Managing Toward Virality

We, as a community of interactive marketers, have clearly come to despise the chicken.

Many of you have complained about it to me, to audiences, in private and in public. When the mighty Crispin Porter + Bogusky came up with a fairly bizarre idea of marketing Burger King’s chicken sandwich, it launched a thousand marketing managers adding a new bullet point to their PowerPoint decks: create viral campaign.

It’s driven us all a little crazy. Creating a viral campaign is difficult, if not impossible. JupiterResearch analyst Nate Elliott once compared creating a viral campaign to catching “lightning in a bottle.”

Certainly, it’s true it’s nearly impossible to plan for a viral campaign. We can certainly create sites and films and banners that are clever and compelling and just beg to be shared. We just can’t really plan they’ll be spread, friend to friend, and become an Internet phenomenon that multiplies the ad’s effectiveness and your reputation.

But we are still marketers? On the agency side, it’s frustrating to have to tell a client something can’t be done. On the client side, no one wants to hear her agency feels something’s impossible. So we find ourselves in a stalemate over viral campaigns. Everyone wants one, the client’s asking for one, the agency can’t promise one, and nothing ever gets complete.

But there is an answer: You don’t build a viral campaign. Instead, you manage toward virality.

Viral spread of your message is absolutely your goal. But we can’t be so naive to think any old clever video slapped up on YouTube is going to spread like mad. Instead, we need to make extraordinary use of the data and the tools available to us to monitor and adjust campaign element performance, so we’re driving toward a viral spread.

If virality is your goal, you can actually measure against it. And if you achieve just some percentage of your goal, you can begin to see a campaign as having a measure of success, even if it doesn’t circle the globe 10 times.

The Tools of Measuring Toward Virality

There are three parts to any ad campaign:

  • The message

  • The medium
  • The measurement

Managing toward virality, as a practice, uses all three of these. Let’s start with the message.

The Message

While we don’t know everything about virally spread messages, we do know one thing: boring stuff has no chance at all of being passed along. The message itself must be viral-ready. It must generate either the pleasure of laughter, the shock of surprise, or the irritation of doubt. That’s pretty much it. You can combine them in exciting new ways, but a GIF banner that claims your new soap powder will get whites whiter is pretty much a nonstarter.

There’s absolutely, positively no short cut for this. The bottom line is you need a strong, clever creative team. And you’ll probably have to pay for this. Rather than have them come up with the one grand scheme, have them come up with a few. You want to go toward virality with a portfolio of options, not just one thing you think is funny.

The Medium

The medium is a significant, critical element in this puzzle. There’s been almost a bias away from media in discussions about viral spread. In fact, viral spread –where friends are sending content to one another — is often offered as a new, exciting alternative to media. That’s a huge mistake.

The sites on which the content appear and the people to whom content is trafficked are the hidden key to virality. Some campaigns spread not because of what they are but because of who first pointed to them. With blogs, in particular, the media is the message. The infamous SlashDot effect (define) is testament to that. The solidity of a media plan that understands which sites and which people have the greatest probability of spreading a message is often the simple secret to getting something to spread.

The Measurement

The last piece is measurement, but not the sort of measurement we’ve grown accustomed to: put it out there, see how it does. Instead, the practice of managing toward virality means you put the thing (hopefully, the portfolio of things) out there and watch each one very closely. When there’s a hint of viral spread, the optimization process has to kick in.

Let’s say you created five videos and posted them on YouTube. One really connects with consumers; it gets more views and comments. That video must then become the star of the campaign. That’s the one that must be posted in other forums and placed in other buys.

Alternately, you may see video A does well with one demographic and video B does well with another. Maybe men like the funny one and women like the one with a message (or the other way around). In that case, you can begin to create a more targeted plan to get those videos spread to demographic communities that may be more likely to pass them along.

All About Management

It’s pointless to give advice like “give your consumer’s something great and watch it spread!” Certainly, it’s inspiring to believe consumers will communicate for you. But the fact is, we’re marketers. We create messages and manage their distribution toward the goal of increasing sales.

We can do the same thing with viral campaigns. We simply need to have a solid vision of what the goal is and manage toward it with discipline. Next time you’re asked to create a viral campaign, don’t roll your eyes. Accept the challenge, but make sure you communicate that virality is a goal, not a guarantee.

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