Using viral marketing campaigns on social networks, an approach which is closely associated with online games, is much less effective for utilitarian products and services.

Viral Marketing More Suited to Gaming Products than Utilitarian Services

Interest in viral marketing, which makes use of interpersonal recommendations to drive consumer purchases of a particular product, has been rising strongly with the growth of games apps disseminated on the social networks. Two well-known Facebook apps – FarmVille and CityVille – saw user numbers skyrocket to several hundred million worldwide in just a few weeks thanks to intensive viral marketing campaigns. Now a team of German academics from the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management and  Goethe University, also in Frankfurt, have just completed a study of over 700 different viral campaigns on Facebook in order to see how far viral marketing success depends on product characteristics and the overall context. It turns out that although viral campaigns can prove very useful for games apps, the message conveyed by this type of marketing often has the opposite effect when it comes to more utilitarian products and services.

Games versus services: the medium must match the message

In the Frankfurt academics’ study of the various campaigns, a typology emerged, which differentiates the very successful campaigns from those which proved ineffective, and which had sometimes even damaged the target audience’s view of the product and the brand. The Frankfurt team observed that the only products whose popularity increased as a result of viral marketing were games and gaming apps. By contrast, utilitarian products, especially services such as legal or accountancy assistance, appeared to suffer from using this approach. In the world of Facebook, it is games and entertainment that take precedence and this fact is recognised by apps publishers who use Facebook for this purpose. Moreover it appears that while subscribers tend to follow personal recommendations and messages from friends inviting them to play or share an entertainment product, when a more serious message about a utilitarian product or service is posted, it comes across as intrusive and simply lacks credibility. The results indicate that in these cases a campaign may prove up to 75% less effective. These findings are in line with social psychology theory: the academics point out that consumers do not visit Facebook to learn about utilitarian products and they rely on “simple cues and heuristics to process viral marketing messages” about these products. The posting of ultra-serious information on Facebook therefore seems out of place to the consumer and tends to engender a degree of suspicion towards the product.

Viral marketing: symbolic associations and the need for context

There is nothing particularly new in the facts and opinions advanced by the Frankfurt study in terms of marketing and communication theory. However, having examined a phenomenon which has grown exponentially in a very short space of time, the researchers have firmly placed the notion of context back at the centre of the marketing approach. Although viral campaigns may appear to be a low-cost tool which is useful for targeting a very wide audience, their inability to take into account the specific characteristics of different users on social networks has occasionally proved a real handicap. And while Facebook may still be of use in promoting utilitarian products, the automated aspect of viral marketing campaigns tends to undermine the inherent credibility of ‘word of mouth’ recommendations. The lesson for companies selling utilitarian products and services is perhaps that they should plan more targeted marketing campaigns with a more qualitative and less quantitative approach.

By Quentin Capelle