Viral Marketing Success Is About Conversations (Not the Number of Hits)

Ironically, to most marketers, viral marketing is always both overrated and underutilised. Marketers around the globe are fascinated with successful viral stories especially in most cases where the media cost is zero. However, most marketers consider viral an uncontrollable marketing tactic so few are willing to spend reasonable investment either in money or time.

Our agency is lucky enough to have worked with some of the bravest clients. At least, they have an experimental spirit when it comes to viral marketing. Inevitably, most of us have KPIs to achieve, but in my opinion the willingness to accept uncertainty and risk are actually the core winning factors of a viral success.

After creating a stint for a game titled Kung-Fu Rider on YouTube, which successfully drove the campaign to appear on the front page of Yahoo Hong Kong’s top searched keywords not too long ago, Disney Entertainment approached us to produce another viral campaign to promote a new movie.

The assignment was for a sci-fi movie named “I Am Number Four“. The movie was scheduled in March, during the most competitive period of the year when numerous Oscar nominated movies and the movie festival were premiering. No doubt, public attention was mostly on these big titles.

Fortunately, “I Am Number Four” was not competing directly with those Oscar hits. The movie primarily targeted teens and young adults that would appeal to stories about supernatural power or action heroes.

“I Am Number Four” is about an extraordinary teen that masks his true identity and disguises as an average high school student to elude a deadly enemy seeking to destroy him. In fact, he has destructive superpowers with his ‘blue glowing’ hands.

We created a fictitious local incident as an extension to this story. An amateur style video was shot in one of the busiest streets in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. A photo shoot was interrupted when a mysterious man with blue glowing hands walked into the background. The cameraman quickly followed him but the man vanished into thin air just before a bus came crashing into him. Everybody was stunned.

That’s it. This unbranded video titled “Blue Glowing Man In Causeway Bay” did not make any reference to the movie. We uploaded several copies on YouTube as well as other video sharing platforms in China such as YouKu and Tudou.

Traffic grew rapidly after we uploaded the clips. It attracted 150,000 views within a week. The snowball effect multiplied into half a million views in the second week and 2 million in the third week.

As the buzz kept growing, the story about this video was even reported by TV news in Taiwan, Mainland China, and finally, back to Hong Kong. One of the news anchors even made a correlation between this video clip and the movie “I Am Number Four”. We were pleasantly surprised about the TV coverage and asked our client if they had talked to the press about this viral video. They said no. The responses were totally organic.

Within five weeks, we achieved a total of 7.6 million views. Besides watching and sharing the video, people also discussed it and made a connection with the movie on numerous blogs and forums. (From March to now, the video has accumulated over 12 million views across the Greater China region.)

I am not sure if this viral video has saved the movie from the competitive box office. But I believe the clients are happy with the astonishing results. Most importantly, the conversation it generated.

The key winning factors of this case study is not just about how we crafted the fictitious story, how the special effect was applied, or how we spread rumours around the web. Whether an unbranded or branded viral content will have a higher chance to be viral is also not important. These tactics are easy to imitate but the success is hard to replicate.

The moral of this story is, the guts of our client matters most.

Like most viral marketing campaigns, there is always an uncertain factor within. What if someone can’t make the connection between the video clip and the movie? What if someone complains about us of fooling the public by creating such a fake incident?

In fact, the content we created is only a means to an end. The user-generated conversation was more crucial. Instead of hiring a bunch of zombies to tweet for us, we actually spent great efforts to closely monitor where and how the conversation evolved. We strategically modified and added new tags for the video clips and retweeted all mentioned posts or used the related blogs for seeding.

The result of a viral content may be unpredictable but the process of monitoring and modifying the conversation flow can be worked under a relatively controlled environment.

Nevertheless, the result is still not guaranteed. My key learning is by shifting the focus primarily on how ‘viral’ (number of views) the campaign is to how ‘viral’ the conversation evolves, we can always manage to achieve a better result. Just like the most successful stories in marketing, it is always a combination of art and science, in this case, courage too.

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