Viral Marketing and Media: Mutually Exclusive?

In early November, Mercury Vehicles launched its “Meet the Lucky Ones” promotion for its Mariner SUV. With its mix of offbeat characters, episodic structure, and a “Twin Peaks” meets “Six Feet Under” storyline, it had all the trappings of what we’ve come to expect, circa late 2004, in a viral marketing campaign.

Mercury chose to kick off “Meet the Lucky Ones” by running ads on Yahoo.

That started me thinking about viral marketing and online media and about how the two disciplines could work together. Are viral marketing and media mutually exclusive? When you start running media for something, is it then by definition no longer viral?

For me, the answer is clearly, “No.” If you accept viral marketing is, at least in part, a marketing technique in which a message is designed to be passed from person to person, then surely media is just one more tool that can be used to get that conversation started.

Further, it seems there’s an incredible synergy that could be realized between viral marketing and online media. Given the right campaign and the right audience, media can be a tremendous tool to help get the viral ball rolling, and viral marketing techniques can be used to extend the life of online media campaigns.

So, why don’t we combine viral and media more often? How come we don’t realizing that synergy?

Maybe we’re still stuck in a “viral equals forward-to-a-friend” mindset.

Not that I’m decrying the use of send to a friend, especially incentivized send-to-a-friend plans. We’ve encouraged this kind of pass-along in various campaigns we’ve run, typically with a “forward this information to friends and receive additional entries to our sweepstakes” promotions. And we’ve seen lifts from 5 to 25 percent on what our media delivers thanks to such incentives. Who wouldn’t want to see an additional 5 to 25 percent lift in campaign effectiveness? It’s a no-brainer.

What I’m saying is forward-to-a-friend is where your viral media ideas should start, not end.

Viral is more than forward-to-a-friend. It’s more than porting a TV spot to the Web, too.

To move forward, we’ve got to take that next step. We may even need to slightly expand our definition of “media.”

One way to help influence a conversation is to advertise on forums where those conversations take place. In many instances, this means blogs. Of course, many of those places aren’t part of the ad networks we’re used to buying on. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to place our messages there.

Google’s AdWords and AdSense programs deliver keyword ads to many blogs. After all, Google now owns Blogger. Blogads puts ads on such widely read blogs as Daily Kos, Instapundit.com, and Gothamist. And, for the moment at least, buying ads through these networks can be cheaper than more traditional online media buys.

The tracking systems and terms may not be quite what we’re used to in the more traditional networks. That’s something we’ll either have to get used to or work with these companies to change, so their systems are more in keeping with the “traditional” ones.

Or here’s a novel idea: Step outside the network. At my agency, we’ve been running a campaign for a client that’s targeted at an interest community, college football fans. We came across a blog devoted to college football, fanblogs.com, that was a perfect platform for our client’s message.

We got in touch with the site editors and brokered a deal. We not only ran ads for our client on their site, but we also provided them with exclusive content. For the fanblogs editors, this was a win-win situation, thanks to that exclusive content and the fact their visitors would naturally be interested in our client’s proposition.

Was this a traditional media buy? An extension of viral marketing efforts? Does it really matter?

Here’s one last question I’ve been pondering: How can we bring viral elements into media units themselves?

I’m thinking about GE’s “Imagination Cubed” program, which allows users to collaborate online in creating virtual line drawings. How cool would it be to start that online collaboration from within an ad unit itself, rather than on the Imagination Cube site?

We’re getting to the point where we can run video in ad units. What else can we do with that bandwidth?

Any ideas? I’d love to hear them. And if I like what I hear, I’ll probably pass your ideas on to friends of mine. And who knows where that might lead…

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