Viral email marketing: How a Media24 campaign grew its reach 25 fold

As an Email Service Provider [ESP] and email marketing consultancy, we frequently enter consultations with media and publishing clients looking to evolve their business models, and the most frequent question we get off the bat is “How do we take our business online to increase reach and scale, and how do we do this profitably?” It’s no secret to both advertisers and publishers that old media revenue models are currently being forced through an evolutionary bottle neck, driven by a global change in both content distribution mechanisms and their associated revenue streams. The responses to this industry change range from brilliant to diabolical. For those facing the question now, the case study below is a great blueprint for getting this right.

The context

This is the fourth year that SARIE have run the Voorbladgesig campaign, where readers have the opportunity to send in a photo of themselves or a friend to be featured in SARIE Magazine as a cover model. Entries are rated by users and a panel of judges choose two winners – one in the category 18 to 30, and one in the category 31+. One of these winners then get the October cover. The important thing to note there is that we have an example where we have content with mass appeal, interactive user engagement and a model that can be easily tweaked to have good viral marketing potential.

The Challenge

As little as 1% of the database was driven off-line (mall activation's), whereas the digital concept drove the other 99% of entries. Due to the restrictions of offline media circulation, and the lack of a platform that can allow people to share and grow the campaign online.

Online strategy

Voorbladgesig was quickly spotted by SARIE Digital editor Lou-Ann Stone as having very good online legs due to the inherent virality of the concept - in conjunction with top line advertisers as campaign sponsors - which could be effectively leveraged online. The key concept was to leverage the social participation aspect of the campaign by generating highly interactive content online, and integrate a number of channels to make the campaign able to drive its own growth through user’s referring their friends.

A brief schematic of the campaign is below:

In the diagram above, it is key to see the component parts of the content and the mechanism of the viral spread.

  1. The content is both attractive to entrants, and incentivizes participation
  2. It also scores a bulls-eye on generating content that works on social. If one thinks back to the fact that the original success of Facebook success was the controversial voting tool that Mark Zuckerberg published on the Harvard Intranet[1], then one can immediately see the reliable parallels that Voorbladgesig online was playing on.
  3. The content is extremely shareable, has plenty of social media currency, and importantly allow users to drive further user engagement through multiple channels:
    • TotalSend’s behavioural triggers were used to allow entrants to trigger emails to other friends to participate in the campaign.
    • This traffic then landed on a conversion optimised mini site designed by OnNet, where traffic was databased and incentivized to participate.
    • This participation was then broadcast over social, capturing further social traffic and driving it back to the mini site.

  In summation, the campaign merged great content with a carefully constructed multi-channel interactive user experience. This was done without building an app, or investing significant amounts in above the line advertising.


The campaign was run over a period of six weeks. It began with an offline launch, print ads and a mailer to the existing database of 17,331 subscribers was used to catalyse the initial critical mass needed to expose the campaign to a big enough audience for viral email marketing success. Where the rubber really hit the road however was in the fact that the content was presented in a way that succeeded in capturing user attention, and that the sharing mechanisms provided to this audience were easy to use, and functioned properly. A look at the chronology of the database growth: The results below show a clear picture, and also keenly illustrate the subtle nature of a viral curve before it explodes. blog-cs-sarie02

  1. Number of contestants entered into the competition rose from 4000 in 2013 to 11,844 in 2014.
  2. The contestants naturally act as referral levers for their circle of contacts, who then subscribe in order to vote for them. The amount of voters grew to a spectacular 196,408 in 2014 – a method which wasn’t utilised in 2013.
  3. A further 37,205 subscribers were generated in highly targeted peripheral advertiser related lists, where subscribers could sign up to win prizes from the campaign sponsors, Samsung and Revlon.
  4. A further 240,000 facebook interactions were generated.

The key thing to understand here is that the 275% lift in entrants from 2013, in conjunction with plugging into the TotalSend email platform, catalysed exponential growth in 2014, which is what online advertisers are looking for.

What else was gained from this campaign?

  1. SARIE now have a highly segmented database of users that they have developed a relationship with.
  2. Due to the online nature of the campaign, device tracking can tell advertisers and publishers what devices the audience used. Consider how useful it might be as an electronics provider to know which users use your devices and who uses the competition. This builds perfect segmentation to run retention content to some users, and acquisition content to others.
  3. Mining this information can yield value almost infinitely if done correctly.

The key is to understand the concept of critical mass in socially powered media campaigns.

As an advertiser, it’s your job to provide:

  1. Content that is both interesting, but also that people feel compelled to share for a number of psychological reasons.
  2. The mechanism that is streamlined to allow readers to enter, share and vote effortlessly. In the case of this campaign, this was simply the integration of a well optimised mini site, a good social strategy and plugging in the TotalSend platform to allow users to trigger a series of referral emails to each other. The interaction was audience-based, with SARIE providing the sharing space and the confident environment to make users share and interact.


To understand the nature of viral email marketing growth, building critical mass happens slowly, and then explodes.

Ask yourself three key things:

  1. Is your content genuinely interesting, in a manner that people will want to make public rather than keep private?
  2. Can you offer your audience the right tools to share their interest and to refer friends? Namely, look at communication mechanisms (email, SMS), platforms (mini sites, social) and how the content can be transmitted in a way that works with these platforms.
  3. Are you tracking the interactions sufficiently? The more you track your users, the more you know, and the more attractive you are to advertisers.

Your job is to facilitate the process rather than drive it with your own sweat every step of the way. Efficiency comes with scale in online profit models.   [1] Where students were posed with an option to vote on who they found more attractive on a randomized pairing of any two students. The application was so successful it crashed Harvard’s intranet overnight.