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Brand Conversation With Adam L. Penenberg

by Mohammed on December 23, 2009

Today, I spoke to Adam L. Penenberg. Adam is a journalism professor and assistant director of the Business and Economic Program at New York University. A contributing writer to Fast Company, he has also written for Inc., Forbes, The New York Times, Wired, Economist, and Mother Jones. His latest book, Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves (Hyperion, 2009), has been excerpted in Fast Company and TechCrunch in the U.S. and in the Financial Times and Wired magazine in the UK.

You can connect with him via @Twitter @Facebook @LinkedIn

Mohammed: What are the main differences between Word of Mouth and Viral marketing? And how do see the future of viral marketing as we preparing to enter Web 3.0 age?

Adam: They are essentially the same, except that viral marketing over the Internet makes it extremely efficient and powerful while offline it is a slow-building process. They both rely on people passing on information they find important or interesting or entertaining. The concept is what I call “collective curation”–that’s when the audience decides what’s good–and has been around for thousands of years; it just didn’t have as sophisticated a propulsion system as it does today. At first it was verbal, with gossip and information spreading from person to person. Town criers in the Middle Ages called out the day’s news but it was townspeople who spread it. If the only people who heard Paul Revere’s message “The British Are Coming” responded by collecting their muskets and ammunition, who knows? We might still be under British rule. But it spread person to person and a militia could be roused out of bed. Chain letters mailed through the nation’s postal system urged recipients to make copies and send to 10 other people, or suffer the consequences. Then there was the telephone, the first efficient person-to-person mode of communication, which, before the rise of the internet, offered an unprecedented level of virality.

Once the Mosaic browser followed by Netscape seeded the viral plain, though, jokes, memes and information that touched someone’s heart or funny bone–or both–could be dispatched to dozens, if not hundreds of people in an instant. It was only a matter of time before businesses began to recognize the benefits of viral campaigns to extend their brands and, in the process, increase sales. They just had to figure out how. Of course, viral marketing isn’t new either. In the early 1700s the Dutch East India Company would give free suits to noblemen known for gallivanting around London. Others would see these gadflies in their sartorial splendor and there would be a run on that particular fabric.

With social media becoming etched into the fabric of our lives, expect that marketers will turn to this mode of dissemination. It’s incredibly powerful and cost-effective. Why pay millions for TV ads when your customers can be enticed to spread your message for you? As the Web becomes more Mobil, and more people spend ever greater amounts of time online, this viral plain will become even more powerful.

Mohammed: Recently, I enjoyed seeing The 10 Most Innovative Viral Video Ads of 2009, I amazed to see videos that were viewed million times. What do you think the major elements to make a brand ad spread viraly? And do you think it needs a popular TV channel or association of famous actor’s brand to make it spread faster?

Adam: Well, it never hurts to have a celebrity. We are a voyeuristic culture and someone like Sarah Silverman, who created a video to celebrate her faux relationship with Matt Damon WARNING (the video is full of obscenity and lewdness) can be assured that anything they touch that is funny will go viral. So was the retort that her ex-boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel, created with Ben Affleck. An ad that goes viral has to avoid the hard sell, of course. It’s usually funny though it can also be shocking or thought-provoking. The beauty of creating web ads with the intent to go viral is that if they fail, you aren’t out a whole lot of money, and you simply try again. If you create a nationwide TV ad campaign and it bombs, you’re out serious amounts of money.

Mohammed: We all engage in Twitter, Facebook and other social networks conversations. Does having a viral strategy in our briefcase a must to differentiate our personal brand or for entrepreneurs who want to promote their small businesses?

Adam: I think it’s key to use social media in narrow ways. On Twitter I only follow people who are very smart and who tweet on media, business, technology, marketing and book publishing. I am passionate about these topics and I limit my posts usually to these areas of concentration. Most of the successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists I follow do the same. They share experiences or thoughts on start ups or take larger themes related to technology and business and explore them. They don’t waste your time by sharing personal stuff like “my cat peed on my bicycle seat this morning.” It’s a business. Treat it that way.

Brand Word: When I wrote Viral Loop I realized that simply writing about viral companies wasn’t enough. I had to create a proof of concept. So there’s the Viral Loop Facebook app. It will tell you what you are worth–in dollars–to Facebook–based on your level of activity, your number of friends and their level of engagement, and your “influence,” which we calculate based on how good you are spread ing our widget. Let’s face it: Facebook wouldn’t be Facebook and valued at $6.5 billion if it weren’t for the 350 million users like you and me, adding to its value by posting video, photos, information, chatting and instant messaging, etc. I’m in the process of talking to companies so that users will be able redeem their Viral Loop currency for real goods and services. For example, I’m worth $122 to Facebook, according to the widget. Soon I’ll be able to spend that money on real products–like take $30 and put it toward a pair of jeans. When we can do that I’m convinced the app will go viral.

Spotlight: http://www.viralloop.com — learn more about the book.

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