Viral Lemmings

Viral marketing can be powerful without being expensive, and that’s a big part of what attracts so many marketers to it. But viral isn’t appropriate for everyone. There are some brands and some objectives that just don’t fit. All the buzz around such recent efforts as Subservient Chicken seems to have gotten everyone in a tizzy. Suddenly, almost every client I’m working with wants to do something viral.

One of my mom’s favorite things was to nip in the bud any group-think mentality on my part with the old chestnut, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you follow them?” Sure, there were variations; sometimes my friends were jumping off a tall building. Other times, it was a specific bridge, such as the Brooklyn Bridge or (more appropriate for my hometown) the Ben Franklin Bridge. You could say viral marketing is like the Brooklyn Bridge.

So, in true Lockhorn family tradition, I pose the following question:

If all your competitors launched some cheesy effort to rip off the latest viral marketing success and make it work for them, would you:

  • Call your agency and shout, “We need to get something viral out there — pronto! Our competitors must be smarter than we are.”

  • Call your agency and snicker, “Look how dimwitted those moronic, trend-following idiots are. What are they thinking? Don’t they know viral marketing isn’t for everyone? Go for it, though. Knock yourselves out.”

What most people consider viral tends toward crude potty humor. We can forget it doesn’t necessarily have to be that kind of viral to be passed around. Viral is a subset of marketing. It’s the crazy stuff that gets the most press attention. But that’s only part of the story. There are a bunch of other ways to think about viral marketing. One word-of-mouth variety is to turn your best customers into brand evangelists.

Find your most loyal fans and start a conversation. Empower them with tools, such as customizable banners and graphics. Give them background information. Let them inside. Give them an advance look at product plans or upcoming promotions. Make them feel like members of an exclusive club. Encourage them to share with whomever they see fit. Treat them like partners. It will reinforce, maybe even enhance, the way they feel about your brand or products.

We’ve taken this approach a few times with great success. Among the most effective was a Star Trek collectors set we promoted several years ago. There are a ton of Star Trek fan sites out there. The bigger ones actually get pretty decent traffic volumes. So we created an affiliate program, of sorts. We gave the site owners posters, T-shirts, product samples, and the like, and we got a ton of free media. Some even wrote reviews of the product, a subscription-based model with new items arriving about every six weeks. We gave these sites a preview of what was coming in the next shipment, and they’d post it online. They loved the product, and it showed.

Enthusiastic fan sites can be a tremendous boost for any brand. They generally enjoy much more street cred than the master brand. Advertising can take you lots of places, but an endorsement from what the online community views as “the experts” is most powerful when it comes from this kind of environment.

This kind of word-of-mouth marketing is more appropriate for many brands than “viral” marketing is. It is still tricky and can be dangerous. You’re relying on parties outside your own marketing group and agency partners to develop and deliver communications around the product. But with the right amount of control and by setting expectations with the site owners, it can be very powerful.

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