The Viral Marketing Myth

Last week, a reporter called about a viral marketing campaign running on Friendster. DreamWorks had set up Friendster profiles for characters from its new movie, “Anchorman.” The studio hopes users will find the profiles amusing and list the characters as their friends. If enough users do this, the logic goes, it will help raise the movie’s awareness and credibility.

The film’s main character, Ron Burgundy, had about 300 friends the week before I got that call. One day later, after the reporter published her story, the profile had 500 friends. Both numbers indicate a very low interaction rate; 500 friends represent less than 0.01 percent of Friendster’s registered users. But daily interactions grew by nearly 400 percent once a few articles about the promotion were published.

The tiny interaction rate and the spike from press coverage prove something I’ve been pondering for a while: Viral marketing is a myth. Seth Godin describes viral marketing as giving consumers an idea and letting them market it to each other. In his book, “Unleashing the Ideavirus,” Godin says, “Ignite consumer networks, and then get out of the way and let them talk.”

But clearly, not enough consumers were talking about the “Anchorman” profiles. So DreamWorks and Friendster started promoting the story to reporters and running banner ads to drive extra traffic. (Yes, ads are running to raise awareness of a campaign intended to raise awareness of the movie.) Chatter generated by advertising and PR doesn’t sound very viral to me.

The same problem has plagued other high-profile “viral” campaigns. Burger King’s Subservient Chicken site, despite gaining praise within the industry, seemed to generate far more discussion in the media than among consumers. The same applies to Ford’s Sportka viral video, which was obviously approved by the carmaker despite its protests to the contrary. Thousands of other viral promotions are never noticed by consumers or the media at all.

Consumers pass along viral messages all the time. But very rarely are they planned marketing messages. For years, agency types (including my colleague Julian Smith) have espoused the power of viral messaging. For years, advertisers have labored to create and measure viral phenomena.

A handful of very successful viral campaigns were indeed propagated by consumers, including Honda’s outstanding Cog video and “The Blair Witch Project.” But for each successful viral effort, there are hundreds of failures. It’s nearly impossible to catch lightning in a bottle.

The real conduit for most viral campaigns, when they are noticed, is the media. Reporters get the message out, drive the interest and traffic. Maybe this doesn’t matter. After all, as long as consumers get the message, the channel isn’t important, right? But the whole point of viral marketing is your friends have more credibility than ads or reporters do. If it takes banners and press seeding to get a “viral” message through, the campaign fails.

I want to like viral marketing campaigns. The few times they’ve worked, it’s been remarkable to witness. Yet you could pursue the viral marketing myth for a lifetime and never get close. Most marketers, including Friendster and DreamWorks, have a long way to go.

Meet Nate at ClickZ’s upcoming AdForum and at Search Engine Strategies.

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