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    Posted August 20, 2008 by
    San Jose, California
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Bailout outrage

    How Not to Do Viral Marketing


    Word-of-mouth marketing seems to be the latest craze these days. With companies like BzzAgent (http://bzzagent.com) and House Party (http://houseparty.com) offering members free products to sample and tell friends about, moving the idea to social networking sites like Facebook seemed like a great business idea, at least to one company known as Vyrl Mkt, Inc. On Friday August 15th, Vyrl Mkt released an application they created on Facebook called "Check It Out" with the tag line "Save while you Facebook!" (http://www.facebook.com/apps/application.php?id=9184429175) Check It Out originally offered Internet printable coupons for common products like shampoo, cranberry juice, cheese, and snack food. In and of itself, Internet coupons are nothing new. Companies like Coupons, Inc. (http://coupons.com) and News America Marketing (http://coupons.smartsource.com/) have been offering them for some time. What made Check It Out take the Internet by storm over the weekend was the high value of some of the coupons. Their Pantene coupon was $6.00 off, Bagel Bites were $3.00 off, Cheez-it Crackers were $3.50 off, and ChapStick was free, to name a few, practically giving the products away at places like CVS and Wal-Mart.


    With the high value coupons came two things. First, as is expected with word-of-mouth marketing, friends told friends. Second came suspicion. Who is putting out these coupons and are they for real? If I print them and use them will I be arrested for fraud and will the store be reimbursed? As word of mouth spread of the high-value coupons, more and more people signed on to the Facebook application and printed the coupons. Many more then expected. While coupons printed from coupons.com and smartsource.com offer protection from excessive printing, the Check It Out coupons offered no such restrictions, as recommended by the coupon industry watchdog Coupon Information Corporation (http://www.cents-off.com/). So they were printed out repeatedly by some users and shared with friends as encouraged by the company.


    While word of mouth kept spreading, users started contacting Vyrl Mkt, Inc. to ensure coupons were valid. Many frequent coupon users didn't want to risk their relationships with local stores when using the Check It Out coupons if they weren't real. On Saturday August 16th, Leslie Leonetti, Director of Business Development at Vyrl Mkt, Inc. assured users of their legitimacy. For some coupon users, they had their local supermarkets even contact Vyrl Mkt and were assured of their legitimacy. Come Monday, the message coming out of Vyrl Mkt started to change. Instead of sure all the coupons are valid, now "All the offers that were properly printed through our Facebook application can be redeemed." They add "ANY copy of any coupon or anything printed or reproduced from any other source other than through the authorized Facebook application may not be accepted at the register." Yet, there was no way to tell if a printed coupon came from the actual Facebook application or a PDF emailed to a friend. Nor did their Facebook application offer a way to restrict the creation of a PDF or trace back who printed the coupon, features places following industry guidelines like coupons.com have offered for some time. Vyrl Mkt further claimed the application being hacked and "They were strictly to be used for sales and marketing demonstrations." With so many varying excuses being thrown out there, they couldn't admit to the true reasons: they didn't follow industry guidelines, made several really dumb mistakes, and didn't anticipate how fast word-of-mouth marketing actually happens in Internet space when a deal is good.


    Surprises of all surprises, come Tuesday, Vyrl Mkt changed their message yet again. Even if you legitimately printed out the coupons through their Check It Out Facebook application but hadn't used them yet, they had contacted retailers to tell them that all the Check It Out coupons were now considered fraudulent: "It is an unfortunate but sad reality; however, in order to protect our retailers and all of you responsible coupon users, all coupons will now be considered invalid copies. We are working with all industry players and word is going out to the retailers to not accept them." Sure hope everyone who printed out the coupons checked their Facebook notifications before trying to use them Wednesday (and beyond). And for those who used them before Wednesday, you'll now be known as the man or woman who used the fraudulent coupons, even though they weren't necessarily considered fraudulent when you used them. What Vyrl Mkt now claims after the fact is even funnier to how the whole saga has played out so far: "Despite this setback, the overall result of our initial launch has been overwhelmingly successful." Personally, I highly doubt that retailers and coupon clearinghouses like CMS, who proudly claim Vyrl Mkt as a new client ( http://www.cms.inmar.com/news70908_clients.html ), will agree when they try to get reimbursed. Knowing you only get one chance to make a first impression, if I was ever interested in doing word-of-mouth marketing for my company, Vyrl Mkt seems to be a place to stay very far away from if they cannot even manage their own viral marketing debut.

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