Go Viral or Bust

I have to come clean. I’ve worked on campaigns for which the goal was, in part, to get a particular piece of creative to go (and I quote) “viral.” That is, we designed campaign elements to be intriguing and clever, a bit surprising and funny. I suppose that only a disinterested third party could truly determine if we actually created something of quality, but in each case we believed that what we made was actually good. In many of these campaigns, a large group of people agreed with us and passed it along.

But it’s increasingly clear that interactive marketers shouldn’t turn up their noses when a client wants a campaign to spread virally. For a long time, interactive strategists would get fairly upset at the prospect of having to make something go viral. They claimed viral was simply the effect that occurs only very infrequently and cannot be planned for.

I don’t think that’s the case. You can, in fact, plan for viral spread. You won’t always be effective at achieving it. But you can go into a campaign with a clear head and a set of tactics to help your message spread. After all, an increasing section of the Internet is built around technology that enables individuals to share content with one another. To ignore this aspect of the Web equals not paying attention to the core aspects and uses of the medium itself.

There are two tasks you need to do, then, to make sure you’re clear as you develop a real viral strategy: clarify the goal and recruit the core.

Why Spread Something?

The most important thing you can ever have, in any strategy, is a clear goal that can actually be achieved and is shared by all stakeholders. With viral campaigns, this is critical. Problem is, some strategists state the method as the goal. Going viral isn’t the goal. The goal is to engage the audience in one of two ways: amplification or advocacy.

The distinction is subtle but important. Complete videos, posted on YouTube or any other video outlets, are built for amplification and amplification only. That is, the only thing you can do with them, beyond watching them and posting a comment, is to pass the complete piece on to your network. The wonderful Honda commercial, in which the car’s parts form a chain reaction, is a perfect example. People will pass this along because they want to show the world the thing that you’ve done.

Advocacy is more difficult to achieve but nets more value. The impulse and motivation for consumers to share a campaign element with their network isn’t simply to move the message out. Rather, they perceive the element to help them communicate something that they personally want to say. The Obama “Yes We Can” music video is a perfect example of this. This video has been viewed well over a million times, and the content very clearly contains a message that people want to share, that’s done artfully.

A crossover technique is also available, in which the campaign is interactive itself and enables consumers to create something brand-new with predetermined elements. This is a good approach if you know that your consumers — or at least a small group of them — will take the opportunity and make something that others will want to experience. Radiohead’s experiment in letting people remix their song is a recent, successful example.

Build the Fan Base

Here’s a really simple way of boosting the potential that your message will be spread: ask people to help you. This seems so simple that you probably wouldn’t even consider it. The fact is, you need a big, initial push of viewers to establish some momentum behind the campaign.

Agencies and brands have succeeded by sending out an e-mail to their established lists (no spamming, naturally) that asks people not only to view the video and pass it along but also to actually help achieve a certain goal, like 50,000 views in 48 hours. A brand could even put an incentive behind it, like donating a certain amount to charity or even providing a coupon if a particular threshold is hit.

The idea, of course, is to find a way to get this initial group to start propagating the message, not to reward every single person who ever sees it with something. But an alliance with the core is a great way to start the ball rolling.

Ultimately, marketers should neither be overly optimistic nor pessimistic when the word “viral” enters the conversation. Viral spread is a part of this medium we’ve dedicated ourselves to, and it behooves us to figure out how to use it in ways that are not only appropriate but also valuable.

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