I’ll be the first to admit I couldn’t resist. When we first launched Printfection in 2006, I was in charge of getting the word out. Even though I knew nothing about marketing, I knew ‘going viral’ was like winning the lottery – sounds cool in theory, never going to happen. Yet I tried it anyways, and it worked! But the results were devastating.

Let me tell you a little story about why you should forget the temptation of launching a viral marketing campaign

One of our first big Printfection marketing campaigns – way before SwagLove – was a $2 t-shirt special for new customers. We coded up a landing page offering $2 custom-printed t-shirts, plus $5 shipping. A custom printed shirt with unlimited colors in your design for $7 out the door. This was unheard of at the time, and still is. So was this the perfect recipe for ‘getting known’ and rising from startup obscurity to stardom? Hardly.

I thought a few hundred people might try the promotion over the first few months. But before we knew it, we were a featured deal on SlickDeals and FatWallet. These were the ‘deal of the day’ sites before Groupon ever existed. And they sent us tons of traffic.

All of the sudden we were getting literally three orders per minute, for days!

Awesome, right? Just a few weeks after launching our site to the public, 5,000 orders poured in over less than 24 hours! But looking back, it was a disaster. Here’s why:

  • Our company wasn’t ready for 5,000 orders per day. We had to hire temporary help to print the shirts & get the orders out the door. And my co-founder Kevin spent weeks debugging and scaling our servers to add capacity. Capacity that was unnecessary for years to come if we hadn’t ever done this deal in the first place.
  • We barely broke even on the orders. Which would have been fine, if these were good customers who’d reorder down the line. (It’s all about customer lifetime value). But people shopping ‘deal of the day’ sites are not loyal customers ever willing to pay full price.
  • Because the deal hounds weren’t willing to pay full-price, we started sending out regular coupons and specials offers to get them to buy again.
  • We were getting dangerous customer feedback, skewing our product roadmap and marketing priorities. Since the cheapskates made up the vast majority of our customer base, our customer service department (me!) kept telling marketing (me!) ‘everyone wants us to keep mailing out coupons’. Looking back, of course cheapskate customers want coupons! Told you, I’m not very smart.
  • We were trying to build a platform to help people sell t-shirts online. Buying your own shirt wasn’t the main thing, yet by structuring our promotion in the way we did, we attracted a ton of people who only wanted to buy a custom shirt for themselves & never had intentions to setup an online store. Basically, we attracted the wrong type of customer. And the reason I didn’t design the promotion strictly for ‘online t-shirt sellers’? Because I wanted it to go viral, of course! I didn’t think it would be possible to go viral with a hard constraint.

So for all the people in startup land trying to get a web app off the ground, think twice before designing a viral marketing campaign. What’s worked for us in the long run are the unsexy things: An easy-to-use web application. High quality printing. Great customer service. Basically, trying to provide the most value possible, not the lowest prices.

We got off track for a while, but now we’re focusing on the basics again. And it’s working. If you don’t believe me, take it from someone a lot smarter than me, David at 37signals:

Forget viral. Forget this notion of this automatic viral thing that will infect and spread. You know what’s viral? Shoes. Shoes are viral. When you buy them from Zappos at 10 o’clock in the evening and you get an email 15 minutes later saying ‘you’re such a swell customer we’re going to put you on overnight delivery and you’ll have them in the morning’. And getting that box tomorrow morning and opening the box, and saying ‘hey, there’s a pack of Puma’s I just ordered last night a few hours ago’. Another words, just great service. Just a great business. It doesn’t have to be an ingenious idea. Often the simplest ideas in the world like treating your customers nicely, while still asking for money for what you do, can work! And you can build great businesses like that.

David Hennemier Hanson, 37signals podcast #5

What do you think? Have you launched a successful viral campaign? Or have you failed like me? Let’s keep the conversation rolling in the comments!