Five Rules of Viral Marketing

If you live in Boston, you may finally be done cursing the Cartoon Network for causing a city-wide terrorism scare with its viral marketing campaign gone awry last week. Apparently, the geniuses in charge of marketing “Adult Swim” thought it’d be a peachy idea to hire (the now incarcerated) Peter Berdovsky to place LED panels featuring “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” characters Ingingokt and Err in obscure locations around the city. Apparently, the Boston Police Department (BPD) and Homeland Security officials mistook the strange devices for potential bombs, and more or less shut down the city while the bomb squad took care of the “threat.”

All arguments about the BPD’s lack of humor and un-hipness aside, the ill-conceived campaign was obviously a colossal blunder. Not only did it scare the daylights out of a bunch of Bostonians, it also inconvenienced potentially millions of people and will probably lead to some serious legal trouble for the network. In this day and age, odd, homemade-looking devices featuring blinking lights placed in public places really aren’t a great way to get (positive) attention.

Though it may be satisfying to chuckle over the absurdity of the whole incident, the Great Boston Mooninite Scare bears examination. With increasingly more marketers obsessed with social media, consumer-generated content, viral marketing, and word-of-mouth, there’s a lot we can learn from this debacle (besides the obvious: it’s a really bad idea to scare consumers with humorous devices that could be mistaken for bombs.

  • If you want to generate word-of-mouth, don’t try to be hip. Just because you’ve read about some hot new trend on Make, We Make Money Not Art, Boing Boing, or even the hipper-than-thou Futurelab blog doesn’t mean you should start incorporating it into your marketing plan. By the time you read about it, those nifty things have usually been done by people far cooler than you and they’re going to know you’re faking it.

    Don’t believe me? Just check out some gems like Campbell Soup’s foray into rap or Intel’s jaunts into DJ culture to see how irritating it can be to get it wrong. Oh, and if you value your sanity, don’t even think of watching this hip-hop spot from a clueless personal injury law firm.

  • Destruction of property or intruding into people’s comfort zones will only backfire. Yes, it seems obvious, but Sony found this out the hard way with its stupid PSP Graffiti campaign. Sony employed local graffiti artists to decorate public buildings with PSP-themed images. Chase Bank also discovered intruding into public space can generate some very strong public reactions when it was forced by New York City to stop projecting giant logos on the street.

    But don’t think this stuff only happens in the physical world. Obtrusive advertising in the form of pop-ups and irritating rich media units have been annoying consumers for a long time now. They might get noticed, but they’re also damaging your brand.

  • You can’t fake authenticity. I wrote about this back in October in relation to Wal-Mart’s flog fiasco, but there have been plenty of other offenders. One of the most notable is Sony’s PSP flog, a travesty that not only was unbelievably badly conceived but once exposed had its fake bloggers try to defend what they were doing in pseudo-rapper/gamer/script-kiddie patois so incredibly uncool that it makes K-Fed look like Tupac in comparison. This kind of thing always fails because its impossible to fake honesty in communications and there’s really no reason to do so. As blogger Claire Rusko-Berger puts it in her fantastic essay on authenticity, “to be successful and honest, your ‘authenticity”‘ must edit that noise, provide expert information, and structure information in a usable way.” To be successful, you gotta be real. And there’s some really excellent research that proves full disclosure really works.
  • Know your audience. Stunts like this one that promoted a French mountain biking company (and the biker who performed the daring deed) come across as authentic because the people involved knew who they were talking to as they were part of that group. It’s even possible to turn disaster into opportunity when you really know the sensibility of the folks you’re trying to reach.
  • Love your customers. If you do, they’ll respond in kind, the way Apple fans like this woman do when they put the time and effort into creating videos and songs about how much they love their favorite brands. Heck, even Starburst has young fans fanatical enough about their products to take the time and energy to create their own commercials.

If we learn anything from the whole Cartoon Network episode, it should be that creating truly viral marketing is hard. Really hard. It’s hard to define, hard to pin down, and hard to pull off without looking manipulative or just uncool. You can try, but after you see commercials like this one or videos like this one, you should realize creating so-bad-it’s-good viral content is almost impossible to do intentionally. Authenticity either is or isn’t.

Related reading

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