Nick Kozak, for the Toronto Star

How-To: Viral marketing for your small business

Viral marketing sounds great, in the abstract. Why pay for ads when it’s possible to put your messages on the web and let unwitting users disseminate them for free?

Except, as many would-be online marketers have come to realize, “why not?” isn’t a rhetorical question. Relying on viral marketing alone is a poor strategy, because creating a viral hit is incredibly difficult and unpredictable.

Andrew McCartney, managing director at Tribal DDB Canada, an advertising agency, has orchestrated social-media marketing campaigns for several national brands. In his experience, creating content that ordinary web users will want to share with others is a hit-or-miss game. But there are some techniques that can help.

“Content that people want to share is usually something that is quite insightful,” he says. “It usually strikes a chord with the consumer as being true.”

One embodiment of that philosophy is an online campaign Tribal DDB created for McDonald’s Canada. The company set up a web-based platform where customers submit questions about the way McDonald’s does business. The idea was to respond to urban legends about the fast-food giant that have persisted for decades — like, for instance, that burger patties contain worm meat (they don’t). Both the questions and the answers are displayed publicly online. Clickable buttons make it easy for users to share them on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

The virtue of the campaign is that it doesn’t shy away from answering difficult questions. In one case, for instance, a user asked why McDonald’s food looks different in advertisements than it does in real life. The response was brilliant: Tribal made a YouTube video that shows exactly what happens at a McDonald’s Canada photo shoot. In three months, the three-and-a-half minute clip has been viewed more than seven million times. Evidently, it struck users as insightful.

“It’s really just compelling content that gets the truth around McDonald’s food quality out there,” says McCartney.

These campaigns aren’t cheap. Few small businesses can afford advertising firms, interactive websites and professionally shot video. For anyone without those resources, the best strategy is to forget about creating a viral hit. Rather than spend cash on a slick YouTube campaign and hope for lightning to strike, an entrepreneur can use social media in other, more affordable and reliable ways.

Leveraging social media can be as simple as providing a forum for customer feedback.

“Say I had a small business in my community, and they were coming to my house to fix my furnace,” McCartney says. “There’s some value in having outlets in social media to recognize (if) they did a great job.”

Even so, McCartney thinks most companies can’t muster a valuable social media presence without help. He recommends small operators hire consultants to train them before embarking on any sustained campaigning.

Grant Simmons, director of SEO and social product at The Search Agency, in Los Angeles, agrees that bringing in outside expertise is often a good idea, at least to start with.

He advises business owners to ask themselves, “Who of my current employees has the most time, and is the most personable?’”

“I’d bring in a consultant to train them,” he continues. “It wouldn’t be their full-time job, but they would be responsible for it.”

Simmons also advises companies starting with social media to avoid spreading themselves too thin. There are a lot of platforms out there.

“The enemy of great social media is the inability to have the time to interact,” he says. “So, pick one.”

After a business owner has settled on a platform, there’s still the matter of content. Eli Singer, president of Toronto-based Entrinsic, a communications agency, thinks the best ideas are usually the ones about which a business owner feels strongly.

“If you’re a small business owner, it’s really important to have not only a passion, but a real interest in the space,” he says.

The ultimate example of this, in Singer’s opinion, is Blendtec, a US blender company that has turned itself into a YouTube legend with a series of short videos called “Will It Blend?” In each clip, the company founder, Tom Dickson, puts an item a Blendtec blender and presses the smoothie button. He has successfully pulverized everything from a Rubik’s Cube to an unopened can of Coke. One video, in which Dickson blends an iPad into a fine powder, has more than 14.5 million views.

Everyone who deals with social-media marketing cautions against one common pitfall: the hard sell. Too much promotion of specific offers can turn users off. The idea isn’t to erect a billboard, it’s to join a conversation. And for many businesses — even those without an existing social-media presence — that conversation is already ongoing.

“If you’re an active small business and you’re serving customers and consumers and doing a good job, the conversation is probably happening online about you,” says McCartney. “I would encourage you to get involved and join that conversation.”