In the late nineties the options available for marketing a website on the Internet were very limited. You had the main search giant at that time, Yahoo!, where as a website operator you had the ability to do a regular submit (which could take eight months to index your site), or a one time paid submission which generally had good results, often too good, leading one to believe that the system was less than honest. Your other marketing options fell more along the lines of what we would call “promotion”. Website owners would either do this themselves or hire outside people, akin to the club promoters of the nineteen eighties, to go online, visit chat rooms, gather email addresses and screen names, and leave posts in random chat rooms. These posts would either be blatant advertisements, or poorly disguised fake conversation, usually between the poster and himself (with a different screen name) talking up a product, service, or a website. This shady realm of web promotion could very well be the birth of viral marketing on the Internet.

Around this time I ran a very small consulting based out of Manhattan. Our methods of marketing were very limited. With the exception of paid submissions and link farming we were really left to our own devices to find unique solutions. Often times, because we primarily dealt with small “mom and pop” type stores who were more concerned with expanding foot traffic rather than building their global web businesses, we would rely on traditional print marketing, or looking for ways to geographically target our potential customer base on the Internet. One of our first experiences outside of this narrow marketing method was with a company called One Jewel.

They were a small company, about ten employees, based out of a building on Lafyette Street in Manhattan, right in the heart of China Town. There primary business was manufacturing and importing high quality luxury watches. Some of the watches they sold found their way into the hands of street vendors who would than modify these watches by adding counterfeited trademarked logos to them, such as Rolex and Cartier. A vast majority of their product though was sold to vendors in the wholesale district who in turn sold them to smaller jewelry and fashion design companies who would implement their own labels. Over the course of a few years we developed multiple websites for this company, in order to cover the large amount of different product lines that they manufactured; from the high end gold and platinum, diamond encrusted models made to compete with the high end Swiss manufacturers down to the lower quality models that were sold to private label retailers.

As a way to cross promote these websites we decided to develop a content rich, information based website. This site had forums, customer reviews, expert articles, and product evaluations from customers. The various retail websites run by One Jewel were than to be uniquely marketed throughout this website, either in cleverly crafted customer and expert evaluations, which were obtained after mailing free products to different experts in the field, by banner ads throughout the site, or by strategically placed mentions of the websites throughout the forum message boards. There were no other websites like this on the Internet at the time; it was the first of its kind for this market. One of our biggest problems was finding a way to market this website; how do you develop a marketing budget for a website that doesn’t directly generate any revenue for the company? In theory, we had great visions, but there was no direct dollar for dollar correlation between money that was invested into marketing for this website and the revenue that was generated by our partner sites. It was not like a pay-per-click program where we could calculate our exact ROI or the exact break even point so we knew the precise amount we can pay for a specific advertisement. The company did not have a large enough advertising budget at the time to take a chance, or to “let it play out” after we invested money into the marketing of this site. Of course another option was to abandon this idea and stick with direct advertising of the retail sites, but they had faith in our ideas and we managed to convince them that in the long term this site would be a self sustaining marketing avenue that could be very profitable for them.

We had a rather unique idea. Well, unique in the sense that you would not think of it as a feasible solution for an online marketing campaign. We had five thousand business cards printed up. They only mentioned the new information website; they made no mention of the retail end of the business. In June of 2001 I hit the streets of Manhattan with 5 boxes of business cards, with a total cost of $140.00. The target included flea markets, street vendors, the wholesale district, the diamond district, major shopping centers, and large department stores. I left the cards in phone booths throughout the neighborhoods, I handed them to shop owners and the window shoppers strolling along the streets. I even handed them out to people who were wearing nice watches. One of the things that I learned about the luxury watch business was that allot of customers were repeat customers, they were collectors, they were high net worth individuals. They had friends that were high net-worth individuals.

The people that heard about our marketing method that weekend tended to laugh at us. After all, a website should be marketed to the one billion or so people throughout the world with Internet access, not the few thousand random (or not so random) people on the streets of Manhattan who got our business card that day, or at least the ones who didn’t throw it in the garbage can on the corner as soon as they thought we had passed them by. Time would tell.

Considering that the only way this website had been marketed was through our business card distribution that one weekend on the streets of the Manhattan, it would be fairly easy to measure the results. The most prominent feature of this website for the user was the forum. It was designed as a place where people who collected luxury watches, were looking to purchase a high end luxury watch, or were in the business of selling or servicing these products can come to interact with each other while at the same time providing an avenue to advertise the various retail websites that the company operated. The biggest and most accurate measurement of success of our marketing campaign was the number of people that signed up to become members of the forum, and the overall activity in the forum. The website also had a multitude of other services including expert articles, “how to” guides, image servers, and more; but by far the focus remained on the forum because of it’s great potential to help cross promote our websites and ultimately boost sales.

Well, it started slow. In the first ten days we had twenty five people sign up for our forum and close to 250 unique visitors on our website. I figured that these initial visitors would wind up being the “viral seeds”, the front line of the viral marketing campaign. These were the people who were handed a business card or saw the website on one of the strategically placed cards somewhere in New York City. We hypothesized that if somebody was going to visit our website as a direct result of seeing one of these cards they would do it soon, not 3 weeks or 3 months from now, people were not going to save our card for a later date. Either they had an interest in the subject or they didn’t. Based on that theory we surmised that after 10 days or so we had seen almost all of the visitors that we would see as a direct result of the campaign. The rest of our results would have to come from the viral market. We had to rely on these “seeds” to help our website grow. Our client wasn’t overly happy with the results. After paying for our services, this campaign cost them nearly one thousand dollars. Not allot of money in today’s high priced Internet marketing world, but ten years ago, for a small company that had little faith in the Internet and our marketing efforts to begin with, this was a significant investment. It was a make or break for our relationship with them too.

It was nearly a month before we were able to see the true potential. And although we didn’t have a name for it at the time, this would turn out to be the most successful “viral marketing” campaign I have ever taken part in. The growth could be measured in exponential terms. It works just like a chain letter. If we start with those first 20 forum members and each one tells a friend or associate about our site, we now have 40, if they do the same we now have 80 potential members, then 160, 320 and so on…you can see the potential. The key to success in this field is to have a product that gives people a reason to come to the site in the first place, and then gives them something to talk about. This could be something funny, something controversial, something informative, or in our case at the time…something unique. Without these qualities, the chances of running a successful viral marketing campaign are very slim. It could be a very tactical and strategic maneuver or just a ruse to get people to visit your website, but the key is that people want to come to your site.