My New Understanding of an Old Adage

Recently, Viral Marketing has seen some bad press. From the Jupiter Research report to the LA Times’ recent lambasting of Dan Ackerman Greenberg’s article, bad press seems to be an inevitable companion to this nascent marketing style. I have been ruminating on and reading reactions to Greenberg’s post since the original article on November 22 and concluded that, even though I disagree with some of his ethical decisions, my assessment of Greenberg’s post is less critical than most.

I would like to say that the reactions to Greenberg’s post were spread evenly across a wide spectrum of opinion. If I did say that however, I’d be an outright liar and the only purpose of my lie would be to set this post squarely in the middle of said spectrum. That would be a nice confirmation of my sanity and perspective, wouldn’t it? Even though about 400 of the 469 comments on his article were very negative, including one particularly harsh comment from TechCrunch Editor Michael Arrington, I’m going to go out on a limb and praise Greenberg for his efforts. Now before you unsubscribe, stop reading and otherwise write this post off completely, hear me out. I promise I won’t argue that he’s a good person.

Let me just say that even in my experience tracking successful viral campaigns, I’ve never seen anything permeate the online community faster than negative news. More specifically, I’ve noticed that news travels particularly fast when it’s perceived by the tech community as a direct threat to free-will and the transparency of online information. Regardless of the “don’t feed the trolls” meme that probably should have been the thrust of most of the comments on Greenberg’s article, I think Greenberg is sitting high and dry behind his one-page “corporate website” with a huge grin. Regrettably, I’m willing to bet it’s the kind of grin you only wear on those rare occasions where your most vocal enemies unknowingly fuel your success.

Hopefully I’m way off-base, but due to the robustness of his suggestions and the lack of content on his information-gathering website, I would bet the farm that Greenberg not only expected this reaction, but that he crafted, courted and planned for it. Moreover, and here’s the point of the whole post so tune in, I believe GreThe Long Tailenberg read “The Long Tail” and executed Chris Anderson‘s secondary lessons therein to perfection to drive his business.

For those of you who haven’t read or aren’t familiar with the lessons in The Long Tail, please read the following four sentence book report: The old ideas regarding the size of a viable market are wrong now that the internet has changed the cost of accessing markets in general. Now it’s possible, and in many cases advisable, to sell to many micro-markets in aggregate that, in a brick-in-mortar world, wouldn’t have been accessible en mass but, thanks to the internet, now are. Secondarily, utilizing the vast reach of the internet to magnify one, previously minuscule, target market large enough to support your business, can be a successful tactic. Also, Amazon was a visionary and overall solid business idea.

To cut this rambling post to a very fine point: Greenberg harnessed the predictable online reaction to his viable (if arguably unethical) viral marketing strategies article as a way to instantly market his services directly to the executives who think this kind of success-at-all-costs marketing is a desirable quality. In short, in 2,400 words or less and zero capital investment, Greenberg spoke directly to his key buyers who, thanks to the immensity of the internet, probably number in the hundreds or thousands. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kid increases his company’s revenue tenfold by the end of the year from this one article (how much revenue would you expect a web-based company with no real website to have anyway?). If my predictions regarding his success are true, I’d be hard pressed to think of a more efficient use of marketing dollars in the past year.

While I disagree with some of the individual suggestions, my hat is off to the high-level strategy that Greenberg crafted and executed. It’s not too often that you can promote your business so effectively and make the general internet community look sheepishly naive at the same time. That said, I think this whole escapade and ‘The Long Tail’ provide a useful lesson that many marketers (including some of my colleagues) will refuse to learn due to their desire to be seen as nice (notice I didn’t write “desire to be nice”). The fact of the matter is, bad press creates a unique and powerful level of buzz and, if applied correctly, can be a fantastic marketing tool. It would seem to me that with appropriate viral campaign planning and a library card, the old adage can still hold true and bad press can simultaneously be great press.

Written by Brennan White