Can Viral Marketing Be Serious?

It’s so nice when we all work together!

A recent ClickZ Stats article about Wikipedia‘s growing popularity really piqued my interest. The free, user-contributed encyclopedia is now the second most visited reference site on the Internet, trailing, the most popular online reference site, very closely. It’s no wonder: Wikipedia comes in 10 languages and contains over half a million articles on more than 1.5 million pages.

What’s really amazing about Wikipedia is all that stuff is contributed for free by users and maintained using an open-source-like (define) system of user editing, corrections, and expansion. Anyone can contribute to Wikipedia. His work will be read and commented on by others. The result is a remarkably accurate, ever-growing encyclopedia that improves the more people use it.

Such efforts aren’t new. Slashdot has been doing it for a while with geek news, and sites such as, OpenOffice, Mozilla, and the entire Linux phenomenon were built on the notion of open-source access to code and a community-based approach. Although these projects have had their hiccups, they’ve managed to gain a remarkable amount of traction while staffed entirely by volunteers and without any commercial backing (not entirely true for Sun Microsystems-supported OpenOffice). Even if you’re not a geek, chances are these brands have touched you in some way and you’re at least aware of efforts like these.

Over the past few years, many marketers have tried to tap into the Internet’s community-based power through various viral and word-of-mouth marketing efforts. There have been some major successes (e.g., Subservient Chicken), but there have been plenty of failures, too. Many companies have shied away from viral marketing because of the “unserious” nature of the technique. Others have tried their hands at stealth “viral” campaigns that failed when they were found out.

Generating hype and word of mouth is tricky, as anyone in the entertainment world will tell you. At least entertainment has a built-in affinity because it works on its own merits. That’s why so many viral campaigns are designed to shock, offend, or make us laugh. It doesn’t matter what the subject is (or even if it’s in a language we understand). If it’s entertaining, we’ll pass it on.

What if you work for a “serious” client, one for which entertainment might not be appropriate? Or, if entertainment does build word of mouth, what if it sends a message counter to the values of the brand you’re promoting? Can word of mouth still be a viable tactic?

Yes, but we must first redefine “viral” media. Consumer product companies currently create most viral campaigns. Though there’s a long history of business-to-business (B2B) viral marketing (e.g., e-traction’s holiday cards and Business Idiots’ promotional book), most of the frequently passed materials wouldn’t serve to promote serious products or professional services. Viral campaigns are mostly short videos, pictures, games, or goofy Flash toys; hardly the sort of thing to promote sober nonprofits or businesses.

Viral and word of mouth aren’t only electronic toys or entertainment pieces that can be passed around. Phenomena such as Wikipedia and open source show it’s possible to get people engaged in a serious collective enterprise and to keep them engaged over the long term.

How can you do this in a marketing context?

Affinity brands have long generated their own word of mouth and Web content. Consider at brands such as Apple. Consumer products companies have it, too. Check out the recently launched Gatorade blog and the popular That Pepsi Girl blog for examples of unlikely customer/fan work. These sites may not be as flashy as commercially produced viral stuff (see Viralmeister for examples), but in many ways they’re actually better. They’re authentic, or very accurate facsimiles of authenticity.

Wikipedia, the Gatorade blog, and the entire open source movement illustrate this point: people like to be heard. They like to contribute to something bigger than themselves and feel as if they make a difference. Gimmicky outdoor “games” and interactive billboards (e.g., Nike’s recent effort and Yahoo’s earlier one) tap into this, as do efforts by many game and entertainment companies to provide sanctioned material for fan sites.

Underground music companies have always understood word of mouth is about fan involvement. Their “street team” recruiting efforts (e.g., No Milk Records and A&R Online) tap directly into affinity by providing insider information and gear for fans who want to promote the label.

Heck, even the venerable MoMA is getting into the act, letting students from a local college create their own audio tours of one of the world’s major art collections.

Word of mouth and viral marketing are more than buzzwords — they’re techniques that work. But aping methods used by hip brands or consumer product companies won’t necessarily work if you’re not promoting something with the same demographic. Get your customers involved, and promote that involvement through engagement marketing efforts that make them a part of the big picture.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.