Self-Propelling Viral Campaigns

ISPs offer sophisticated filtering to combat spam and pop-ups. Privacy legislation demands stricter email opt-in. We’re seeing a crackdown on intrusive commercial online messages that’s limiting online marketers’ freedom. A growing number are considering viral marketing tactics to overcome these restrictions and help spread brand messages amongst a target audience.

Viral marketing essentially takes advantage of the rapid multiplication effects of online social networks (through email, chat rooms, IM, file-sharing networks, etc.) to help spread a commercial message on the cheap. Potential exists for exponential growth in message exposure that can far exceed what’s achievable were similar budget spent on commercial media channels.

Passed via peer to peer, “word of mouse” messages can help endorse a brand among like-minded consumers, thus spreading its influence. Because they’re passed between individuals at a low distribution level (Bob sends a message to a handful of his mates, who in turn pass it to a handful of their mates), they can bypass spam filters with relative ease.

Non-commercial channels can also get around advertising authority standards and promote brand aspects that might otherwise be considered controversial. Taking this non-mainstream route, a brand can be imbued with certain credibility, status, and subculture currency attractive to the target audience. The approach can also be useful for testing ad messages and creating buzz before going mainstream. Multimedia communications company 3, for example, used virally spread video clips in a teaser campaign to build excitement amongst early adopters prior to the public launch of its 3G handsets in the U.K.

Though you can certainly derive a number of benefits from encouraging the viral spread of commercial content, be aware of the limitations. Control of the message and its distribution is lost as word spreads, making outcomes unpredictable and difficult to measure. The proportion of the online audience likely to participate is small. Jupiter Research’s latest European consumer survey shows only 5 percent of the Internet population had forwarded an advertising message. Of respondents who said they had, 64 percent were under 34 years old and 56 percent were male.

Those seeking to attract and influence a young, Web-savvy, male-oriented audience (difficult to target in more mainstream media) should consider online viral tactics. Many of the most successful viral marketing campaigns, a number of which have ended up in my own inbox, have come from advertisers promoting consumer packaged goods and lifestyle brands to this demographic. Notable U.K. examples include alcohol brands (Vladivar Vodka and John Smiths beer); cars (Mazda and MG Rover); sex-associated brands (Trojan condoms and Agent Provocateur lingerie); mobile phones (Virgin Mobile and 3); and computer games (Xbox, EA SPORTS, and Eidos). Burger King’s gulp-inducing Subserviant Chicken tore through the U.S. like wildfire last week.

The success of a self-propelling, viral marketing campaign depends on creative execution and the quality of the initial seeding. To optimize message spread, content must be entertaining and engaging. The online audience will pass on advertainment, not ads. Content that’s funny, topical, or sexy has best viral currency as it reflects well on the message sender, not the message originator. The Ford Ka evil twin clips recently doing the rounds were classic (but animal cruelty allegations sparked enough controversy to make the ad quickly disappear. Download).

Ensure the message fits with the brand’s values and personality and doesn’t undermine perceptions held by the target audience. My perception of the Ford Ka, it has to be said, was certainly improved by viewing the clip. Video clips offer the greatest visual appeal and require the least viewer interaction or involvement. Be careful to use formats that are widely accepted (such as .mpg) to ensure ease of use and encourage distribution.

It’s possible to offer incentives, such as prize drawings and discounts, to encourage viewers to forward commercial email to contacts and thus spread your message. But these member-get-member schemes are better used for cost-effective customer acquisition. Non-incentivized viral campaigns are more of a brand-building tactic.

Initiating a true viral campaign requires careful seeding amongst key influencers within the target audience and can be boosted by postings on sites such as the Lycos Viral Chart, ViralMeister, TTR2, and, which can also offer tracking and campaign measurement. Evaluating viral spread is possible, to some extent, by tracking content downloads and monitoring chart success and qualitative consumer feedback.

If you’re thinking of using viral material, be aware that gaining a complete return on investment (ROI) picture is impossible, not least because the content can continue to circulate on the Web long after the campaign is considered over.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.