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Contagious Creations

[Editor’s Note: This is a DRAFT of an article that is published in the October issue of Admap Magazine. Apparently I’m allowed to post a draft as long as I make it clear that it’s just that. Some of you may remember a shorter version of this article I linked to about a month ago. This is a far more complete version. Hope you enjoy.]

The advertising industry has caught an infectious bug. It’s considered highly contagious and shouldn’t be ignored. They’re calling it viral marketing and ever since Crispin Porter + Bogusky created the now-famous Subservient Chicken, every marketer worth their salt has promised to include a viral component as part of a client’s next campaign. The thing is, while the dream of viral marketing is a nice one, the reality of producing a viral element, one that effectively spreads through one-to-one exchanges, is often an unpleasant one.

That’s not to say viral is dead, quite the contrary. Still, as with any element of a campaign, viral must be understood for what it is: a gamble. True, most often it’s a cheap bet. But it’s a bet nonetheless, and as any good gambler knows, the odds favor the house. A successful viral piece depends on a nearly infinite number of variables, the most important of which is distribution. When a marketer creates a print-ad or online banner, the means of distribution have been decided; well-received or not, there is little question that the advertisement will reach the target defined by the outlet. Viral is another story altogether.

In fact, just calling it viral is problematic. After all, isn’t the goal of all marketing to be viral? When creating an advertisement, the hope is that the message will infect the consumer and replicate itself inside them, thereby connecting the brand and the individual. The only online elements considered viral are those that find success. That’s because, as every good virus knows, it’s either spread or be dead.

By concentrating on the long-term goal of virality, marketers often lose sight of the narrower objectives and strategies specifically attached to online viral advertising. The strategy of a successful online viral marketing element concentrates not on incubating a message, but rather on spreading it. In other words, the viral message has to be contagious. In fact, contagious marketing is probably a much more appropriate term. Every time one of these elements is created, the hope is that one person will feel compelled to pass it to another, or better yet, many others.

It doesn’t matter how original, revolutionary or amusing your message is if no one sees it. And with ‘viral’ marketing, there’s no guarantee anyone will. After all, there’s no formal distribution channel, just those people you hope will email, water cooler, instant message and blog your idea. Seldom asked, however, is just who those people are. Really knowing your audience is an important part of any campaign, but it’s even more integral for ‘viral.’ Keep in mind, you’re not just trying to talk to these people; you’re trying to convince them to be a proactive co-marketer. If you don’t have keen insight into what gets your target consumer excited, then there’s no way you’re going to be able to craft a contagious idea that they will find worthy of passing along.

There are lots of things to think about when it comes to a ‘viral’ target, but few are more important than what they’re doing when you expect them to help you spread your seed. Are you targeting college-educated 24 to 35-year-old males who make $100,000 plus? Well then, you better know that the majority of these people will be at work when they read/see/hear your message. They’re doing things like working on spreadsheets and chatting with buddies. They’re not interested in sound (because the guy in the cubicle next to them would probably not appreciate it) and they need something with a punchline that will pay off almost immediately. The most important thing to remember, though, is that at some point they’ll be bored. They’ll save that spreadsheet, polish off that PowerPoint and be left to their own devices, if only for a moment or two. Here’s your opening, this is prime time for contagious marketing: the time of the day we all face at some point, when we click aimlessly, hoping to find something to amuse ourselves that can quickly be closed should the boss come around.

Appropriately enough, Jonah Paretti, director of R&D at Eyebeam, calls people engaging in these non-work activities the ‘bored-at-work network’ (BWN for short). Its members have the power of millions and can spread links faster than any television network ever could. They range in age, income, gender and race, but they all have one thing in common: They’re looking to be engaged. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Often, the most unexpected things are the ones that end up picking up steam and taking on a life of their own. But that’s the real beauty of it, right? It could be anything; a video of a middle school kid pretending to wield a light saber or a commercial where Honda parts are used to make a Rube Goldberg-esque sequence. It’s almost impossible to gauge how contagious something will be until you put it out there. But when you get it right, it can spread faster than a middle school rumor.

Still, there are ways to increase the odds for this kind of contagious marketing, however. Just as a card counter uses what she knows to gain a small advantage against the house, marketers can utilize the lessons of others’ past successes and failures to help them beat the odds. Of course, the strategies behind these questions aren’t written in stone, nor should they be, but taking them into consideration as a means of evaluating your contagious element can’t hurt.

  • Did you heed the connectors? There are millions of them out there writing blogs, telling marketers exactly what they like and don’t like. People listen to them and they love to be at the forefront. Find them (Technorati.com is a good place to look), listen to them, engage them and let them help you.
  • Did you ask people you know? Most likely lots of people you know are part of the BWN. Ask them what they think. See if they’d pass the link around. The more of a connector they are, the more valuable their opinion. The beauty of contagious marketing is that the potential carriers are not hard to find, they’re all around us.
  • Is it honest? If you’re pretending to be something you’re not and you get caught, that negative publicity can be just as contagious as any viral piece, possibly even more so. Think about what you’re risking by presenting yourself dishonestly to the very people you hope to reach and what the ultimate impact of that action may be.
  • Did you have fun? It’s pretty simple, if you didn’t have a good time doing it, then it’s probably not going to go viral. Why would someone else enjoy something you didn’t? Yeah, this question probably works for all marketing, but seems even more relevant when you want to go viral.

In the end, though, the most important rule to remember is that there are no rules. That is the beauty of this kind of marketing. It’s attention you’re vying for, and if you create something contagious you’ve done your job, no matter what approach you may have taken. Everyone in the advertising business knows about Subservient Chicken, and just about all of them have tried to model a ‘viral’ element in the image of the feathered one. In doing so, many lose touch with the fact that anything can be ‘viral.’

There’s even a whole other kind of ‘viral marketing’: The kind the consumer spreads unknowingly. In point of fact, the ‘viral’ concept existed before Subservient Chicken, and companies thrived using ‘viral marketing’ tactics that didn’t necessarily involve a bunch of people clicking a “tell a friend� button. Take Hotmail, for example. The free web-based email service built a customer base by including a message at the bottom of every outbound email informing the recipient that the message had been sent from Hotmail.

Although on first glance it may not seem it, Hotmail was using ‘viral’ advertising. While we tend to believe that ‘viral’ needs to meet certain criteria, really, it can be anything that uses ordinary people’s online connections as its platform. There’s no reason we should limit ‘viral’ to videos or interactive games. As shown by Hotmail, something can go ‘viral’ by utilizing the medium in new and exciting ways. Of course, most marketers are not in a position to create an application which will insert their message directly into their target network and replicate it without their knowledge. However, it does show that there are other, worthwhile ways to think about contagious marketing.

Sometimes finding those new and exciting approaches, however, means exiting your comfort zone. The old marketing maxim of “staying stupid� seems incredibly appropriate here. By leaving your mind uncluttered by “what works� and “what doesn’t,� it’s easier to find new answers to old questions.

It’s for this reason we need to remember the purpose (contagiousness), the audience (often those people who are bored at work) and the medium (the internet and, increasingly, mobile devices). In reality, it all boils down to one simple rule that can be applied to almost any marketing project: Start with what you know and work your way to a big idea, not vice-versa. Depending on the path you choose, the questions here may be helpful, but there’s no guarantee. With viral, there’s never just one answer. Pass that on.

About the Author:

Noah Brier is a writer at Renegade Marketing Group, the agency responsibly for PeopleAgainstFun.org, the HSBC Bank Cab and other viral successes. For more on Renegade, visit www.renegademarketing.com.

October 3, 2005

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