Have We Gone Too Far With Viral Marketing?

As marketers, we know it’s getting increasingly hard to connect with consumers. You need look no further than the proliferation of media options, the eroding mass marketplace, active ad avoidance technologies, and growing cynicism on the part of U.S. consumer to realize we have our work cut out for us. It’s against this backdrop we’re seeing the rapid rise of nontraditional marketing techniques across the analog and digital spectrums. Viral marketing is one such technique.

Viral marketing campaigns are nothing new. Viral marketing speaks to the power of interpersonal communications and the value of word-of-mouth buzz. At our agency, we’ve identified seven universal marketing drivers (all marketing efforts have one or more of these drivers at play), and buzz is one of them. For our general marketing purposes, we define buzz as “building credibility through third-party sources,” which can include industry, government, and consumers.

In this world of marketing and advertising overload, viral, or buzz, marketing makes even more sense. Viral marketing breaks through the clutter; one lay person provides an endorsement to another, typically a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance.

In a perfect world, a viral marketing campaign requires little or no money for promotion. The idea would be so compelling consumers would simply have to tell all their friends about it. Unfortunately, finding these ideas is like finding a needle in a haystack; it’s very hard to create social currency when you set out to do so. We typically recommend our clients spend some money seeding the campaign or giving it a head start to build momentum.

During the seeding phase, it’s imperative communications are subtle, not overt marketing messages. There’s no quicker way to kill a viral marketing campaign than by slapping a big corporate logo on it and pretending your brand is cool. Some techniques used to achieve seeding success without overt advertising include crafty paid search campaigns, chat room and message board seeding, unbranded display advertising, and editorial integration.

If these elements are properly executed, you have a chance of achieving viral marketing nirvana. A truly creative, engaging, and entertaining idea will also get the job done (regardless of underground promotional tactics employed). The problem we face online, as well as off-, is so many marketers are trying to catch lightning in a bottle with a viral marketing campaign that consumers are beginning to rebel.

Think about it for a moment… have we lost our minds? Have we gone too far?

We resort to planting people in chat rooms to begin conversations about our brands. We get our friends to begin threads on their favorite message boards or create blogs, vlogs, or podcasts that are non-advertising ads. We work with site publishers to insinuate ourselves into their content, eradicating the lines between content and advertising. And we’re just getting started….

The lines we cross with increasing regularity in the online world with viral marketing pale in comparison to some other platforms.

Consider “The Apprentice.” It used to be a good show. Now, it’s nothing more than a one-hour ad for a different brand each week. It was OK when marketers were written into the script every so often, but now we’ve clearly gone too far, and consumers are telling us as much. They’re speaking volumes with their remote controls. Ratings for “The Apprentice” have been on a precipitous slide for some time. The audience is a fraction of what it was during seasons one and two.

Take a look at “Survivor,” “American Dreams,” “Lost,” “The Restaurant,” “Trading Spaces,” “American Idol.” The list goes on and on. These shows are dominated by advertising.

Have we gone too far?

Look at the gaming world, also about to be overrun with “organic” advertising. Everyone in the gaming industry is saying the right things: “We can’t include ads in games that aren’t natural to game play,” and, “We must be sensitive to the amount of advertising and brands inserted in the game.” This industry sector is just beginning to take off, and already we’re heading for trouble. Consumers are going to be so disgusted with corporate America that we’re going to dig ourselves deeper into a hole.

What’s the solution? It’s not simple, and it’s not apparent. At its most basic level, it’s about moderation. We’ve demonstrated we have a hard time self-policing ourselves. If we don’t do something soon, consumers will teach us the hard way: with their hearts, minds, and wallets.

What’s a marketer to do? Drop me a line and let me know.

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