By Max Berry


Advertising has come a long way since the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. The Internet and so-called viral marketing have revolutionized the job once done by newspaper, radio, and television spots. But, while your small business probably doesn't have the resources for online video clips, adver-games, or mass text messages, that doesn't mean you can't employ some savvy, semi-viral strategies of your own.

First Things First

"If it's different, it will create a buzz. If it's generic, it won't," says Harris Brown, President of Long Island's HFB Advertising. "That's how you get to viral: with a product that fills a void."

Viral advertising, in a nutshell, is a marketing strategy that relies on pre-existing social networks to increase brand awareness and promote word-of-mouth buzz. It encourages people to pass along a marketing message voluntarily. Big-league examples of viral marketing often come from the film industry. The Vote Harvey Dent Internet campaign that preceded the arrival of the 2008 summer Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight is a prime example. Harvey Dent, of course, is the fictional district attorney of Gotham City; the "campaign" in question was one to fill theater seats.


This is an awfully grand scale for a small business owner to operate on, but there are still viral tactics an entrepreneur can employ to increase sales. Small business home products company Blendtec recently created a smash viral marketing hit around its quirky "Will it Blend?" campaign, which simply involved videos of CEO Tom Dickson sticking various objects-from an iPhones to marbles to Silly Putty-into his company's blenders to demonstrate their churning power.

As Brown notes, this kind of tactic-demonstrating an innovative product or service that satisfies a consumer need-is the primary driver of a viral campaign. Next is an emphasis on aggressively targeting a specific market, ideally one that not only has a use for your service but also has high social networking potential-students, business societies, clubs, and social organizations for example. "There are plenty of local directories out there," says Brown. "Pinpoint your demographic to get a message out in the community."

But that's only the first step. Once you've found your audience, the way you approach them should still generate buzz. "Put a different spin on your campaign-go about it in a new and creative way," advises Brown. "You don't want to say, ‘I sell XYZ, come on down to the store!'"

New School vs. Old School

Once you have, as Brown puts it, "made a message" to herald your product or service, you'll need a delivery method. The Internet has revolutionized advertising. With so many interest- and demographic-specific sites, it's easier than ever to target a market. This may be especially true of your business if, like many urban communities, your neighborhood has a resident blogger who covers local goings on. A well-wrought press release or note to this kind of person-on-the-street dispatcher may build more buzz among those in the know than a standard newspaper or television ad. Also keep an eye out for local weekly e-mail lists that keep tabs on new things to do, see, and buy in your community.

The Internet however, is not the only tool at your disposal. "Everyone wants to spend money on the Internet and not on traditional mediums," says Brown, who advocates the use of those traditional mediums in tandem with the Internet. Local radio and television spots, for example, scheduled at appropriate times for the audience you're trying to reach, can be very effective. If you are planning on using a direct mail campaign, post cards will work well as they don't require an envelope (so a consumer is less apt to lump them in with junk mail) and they are just the right size for a punchy slogan or graphic. Whichever medium you choose, remember to be creative. Address the audience you want to reach, and don't be afraid to leave a little bit of mystery. The goal is to get people talking, not tell them every single detail about your business.

"Don't jam every product you have into a campaign," says Brown. "A lot of people jam it all in and the message gets lost." If you are just opening your small business, and are operating from a storefront, you can even use the space itself to broadcast said message. Simple and evocative slogans and graphics displayed this way constitute free outdoor advertising and, as they are on plain view to the public, will generate all kinds of talk.

Keep It Up

"You need to base your business on referrals. You'll go out of business if you're doing all advertising all the time," says Brown. Indeed, the objective of an advertising campaign, viral or otherwise, is to get people to try your product or service. It is then up to you to provide it with enough savvy to get them to tell their friends. It is on this kind of relationship that a successful business is built. The amount of time and resources you devote to advertising will diminish as you build a reputation and a customer base.

Still, there are always new customers to win, and resting on the laurels of one successful marketing campaign will keep you from winning them. Stick to the message that best represents your business, and let it evolve as your business evolves, but always look for new ways to put it across. "Small business owners can slow down, but never stop," says Brown. "You always want to have your message or brand out there. You always want to be testing markets. Even if you have a good campaign, you can always do better."


Some online viral marketing case studies and resources:
Will it Blend? Website:


NFIB viral marketing guide: