more friends, until eventually your initial 'seed' has reached, well, everybody everyone knows. All 6 billion souls on this planet. Success! Profit galore!!!

Such plans aren't the same as pyramid scams, in that you (the customer infecting potential new customers) usually don't get a bonus once those you infected sign up others. So if you recruit the head of the local gaming club, that person is going to make a fortune in referrals, even though you infected her.

Such is life-- the person doing the legwork profits. Not a bad moral lesson, come to think of it.

In sales, this kind of payback would simply be a 'commission'. Viral marketing, in essence, turns each customer into a salesperson for you.

Now, the virus I just did is freeipods.com. As their name suggests, they offer free squids and calamari to each... oops, wait, sorry, that'd be freepods.com. No, this site is offering free iPods to anyone able to:

1) Sign up with an email address,

2) Join one of the services they offer (things like the BMG music club, Blockbuster video, some credit cards to get, AOL Internet, and similar)

3) ... and refer 5 friends to also join.

"Wired" magazine covered them, and they do seem legit (I found them via /., for the curious). They do indeed give out iPods to anyone willing to join one of their service partners plus rope in 5 other suckers... err, sign-ups.

Presumably they make their money by getting a referral fee or cut of any new sign-up they bring their partners. From which they can afford to give iPods to their best referrers. Or maybe they're just a dot-com and don't actually make money themselves, they just really, really like iPods. Ooh, they could be a sinister front for Apple to increase iPod awareness! Except, why would you want a free iPod unless you were already aware of iPodism. Oh, this makes my head hurt.

So, moving on, first, use this link to go to freeipods.com. Seriously, use that link. It's useless to me if you don't-- only with that will referrer 'sandy@rpg.net' (me!) get the credit.

And if just 5 of my loyal 11 readers does this, I get a free iPod! Woo hoo!

(I'll post in a future column if/when this works. It worked for the person that referred me. And if you're pathetically curious, I chose to join BMG, but it didn't 'take', so I did a free credit card application and got that step completed. Seems the online apps and free stuff are better than hard merchandise at getting credit.)

Now, I'm behind the curve on this. Already, the free iPods program has become overhyped, covered in magazines like the aforementioned "Wired", has had parodies done on it, even has spam using it to phish. The handy thing about this is, even though it means the program may be nearly 'spent', it neatly illustrates the lifetime of such a scheme:

  1. Launch, unknown. The tricky beginning.
  2. Grassroots spread. It's still cool and easy to do.
  3. Overhyped. Many buy in but it's harder to spread.
  4. Crash/played out. Message established, no need to keep going.

In short, the campaign isn't intended to give everyone a free Ipod, just to make everyone aware of iPods. So it can consider itself fulfilled once it's saturated and overhyped. Message delivered, actually getting people to complete it becomes less useful. We're still in stage 3, but I think in 3 months this will be dead. That gives readers enough time to cash in, but don't expect it to last through next year!

Okay, how's this relate to gaming? Geeze, this should be easy to figure. Young's Law already states 'Games are sold by word of mouth'. All viral schemes do is formalize-- and often automate-- the relationship by providing a kickback to any customer willing to promote you.

Imagine you run, oh, a magazine. Call it something fancy, like 'Ziggurat'. Each referral nets you a free month. Hey, cool, time to get web pundits to promote you-- the pundits get years of free access, and you get a huge amount of free advertising!

Side note-- it may be that Pyramid online gives referral bonuses. If so, they haven't automated it or pushed it enough. Certainly I haven't had folks trying to force it down my neck. Heck, I've even written for Pyramid, but haven't been motivated to join yet. I have this bias against reading stuff online...

Next case-- you publish a PDF, and you... nah, wait, too many people already pirate (or 'share') PDFs. People looking for a PDF freebie via referral are probably too close to the population that will trade it for free. Could be tricky.

Side note #2-- I don't enjoy reading online but I buy a lot of PDFs. By hyping freebies, though, I just dissed myself as a potential pirate in the above paragraph. Weird.

Anyway, you're a game retailer. You already have a little referral program, right? Stacks of your business card with lines on the back for customers to write their own names before they hand them out to friends? And a little Poster behind the register that shows "Most Referrals this Year" with little race horses or thermometers or such, and a big label saying "Top 5 Referrers get a big year-end 20%-off, 50%-off, or whopping 75%-off Shopping Spree*!" [spree limited to 3 items or less, some restrictions may apply.]

(Expect a quick flurry of cross-referrals as your existing customers try to post-date their first experience with you, but after that settles, they'll have to find new customers to score. And gamers hate to lose!)

If it works, you lose a few gift certs (which ensures the recipients shop with you), gain a mailing list of devoted customers, and have your best customers walking around persuading others to shop with you.

If it fails, you have a dippy little poster that you can tear down after 3 months. Seems an neat plan to me, and I just invented it right now because I have insomnia. Surely a bonafide business owner can top this.

I mean, make your customers do the legwork for you! And sign up for your own free iPod!

And while you're waiting for that, I'm open to seeing any other viral marketing ideas readers may have. Use this column's forum freely to post-- and remember, any good idea will likely be stolen by the many publishers and retailers who read this.

Yes, your idea may make someone profit. Who will they remember when this happens-- you, for the idea, or me, as the initial virus 'vector' that started this process? Now that's an interesting unresolved question. I can't wait to see what kickbacks this holiday season brings.

I'm betting the person with the idea gets the 'kill', and I get a lump a coal. Or a free iPod!

Until next month,
Sandy Antunes
sandy@rpg.net, freelance

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What do you think?

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  • July 2, 1997 "Good Deeds" (the dearth of evil game companies)
  • June 2, 1997 "Dirty Laundry" (copyright and slander on the net)
  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
  • March 2, 1997 "It's All in the Timing" (on hype and late deliveries, and on genres)
  • February 2, 1997 "Insiders and Outsiders" (who's who and who uses the web)
  • January 2, 1997 "Fits and Starts" (web presences, print runs, live roleplaying)
  • December 2, 1996 "Procastination Season is Over" (delays and new products)
  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
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