Viral Marketing: Making It Manageable

At last week’s SES Chicago, attendees were treated not just to a staggering amount of information on search engine marketing and optimization, but also other methods of digital marketing that are über relevant to today’s media strategists. Included among them was viral marketing, and a session I moderated, “Igniting Viral Campaigns,” addressed some misconceptions about this nebulous subject, while also illustrating that it’s a lot more manageable than you might think.

Viral: Beyond Rich Media

Traditionally, we’ve considered “viral campaigns” to be the digital media equivalent of blockbuster movies. Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken” and Evian’s “Roller Babies,” for example, were big undertakings that produced big results. Viral videos in general are well positioned to gain popularity among Internet users, both because they’re typically entertaining (and often humorous), and because they’re easily shared.

Rich media campaigns do not, however, have the corner on the viral marketing market. Virtually any type of online content can become viral, whether it’s something as buzz-worthy as a Facebook application, or as niche oriented as an educational white paper. Certainly, the content you offer consumers must be of value to them in some way, but perhaps equally important is the way in which you seed your campaign.

In his SES presentation, Greg Finn, director of Internet marketing with 10e20 provided a checklist for seeding and spreading a viral campaign. In addition to recommending the use of popular sites such as Funny or Die, Break.com, and Flickr, Finn pointed to social news sites (Digg, Reddit) and niche social sites (Tip’d, AutoSpies) as destinations that are well equipped to facilitate the distribution of your online content. Target the right distribution channels, and you’ll target the users best equipped to share it and evangelize your brand.

Using Viral Wisely

For many digital marketers, the biggest challenge with viral marketing is reconciling the desire to achieve popularity among consumers with the need to meet your client’s campaign objectives. This is especially true when your viral offering is a video, and your expectations for it know no limits. Panelist Denise Chudy, display and YouTube sales leader with Google, said it best: “Very few videos hit ‘viral’ mainstream. Most are good, but not groundbreaking.”

Attaining “Evolution of Dance” status (over 132 million YouTube views as of December 2009) may be an unrealistic goal. But frankly, it shouldn’t be your aim to begin with. Instead, follow Chudy’s advice to “think discovery, not viral” and focus on making your videos findable. Use offline channels such as TV and print to increase exposure of your online offering, feature recognizable people (whether celebrities or simply well-liked bloggers) when possible, and never forget to invest in advertising.

In other words, unless your promotional content is as familiar as E*Trade’s or your budget is as big as BMW’s once was, expect to invest in ads that drive additional traffic to your video-based campaign.

Assess The Value of Your Content (To Your Client)

It’s hard enough to create marketing content that resonates with consumers, let alone that satisfies your clients’ multi-faceted objectives. This is particularly true of content that’s earmarked to “go viral.” How does one ensure that such campaigns are ultimately worthwhile to a brand?

Jennifer Evans Laycock, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Guide, recommends marketers tap the book “Convergence Marketing” by Richard G. Rosen to help them evaluate the merit of their campaigns. In her SES presentation, Laycock provided numerous examples of viral marketing pieces and measured them against the “Rosen Velocity Scale” — the degree to which they either displayed benefits to the brand or were likely to produce a direct sales outcome.

According to Laycock, the key to a successful viral campaign is striking a balance between promoting the brand and angling for a sale. To improve the impact of your content as a branding piece, incorporate education, loyalty, and investment. To boost sales, meanwhile, be sure to deliver a message that has instant appeal, is product centric, and is designed to impact sales.

If you ever thought that there was no rhyme or reason to whether a campaign becomes a viral hit, heed these tips. With the right strategy, just about any digital marketing content can be transformed into a viral success.

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