Barry from Norwich passed his on and won the pools, but Gladys from Wolverhampton didn't and her cat got run over. The thinly veiled threats and promises that accompanied chain letters may have been in poor taste, but they worked. People passed them on.
Viral marketing on the internet is based on a similar idea. It works by presenting a message in a way that makes people want to pass it on to others. It's often done via email, maybe just as a text message, or with a link to a game, video, photograph, quiz or web site. It only works if it is compelling enough, and when it is done well the pass-on rate can be exponential. Email makes it easy because you just have to click your "forward" button.
Many charities have caught on to viral marketing, but the use of email doesn't automatically make something viral.
Asking supporters to send an e-postcard to their MP, for instance, is not really viral. Many forms of viral marketing in the commercial sector use some kind of incentive, such as a prize draw. But for charities to persuade people to forward messages, they have to be good. That often means funny, or shocking.
Cindy Baxter, UK co-ordinator of the StopEsso coalition, says that viral marketing can be hard to grasp. StopEsso has used e-cards and games that have gone viral, but Baxter says they weren't always planned as viral campaigns.
"The stuff that really goes viral is often spontaneous. We don't really say 'let's do a viral game'," she says. "But there's some really good stuff going round from charities in general, and the use of humour for NGOs is extremely important."
Jamie Thomas, marketing director of YouthNet, agrees. YouthNet is an advice service for 16 to 24 year olds, and last year it released a three-part viral application called Drugsboy to drive traffic to its site. It featured a man taking ecstasy, alcohol or LSD and behaving accordingly.
"Drugsboy was downloadable from the site and people could pass around the link," says Thomas. "It was just a bit of fun. The guy acts in a series of weird ways, so with the ecstasy one he takes a pill, talks rubbish and the CD tray pops out of your computer because he wants to listen to music."
But how do you kick-start a viral campaign? You can't just put a game somewhere and hope people will find it. A common route is to seed the message through an email mailing list, either your own or an acquired one. YouthNet seeded Drugsboy with its own 25,000-person mailing list and also bought email distribution from other youth-related lists.
"We seeded to around 100,000 people, and the application has been played by five million so far," says Thomas. "We're still getting around 20,000 a day. We're not promoting it any more, but we've had people passing it back to us, saying 'have you seen this?'"
But bought email lists aren't always so useful, says Duane Raymond, campaign manager at Oxfam. When the charity launched a video in July about the affordability of medicines as part of its Make Trade Fair campaign, the results from its seeding were not that impressive.
"It was sent to a list of supposedly 255,000 people but judging from the response many were dead names," she says. "About 3,000 people followed it up."
Sending unwanted email to people can also be a problem, but Raymond says the lists Oxfam uses come under tight scrutiny. "We know that people have opted into them and that it was explicit when they signed up that they were agreeing to receive emails from third parties," he says. "They always have the option to opt out as well, but it shouldn't be a surprise when they get the messages."
Oxfam has just launched a quiz where players can test their skills as a ruthless coffee baron. It's part of a new phase of its Make Trade Fair campaign, and at the end of the game players can email the chief executives of the four big coffee producing companies: P&G, Sara Lee, Nestle and Kraft. It's a fairly elaborate application, but is a hi-tech effort always necessary?
"For us, the straightforward emails actually have tended to generate more supporters than the hi-tech applications," admits Raymond. "The games require more effort. You may have to install Flash, for instance. But on the other hand, with the hi-tech stuff, other web sites can post it and it attracts attention that way."
It may sound glitzy and expensive, but one of the benefits of viral marketing is that it can be extremely cost-effective. It's possible to spend a fortune on something that doesn't work, but it's also possible to spend very little on something that captures people's attention.
YouthNet's Thomas says that Drugsboy was the most expensive thing the organisation has done in terms of the creative, which was about £5,000.
But the charity also released a viral "destiny test" for doit.org.uk, a volunteering site, in April this year for which the creative was £1,500 and the total cost was only about £4,000. That achieved around 500,000 plays over three months.
For smaller organisations, it will usually be necessary to buy in the expertise to create relatively complicated software like games. YouthNet knew it wanted to focus on drugs, but relied on an agency to design and create the character. Oxfam is large enough to do some things in-house.
But while most organisations will need to buy in some skills, Baxter of StopEsso is unconvinced about the value of spending large sums on agencies for viral activity. "I find it amusing that there's this whole industry around viral marketing when often it just happens by itself," she says.
"NGOs need to think carefully before spending lots of money on what companies sell as viral marketing."
Some of the viral activity that StopEsso has done has been quite basic, including a picture of George W Bush where you can lead him by the nose using an Esso logo. It has also done a "spank Esso" application, where you quite literally spank Esso using a large hand.
And when the campaign dies down, how do you measure its success? There are different approaches, depending on what your aims were. Some look at clickthrough rates, meaning the percentage of people who clicked on the application to visit the site it represents. Others are only interested in how many people took some kind of action as a result of the campaign.
YouthNet's aim was to raise its profile by boosting the number of visitors to its site. In June 2001 it had around 40,000 unique monthly users. That figure has now gone up to 1.2 million, and last month it had nine million page impressions.
"A viral campaign is only as good as its clickthrough," says YouthNet's Thomas. "For Drugsboy we had a clickthrough rate of 6-9 per cent which is very high. We've found that viral activity really boosts page impressions.
It's massively cost-effective and great for brand awareness."
CASE STUDY - PLANET PROSTATE SENDS OUT A VIRAL MESSAGE ON CANCER
The Prostate Cancer Charity dipped its toe into online viral marketing for the first time this year with a campaign called Planet Prostate. It was aimed at men in the 25-40 age range and centred on a web-based game at www.planetprostate.com which featured Sammy the Sperm trying to reach Planet Prostate.
John Neate, chief executive of the Prostate Cancer Charity, says that a viral online application was the perfect way to reach men in that age group.
"We wanted to target men in their 20s and 30s and 40s, long before symptoms are likely to strike," he explains. "The internet is popular in that age group so it was a sensible route to take, and it's so easy with a click to pass on the message."
The decision to launch the campaign was based on the recognition that there was a low level of awareness around the prostate gland and cancer, and the use of a funny game was intended to break down any embarrassment factor that might stand in the way.
"We wanted to use humour and clever techniques, rather than smut, to make it engaging," says Neate.
The game was developed in partnership with creative agency Publicis, and was initially launched with a PR push at an event with around 30 journalists.
Five thousand emails were also sent with a link to the game, using a database of people who write in medical journals or have scientific interests.
Various men's magazines have featured the game or will be doing so, including GQ, Loaded, Attitude and Boyz, as well as The Guardian.
Those steps gave the game its initial push, but it really took off when BBC News Online picked up on it, says Neate.
"That was a major trigger, and then we had about 500 users on the game at any one time. Since then it's been picked up by people around the world.
We've had a lot of players from Sweden recently."
Being featured on the BBC site was important because it meant people could link directly to the game, explains Neate. "Getting people there from other sites is helpful because it means they don't have to remember the address."
For a relatively small organisation like the Prostate Cancer Charity, the lower costs of a viral campaign make a big difference. The campaign cost it less than £20,000, and so far the game has been played around 150,000 times. The charity could not afford a print media campaign, so the lower cost of an online application coupled with media attention gives it the coverage it wants.
"For us the fundamental measure of success is the extent of media interest, and getting coverage is very important," says Neate. "The number of game sessions is also a measure of success, but we didn't set a target for that."
More than 4,600 people have emailed the game on to others and there are links to it from around 500 web sites. Neate hails the venture as a success and says this experience will weigh heavily in phase two of the campaign, which starts in the next six to 12 months.
DO'S AND DON'TS
- Think about your target market. What kind of viral application is most suitable for it?
- Buy expertise when you need it.
- Use humour. People will forward things that make them laugh.
- Consider integrating your viral campaign with traditional forms of marketing. Use print media and also try to get links from other sites to help your campaign take off.
- Include a call to action. At the end of a game or video, make it easy for users to send an email or sign a petition.
- Think about measurement techniques. Do you want page views, names on a petition or media coverage?
- Assume that emails will magically become viral. It must be compelling enough to forward.
- Send things indiscriminately to people who may not want them. Your viral campaign will get deleted before it starts.
- Make it too complicated. People are busy - if something takes 10 minutes to work out, no one will see it.
- Send massive attachments. Company systems (firewalls) may block them.
- Depend on recipients having advanced software to run your application.