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When viral marketing goes bad

Posted by Michael Bloch in web marketing (Wednesday September 6, 2006 )

It’s the dream of most marketers. Sending out a special offer which then is forwarded on to many others; taking on a life of its own. Or is it?

In the case of Starbucks, it seems to have been a nightmare; with an interesting side effect for an enterprising competitor and some great lessons for all of us in marketing.

The story goes that Starbucks had a free iced coffee offer that was sent to employees, who were encouraged to then forward the offer on to family and friends. According to this Starbucks press release, things got a little out of hand and they withdrew the offer. It’s not the best way to win friends and influence people, that’s for sure :).

Here’s the twist (scuse the pun): according to a Denver Post report, the clever folk at Caribou Coffee have seized on this opportunity and offered to accept Starbucks coupons for one day only. Caribou is getting many thumbs up around the web, and a great deal of free promotion on blogs and in news reports for doing so.

I guess there are two morals to this story.

a) Be careful with special offers.

Word your offers carefully and if there are conditions or limits, be sure they are clear. Having an offer go bad can do more damage to your business than not having a special offer at all. Never underestimate the power of viral marketing – if your offer hits a sweet spot, you may be totally swamped.

b) It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

Caribou will most likely benefit greatly from Starbucks error. When a competitor screws up, use it to your advantage. For example, say a major company folds – if you’re in the same industry, try and target those clients who have been left hanging. Just having a page on your site and knowing one of the company’s clients may be enough to get things rolling. Search for forums and blog posts from disgruntled clients and let them know what your company will do for them. A single contact can really snowball.

Related articles on TTB:

Using the “f” word (free) & freebie offers in marketing


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