What Makes Your Advertising Viral?

I read a projection today that said if online advertising revenue continues at its current run rate, spending could hit $11 billion this year.

That, and a recent proliferation of viral videos and ads forwarded to my inbox, explains several phone calls I’ve received this week from clients who want me to put together a plan for them to “do something viral” this year.

This is a double-edged sword, of course. The prospect of creating something so unique, so cheap, so funny, so… Internet is exciting for any interactive marketer. This got me thinking: is viral marketing good for any brand?

As we create rich, viral advertising, we must keep an open mind in terms of what will motivate content sharing. Sometimes it’s due to things that are provocative and not perfectly aligned with a brand or service. Take America We Stand As One, for instance. Whatever your bent, this video is something unique. It’s so unique you’ll probably send it to someone. Is there room for a brand in there? I don’t think so. Well, not unless you look at all the parodies (here’s just one example — warning: crude language) that were created from it.

Nonetheless, our clients want viral. How far are they willing to go, and how far should we really push them?

I think the folks at Fallon did it right when they produced Brawny Innocent Escapes. It’s a site that succeeds on many levels. First, it entertains. The writing is great, and the Brawny Man a perfect distillation of fantasy and mascot. It surprises. There aren’t just one or two stock scripts. It keeps delivering. And, it really serves the brand. It’s not randomly sponsored content from a company that wants to appear cool to Internet users. Brawny Man is the brand in its online form. It’s great.

If we can determine how far to push our client’s brands, then we have another problem: we must create original content the majority of discriminating Internet users find entertaining and that they didn’t already create themselves. Herein lies the heart of this column. Truth is, every great viral idea probably isn’t an idea from a marketer.

Think about it. Or just think about some recent hot viral work, such as Subservient Chicken. The idea for Subservient Chicken, in which a chicken responds to a user’s requests, is pretty similar to (you guessed it) something found in porn sites. Live sex chat is a series of scripted video clips that correspond to most common requests by users who frequent those kind of sites. I think Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B) did a great job taking an existing idea and infusing a brand into it. It’s truly a brilliant way to take “Have It Your Way” and “Chicken Sandwiches” and make them live together in one interactive piece of entertainment.

In fact, I can think of another site, also by CP+B, that reminds me of another original site. The recent Come Clean site for Method home products echoes the confessional site Not Proud, which also allows people to confess their sins and publishes them in a way that’s a fascinating study of the human condition. Again, kudos to CP+B for taking a great idea and making it applicable to a brand.

I’m not saying every idea exists out there already in the Internet universe. But the most original, entertaining, viral content out there is created not by Internet marketers, but by Internet users. Those people who have a distinct point of view, some skills, and a lack of legal and brand compliance to follow when creating their content.

So you’re not afraid of the risk? Take the recent partnership between Budweiser and Jib Jab to make fun of their challengers. For everything that it was, funny, entertaining, whatever, the repercussions that came from it demonstrate the risks in going viral with your brand. Not two days after the press for the work, the site jibjabbed.com appeared with the intention of mocking the corporate giant for treading in the digerati’s backyard. The lesson is that if you’re going to tread on the savvy Internet masses’ turf, be prepared for some backlash.

Ultimately, if you’re thinking the world of viral marketing is the new, low-cost way to outdo TV, think carefully. When something’s too good to be true, it probably is. What usually makes it special is you didn’t do it.

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