I traveled quite a bit for my last reporting gig and belonged to a "conference clique" of folks who generally got together for drinks and/or dinner any time we attended a trade show or similar event. During one such dinner, I couldn't get over one friend's explosive opinion of a huge and powerful retailer following contract negotiations with the company. I had heard plenty of profanity-laden assessments of the retailer, known for its insistence on margin-shredding pricing, but never from this pal, known for his mild-mannered temperament. Because I couldn't imagine even a mildly unflattering word about anyone leaving his lips, it was a shock to hear: "Holy $%^! The only worse thing than not doing a deal with (name omitted) is doing a deal with them!"
I suspect many companies are starting to think of viral marketing in the same way. Viral marketing has been around for years. It used to involve hiring folks to attempt to build word-of-mouth buzz for products, services or brands. But the Internet, and especially social sites like Facebook and Twitter, have taken it to unprecedented levels
There are companies like Moonfruit, which increased traffic to its Web site by more than 1,000 percent by sponsoring a contest on Twitter, giving away 10 MacBook Pros to folks creating the most creative tweets (that's 140-character Twitter messages, for those of you who don't use it) referring to the company, according to The Wall Street Journal. For three days, Moonfruit showed up on Twitter's trending topics list, a slice of zeitgeist that shows which terms are most popular at any given time. Moonfruit also boosted its Web site-building business by 20 percent.
Moonfruit's experience demonstrates the power of the retweet, which happens when additional Twitterers pick up on a message and send it to their followers. In addition to marketing, it can be a valuable tool for attracting employees, as several companies using Twitter told me when I interviewed them for a recent story about social recruitment.
But for every Moonfruit, there's a United Airlines, the latest company to take a public relations beating online. Canadian band Sons of Maxwell, after facing a long and unfriendly United "customer service" gauntlet in an unsuccessful effort to get the airline to pay for damage inflicted on a guitar by baggage handlers, garnered millions of YouTube viewings of a funny video and lots of accompanying media attention for a song called "United Breaks Guitars." Sales of Sons of Maxwell's music soared and fans began shouting requests for the song at concerts, reports Rolling Stone. Instrument manufacturer Taylor Guitars got some YouTube mojo of its own, with a clip directing folks to its Web site for guitar travel tips.
Oddly, United chose to mostly ignore the social media fray, although it ultimately coughed up $3,000 (which Sons of Maxwell requested the ariline donate to charity). While some folks, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, don't think companies should worry too much about social media backlash, at least some companies are investing in tools that can monitor social media channels like Twitter for customer comments -- both good and bad -- and issue appropriate responses.