Is Viral Overexposed?

Check this out. Open up a new browser and go to, check out the three videos, and come back here.

Saw them? The campaign you just looked at received over 300,000 views in the first few days after launch.

What did you think? The Mozilla Foundation of Europe engaged Pozz, an agency in France, to do these viral ads to raise awareness around the Firefox open source Web browser. Firefox, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is a high-performance, open-source, and therefore free, alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. As of April, Firefox was reported to be the number two browser in North America with a 10.28 percent market share.

I saw the campaign and was surprised on two fronts. First, Firefox spread rapidly without advertising as an open source alternative, so I was astonished to see an agency promote them. Second, the creative disappointed. It didn’t work for me. I asked people at my agency what they thought. Their response was universal: not funny, not ironic nor iconic, nor something they would share.

Viral marketing has been around nearly as long as email. When you get right down to it, people are insane sharers, especially on the Web. It’s our nature to want to pass great things along to family, friends and colleagues. Pass-along is largely about wanting the semi-authorial credit that comes from introducing someone to something entertaining. The thing itself is a stand-in for your own sense of humor, worldview, politics, taste, etc. You must pass it on as soon as you realize its cool, even if you haven’t gone through the whole experience, because you get no cool credit if your recipient already received it from someone else. How many times have we forwarded something, only to get a response like, “I’ve already seen this.”? Who wants to be second?

Subservient Chicken, the brilliantly successful marketing promotion that convinced marketers to add a viral element to many of their campaigns, was funny, ironic, and became iconic. It was also widely shared. Although Subservient Chicken cost Burger King only $40,000, don’t make the mistake of believing viral campaigns are cheap. They can be as expensive as broadcast, like BMW Films; or they can be as inexpensive as a home movie. What’s key is the quality of the idea.

Because we create digital marketing programs for a living, most viral campaigns find their way into our mailboxes. Colleen DeCourcy, our executive creative director, recently chaired the Clio Awards’ Internet Jury. She viewed many viral campaigns she’d never before seen. That’s a sure sign a large number of campaigns are being launched, but only a few are becoming truly viral.

What motivates someone to choose the “forward” command over the “delete” command? A successful viral campaign offers:

  • Humor It’s got to be funny, provocative, irreverent, subversive, or deranged to get attention.

  • Originality It must be fresh; something the user hasn’t seen before.
  • Simplicity The “pay-off” must come quickly; time is at a premium. Most good viral campaigns aren’t overly immersive. If they are immersive, the interface is very simple.
  • Timeliness Pop culture references must be timely; pop culture has a short life span.
  • Subtlety Great viral campaigns aren’t overt product pitches. The association is subtle. If a reader feels they’re shilling, they won’t send it on.

It’s easy to be an experience critic, but hard to be an experience architect. To help, here are some campaigns that illustrate the success factors above:

Most clients are asking about adding a viral element to their marketing campaigns. As always, it depends on marketing objectives, the target market and the brand. My advice? Think it through. Come up with something fresh and new. Then, test it. If it doesn’t spread, let it die.

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