Viral’s Long Tail

A week and a half ago, I was a panelist at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) Basic Training conference in Orlando, FL. Today, I’ll share a few themes that build on several of my previous columns, particularly those on viral and previous WOMMA events.

First, the 450-plus attendees, including Fortune 1000s, brand and online marketers, bloggers, journalists, and authors, were a great audience. Their interest in the subject matter was evident in the packed conference rooms and animated hallway conversations. Some think word of mouth is a passing fad, but I believe marketing is and has always been about customers talking to customers. Until the explosion of consumer-generated content though, word of mouth was largely invisible to marketers and therefore difficult to track and quantify. It’s here, it’s real, and it’s only going to get bigger.

We’re entering a shockingly transparent new world where consumers truly take ownership of brands and can deeply affect business performance and product/service delivery in a positive way, as it forces brands to become more authentic. Brands that don’t live up to their promises will quickly be exposed, as we’ve seen time and again. This is terrifying for marketers.

It takes a confident brand to engage in word-of-mouth activities; to monitor organic word of mouth, where word of mouth happens naturally; to engage in amplified word of mouth; or to actively create word of mouth by fueling consumer dialogue through viral marketing campaigns and other stimuli.

A perfect example of brand confidence was presented by my co-panelist, Virginia Miracle, head of word-of-mouth marketing at Dell. She’s responsible for launching a new MP3 player, the DJ Ditty, to compete against Apple’s Shuffle. Now, Dell is a relatively conservative brand admired for its focus on quantifiable results.

Miracle moved Dell into new territory with a viral campaign entitled Dell DJ Ditty. Visitors meet a fictional musician named Mitch who brings a playful, irreverent, fresh approach to the product and the brand. It doesn’t feel like Dell, but it does feel very appropriate for reaching a tough target audience — the youth market. The campaign even included a MySpace entry for the DJ Ditty. Last time I looked, it had well over 10,000 friends.

I’ve often said viral campaigns involve sex, pets, and the absurd, and watching this guy play air guitar ranks pretty high on the amusement scale. Miracle reports DJ Ditty even received event invites and a few marriage proposals. Dell found a new way to reach a valuable audience that couldn’t be found any other way.

Sometimes you think a word of mouth campaign will spread in a certain way or engage a particular audience. But when consumers take ownership of your brand, they can take it to some interesting places you never anticipated. On the panel, I shared some interesting ways consumers spread the word about the Jeep Commander Mudd’s campaign we did for DaimlerChrysler. For those unfamiliar with the campaign, it included a four-part Webisode of a muddy family. It also included a virtual geocaching game within Google Maps, a car giveaway, and a sweepstakes, all to highlight the seven-passenger Jeep and tie it to the brand’s key attributes of authenticity and adventure. We were confident Jeep enthusiasts would see the campaign and have opinions. Indeed, the campaign spread virally. Residual postings can be found on sites from the Netherlands to Italy.

Here’s the most important thing to remember about these campaigns: good or bad, they create dialogue and leave residue behind. They live beyond the launch. In the cases of DJ Dell Ditty and the Mudds, these weren’t :30 spots that ran within a finite timeframe, then the marketer was done. These campaigns take on a life of their own. The archival nature of the Internet keeps them alive. So don’t jump in unless you’re comfortable with the risk. It takes a very confident marketer to engage in this kind of dialogue.

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