I have developed strategies for a number of viral campaigns over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me what aura they seem to posess when discussing them with people. In fact I had a chat about the ingredients of a viral campaign a couple of days ago, and thought I would post an outline of what a viral is… and what makes the perfect viral… the holy grail!
A good place to start is with media critic Douglas Rushkoff who it would seem was the first to write about the media ‘virus’ in 1994. He talked about a ‘susceptible’ user becoming ‘infected’ and going on to ‘infect’ others. The actual term was popularised in 1997 by Draper and Jurvetson to describe Hotmail’s practise of appending advertising for/to itself (“get your free, private e-mail at Hotmail.com”), but at its root is the claim that… ‘a dissatisfied customer tells an average of 11 people and a satisfied customer tells an average of 3 people.’ Let’s concentrate on the 3. Viral marketing is based on this natural human behaviour… passing on from peer to peer that which has engaged with them on an emotional level. Makes sense doesn’t it?
The ’emotional’ bit is key here. You want to ‘connect’ in a real way with your target audience. Viral marketing is a phenomenon that facilitates and encourages people to pass along a marketing message ‘voluntarily’. Viral marketing is maybe best described as ‘word-of-mouth’ but it is truly enhanced by the network effects of the World Wide Web (lots of inverted commas going on here – bear with me). It refers to marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to increase awareness through a self-replicating viral process; generation to generation.
This online promotion can take any form really, from video clips, advergames, ebooks, images to the written word etc. A successful campaign aims itself at a subset of individuals within your target audience identified as having a high social networking potential (SNP). Below is a link to a small word-of-mouth campaign I did for This is Durham…
This is Durham
Let’s use this as a quick example. Games are one of the most effective viral forms. Why? Well, these virals are enjoyable and fun, and they should always be easy to use. They attract an emotional response from the user. When you mix this with other elements such as:
- a bit of branding
- a campaign message
we have a good start. And then we spice things up with:
- competition (to ensure people challenge their friends and colleagues)
- data capture (refer-a-friend, newsletter, request a quote or call-back)
- a call to action (do this or we will kill you – or worse you won’t get into our free prize draw for £1k)
- seeding to individuals with SNP (paid placement to get things started)
- facilitate easy pass-on through social networks and referral links
…and you are on to something!
Given that you’ve ticked all of these boxes you need the final ingredient. What is the secret of a good viral campaign? The holy grail?
And, as Shakespeare would have it, “ay, there’s the rub”. Even with all the secret ingredients above, viral campaigns are a bit of a lottery. The problem with the spread of a viral campaign is that it is very unpredictable… a bit like a virus I suppose. Your typical media buyer will reduce this to an argument over effective seeding, and whilst effective first generation seeding is important to get things off to a good start, the whole point of a viral campaign is free pass-on. At this point it is no longer a media buying activity. The viral campaign is a creative response. Controversial but true.
It is more realistic, and likely to provide more predictable results if you plan how to grow your online following steadily by engaging with the right people, on the right platforms, with well-considered content which adds value to your audience. The holy grail is having a strategy which concentrates on the strategy and not on the platform. Forget the aura. Viral campaigns are great but, as always, only if it fits within the strategy of the overall marketing campaign.