Serving Viral Marketing to Hungry Consumers

Thrilling movies, a guy in a chicken suit, and vegetables leading an Organic Rebellion are sure to come to mind when you hear the words “viral marketing.” The past couple years have produced a glut of videos and applications intended to generate consumer buzz.

As a promotional tool, viral marketing is spreading in much the same way as the very promotions it spawns.

The success past viral efforts, in terms of both visits and subsequent results, has beguiled countless marketers and lead them to crave their own Web phenomenon. Mine is hardly the only agency to be asked by clients to develop the next big viral initiative. Add these to the bevy of independent advertisers who are formulating their own plots to create the next viral barometer, and you’ve got a clear-cut case of too many cooks in the kitchen. The question on all of our lips is, of course, will this spoil the broth?

So far, viral tactics remain appealing to consumers, according to a recent study from digital marketing firm Sharpe Partners. The survey, conducted in September 2005, reveals nearly 9 of 10 U.S. adult Internet users share content with others via email (the primary delivery channel for viral marketing). Twenty-five percent do so daily, while 63 percent share content once a week. As many as 75 percent include up to six other recipients in their distribution.

When it comes to the nature of the content that’s forwarded, humor is unsurprisingly important. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents share humorous content, jokes, and cartoons. Games are considerably less popular but still represent a viable option for marketers; 25 percent of adult respondents share them with others.

Here’s the kicker: The study also finds including overt brand messages in viral content “only slightly” reduces the likelihood it will be forwarded by consumers. Just over half of respondents say they’d be less or slightly less likely to forward branded content, while an astonishing 43 percent say they’d be more likely to do so. Nineteen percent, meanwhile, say brand sponsorship has a positive effect on their decision to forward a message to others.

Great news for marketers, right? That depends. Though it seems consumers haven’t had their fill of sharable content, that alone doesn’t make a successful viral initiative. And although overt brand messages may not deter consumers from sharing at present, the best applications skew more toward product placement than brand sponsorships.

These initiatives do more than make their way around the Web and tout a logo; they’re integrated with the brand and represent it in a creative way. There might not be a true formula for developing a viral piece (with the exception of a few that pay homage to the Chicken, each is as varied as the last), but the common thread is brand and product relevance.

The trend is more apparent than you may think:

  • BMW Films: These films showcased the company’s vehicles, of course.

  • Subservient Chicken: Remember the tag line, “Have it Your Way”?
  • Grocery Store Wars: The Organic Trade Association managed to imbed “The Ways of the Farm” (and the Dark Side of the Farm industry) in millions of unsuspecting consumers’ minds.
  • Method’s Come Clean: The company sells personal cleaning products. The application encourages you to share your confessions and “come clean.”
  • Comcast’s interactive puppets: It’s clear who “pulls the strings” when it comes to entertainment. The themed puppets represent the programming available with On-Demand from Comcast Digital Cable.
  • Virtual Bartender 2: Produced by Beer.com, the bartenders will respond to many requests. But when it comes to ordering a drink, they’ll only pour you a beer.

It’s difficult not to be heartened by the news consumers still spread content online, and equally hard not to be tempted by the apparent simplicity of the approach. Before you attempt to create your own viral offering, however, consider your product and brand. There’s a clever angle out there just waiting to be exploited. Miss it and you could ruin the broth.

Meet Tessa at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.

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