Questions for the Viral & Buzz Marketing Association’s Justin Kirby

Justin Kirby Justin Kirby, managing director of Digital Media Communications, is a founding brain behind the recently launched Viral and Buzz Marketing Association (VBMA). It’s the first industry group to specifically advocate viral components as part of an overall brand marketing strategy.

ClickZ tapped Kirby for his thoughts on the VBMA’s charter, why viral marketing is getting hotter, and whether viral campaigns are measurable.

Q. What do you hope to achieve for the marketing community through the launch of the VBMA?

A. Along with other specialist viral and buzz marketing practitioners in the UK, France, Germany and other countries, we believe our growing industry needed a formal association to help viral and buzz marketing establish a credible footing within the wider marketing community.

The VBMA aims to develop and expand consumer-oriented marketing trends and techniques; validate their use and rationalize their measurement criteria to help create best practice; dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding viral and buzz marketing; and raise the profile of this area in order to help it become more widely accepted as a key part of brands’ overall marketing activities.

Q. Why is viral important now?

A. Viral and buzz marketing is not new, but the use of these consumer-to-consumer techniques is becoming more prevalent, particularly as falling effectiveness of traditional, marketer-to-consumer techniques is making advertisers look seriously at other ways to build brand and shift product. One of the most credible consumer-to-consumer approaches being used is word-of-mouth marketing, whereby influencer-based techniques generate peer-to-peer product recommendations. However, this kind of word-of-mouth marketing can be expensive and — as Steve Knox from P&G’s Tremor initiative admitted at the recent Ad:Tech in San Francisco — it only truly works if the product has some inherent “wow” factor that people want to talk about.

So marketers are now looking more closely at online viral marketing, a consumer-to-consumer approach that can be used for any product, because the communication agent, such as video-based advertainment content, is the element that needs a wow factor, not the product. Viral marketing generates buzz and raises awareness, rather than generating actual product recommendations. In that way, it’s closer to classic above-the-line brand marketing. Yet it’s not interruptive and it doesn’t buy exposure. Instead, viral campaigns work the Internet to deliver exposure, using material that consumers want to spend time interacting with and spreading proactively, peer to peer.

Q. How important is the Web to the rise of viral and buzz marketing? What does the maturity of the one have to do with the growth of the other?

A. Online consumer-generated media such as blogs and forums have helped supercharge word-of-mouth marketing communications. The Web is the fastest, most cost-effective way for people all over the world to communicate with each other. It lends itself naturally to the peer-to-peer sharing of information.

Equally, the availability of user-selectable, non-interruptive viral content, such as humorous clips, images and buzz stories, is helping the Web develop into an important entertainment medium, not just a communications medium.

Q. What do you think defines a viral marketing campaign?

A. All viral marketing campaigns require two things: appropriate material to engage viral audiences; and specialist seeding in places where the viral audience already gathers, making the communication easy to find and interact with.

Strategically, the most important definition of a viral marketing campaign is one that’s used as a means to an end, not simply an end in itself. The approach should not be considered a standalone tactic to generate buzz; it must result in tangible brand benefits.

Q. What about measurement then? How do you convince your clients you’re providing value?

A. We do a lot of viral campaigns that use video-based advertainment clips as the viral material, and we have our own online film tracking system that measures viral spread from seed level onwards for relevant file formats that are linked to the system. This — and brand exposure figures from initial seeding points — helps make viral campaigns accountable, even though it provides only snapshots at specific points in time of the total activity taking place.

In addition, the clips we seed have hotlinks that enable interested viewers to interact further by clicking through to a Web site. That provides another measurement opportunity that can be as precise as a client wants to make it, for example, using specific inbound viral URLs and tracking viral visitor sessions after landing.

The ultimate value of a viral campaign after raising brand awareness is contributing to sales. That’s something the client can measure themselves, through CRM systems, for example, with planning input from us.

Q. A lot of people declared the “leaked” Ford SportKa viral campaign a disaster for Ford. Do you agree?

A. On one hand, the campaign (authorized or not) was hugely controversial and generated massive exposure, online and offline. Ultimately it repositioned a car that’s old and not a particular standout in its class as a gnarly sports beast. So there may be a short-term gain for the product, but only if increased sales occur as a result of this repositioning.

On the other hand, how much brand alienation has occurred because of the campaign, whether to this model’s target audience or wider? [Is that alienation] short or long-term? Again, a viral campaign needs to be used as a means to an end, not just an end in itself. It should be an integrated part of overall brand marketing activity, contributing benefits beyond simply generating a one-off, tactical buzz.

Q. What role do you see viral marketing campaigns playing in marketing in three years? Five years?

A. Advertisers are allocating more marketing budget in general to online activity, and we’ve seen a marked rise in the use of viral marketing since we started specializing in it at the turn of the century, especially over the past year.

I expect that viral marketing techniques will be rationalized (by users and practitioners) and will develop more credibility within the wider marketing mix over the next few years.

In particular, I see viral marketing being used more as a strategic synthesis between word-of-mouth marketing techniques and advertainment-style approaches to brand marketing.

Q. Describe a day in the life of Justin Kirby.

A. I tend to have a cell phone in one hand and a mouse in the other all day.

I’m not a morning person, but as soon as I get up, I’m online liaising with our Australian branch, answering email and generally championing the cause of online viral and buzz marketing. If I don’t have any meetings, conferences or panels to sit on, I’ll spend the day explaining what we do, as well as how and why, to clients, the press, academics and other marketing practitioners.

Current major non-client projects include co-editing a book on connected marketing with Dr. Paul Marsden.

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