Viral marketing will be big in 2009. It sounds easy enough. Create a campaign so interesting and newsworthy that consumers take it upon themselves to pass it on to their friends. What is not to like? Consumers do all the legwork - which is more credible to their peers - and marketers can get more for their investment - always a bonus in a downturn.

The hard part is that viral marketing is difficult to do well.  There are endless variations and little continuity between what makes a campaign “viral,” so much so that wanting a viral promotion and creating one are two entirely different propositions. The casino industry has not explored this avenue as much as the retail, automotive and fast-food industries. This is a bit ironic because I would venture to guess that casino marketers have a stockpile of off-beat, attention-worthy stories at their disposal. Narratives from long-time gamblers, ridiculous travel tales or hilarious guest situations would all make fantastic viral content.

Burger King launched a campaign called the “Whopper Sacrifice”. It asked Facebook users to list 10 friends they were willing to sacrifice for a free Whopper. More than 230,000 friends were “sacrificed” through the course of the campaign. In fact, so many consumers ditched their friends in search of a free burger that Facebook intervened and ended the campaign. Sacrificed friends received notification that their friends preferred a Whopper to them. And that was about the extent of the campaign. It was clever yet simple personal interaction - the key to viral.

A UK-based hotel chain, Macdonald, successfully gained traction with their “Ring the Bell” campaign, which reportedly exceeded industry participation norms by more than 350 percent. The promotion was distributed to 120,000 people and gave away £1,000 in prizes. Recipients of the promotion initiated the contest by ringing a digital “bell” which launched a rotating image designed like a slot machine. Consumers won if they had three of the same images appear. The promotion garnered a 17 percent participation rate, well above the industry standard, which Macdonald put at 3.9 percent.

One key component to generating a successful viral campaign is to encourage user interaction. Sure, there are some videos or promotions that spread like wildfire just because they are so amusing or off the wall, but in general those cases are few and far between. For marketers it is important to give consumers something to do. This makes the promotion more personal so users can forward a message that reflects them (not an advertiser).

There is a sizeable market for the casino industry to tap into if it can use viral marketing well. eMarketer reported that 41 percent of millennials (those born in the late ’70s and after) participate in viral marketing and peer-to-peer sites. That is a huge slice of the economic pie.

But marketers would be wrong to think they can create a promotion that users will talk about based on its advertising merits alone. Users do not make a habit of searching for commercials online so digital advertisers should not expect consumers to pass one along to their friends. By making a promotion interesting, novel and interactive consumers are more likely to participate.

Geary Interactive executed a successful viral campaign for WD-40’s low-engagement brand 2000 Flushes. Normally, toilet bowl cleaners do not warrant much excitement, but during this campaign consumers could upload their face onto a football fan and forward it on to their friends. They were then eligible to win a reclining chair and plasma television to create their own “best seat in the house”. The promotion resulted in hundreds of thousands of impressions and additional subscribers.

If users are willing to engage with a toilet bowl cleaner I am completely confident that casinos can develop viral promotions to meet their business objectives.

Here are two ideas:

Give a selection of guests a video camera to use during their stay. Have them film their gambling experiences, nightclub outings, meals or trips to the pool. Run a contest where the producer of the most outlandish video wins a stay at your property. Why this works: The consumer is in control. As a marketer you are just providing an avenue for your customers to promote your property for you. How many people do you think each visitor would tell about their tales at your casino?

If your property focuses more on the gambling side of things, create a program where visitors can send in or request gambling questions. Blackjack 101 or roulette statistics, for example. Create a series where an expert shares tips about the games featured at your casino. Why this works: It forges relationships with your customer base outside of your establishment. This will keep your message in their inbox, drive consumers to your Web site and encourage trips to your casino.