Is it time to go viral?

Viral campaigns have been front of mind for me recently. I’ve suddenly been struck by how a great idea isn’t always the right idea. There may be a profound difference between what works as a viral campaign and what works for you as a brand / business / organisation – ie the audience that is most likely to engage with a viral and, most importantly, pass it on, aren’t necessarily the ones who are going buy what you sell. And… under those circumstances, is a viral still worth doing and why?

Take the 2001 ‘Proof’ campaign starring Kylie Minogue and which was considered too raunchy for the cinema audiences for whom it was conceived. It’s had more that 350 million hits on YouTube since then.

While conceived as a cinema ad it has proved itself extraordinarily viral. The question is – how many people who’ve watched this on YouTube (and it has now been named the best celebrity viral ad of the decade by online content distributor GoViral) are now wearing Agent Provocateur undies?

I understand that a lot of chaps may have rushed out and bought undies for the women in their lives (one or two may have bought velvet upholstered bucking broncos as well) but is that good enough, given how much a viral campaign of this type costs to create?

Remember, I’m just asking questions at this stage. I’m hoping you’ll have at least some of the answers. The most I’m going to offer up later in this article is opinions.

Okay, now let’s take a look at one of my personal favourites…

These sheep crack me up. There is no day of chaos in the office that cannot be improved by spending a few moments rewatching this one. But the truth is that no matter how many times I look at it I do not feel moved to go out and buy a Samsung LED TV.

According to its creators, the:viral:factory, it has featured on Sky, ITV, ABC, The Sun newspaper and The New York Times… But while demand for LED TVs is set to grow to around 90 million units by 2013 (39% of the total market), Sharp seem to be taking the high ground – in the UK at least. They’re on track to sell around 2 million LED TVs in 2009 and predict a massive 10 million sales in 2010. » Source

With no electric sheep in sight, Sharp are selling successfully. But that doesn’t mean they’re sitting back with their feet up.

As early as July 2008 Sharp  was encouraging younger Hong Kong office workers to send viral messages to their friends through a mini site, ‘Where’s my pixie’, promoting its Aquos TV range. They’d targeted this segment (25-35) because they were predisposed to go online and research prior to making a purchase. The characters in the viral were designed to demonstrate picture quality. And as far back as September 2007 Bob Scaglione, Sharp Consumer Electronics Marketing Group senior VP, announced the launch of its “most aggressive advertising and brand campaign in our history”. Earlier this year Sharp launched (and aggressively advertised) an new generation of Aquos TVs, replacing more expensive models.

Here comes the opinion…

Virals are like diets. Every now and again one comes along that catches the public’s attention and seems to get results. But the fact is that the only true way to lose weight is to burn more calories and consume less calories. A stonking good diet, when it forms part of an overall health and fitness regime (squeezing off that extra 5lbs before Christmas, say), may well make a difference. Used on its own… chances are any benefits will be transitory.

So, what should you ask yourself before getting stuck into a viral campaign?

1. Is it enough to create on simply ‘get the word out’?

2. What succes criteria should you / can you attach to it?

3. Where is the budget coming from (are you paying Peter with Paul’s stash and are other marketing initiatives likely to suffer)?

4. And where does you viral sit both practically and strategically when you look across your entire marketing landscape? (This can include blogging about the viral – so make sure everybody’s out of their silos.)

If the strategic and brand accord is that there’s room in the mix for a good viral – you don’t need Kylie writhing on plum plush to be successful.

A viral can be a picture (including a discount voucher), a simple game, an email, or even a phone message.

Irish internet and phone company Perlico created a ‘quack’ viral. If you rang the company you were given this amongst your options: “Press three to hear a duck quack.” Through word-of-mouth and email, the company received 70,000 extra calls in the campaign’s first three days and added what the company described as “a significant number of new customers”.

Don’t park your brain

It’s all very exciting, but the most important thing at this stage is sanity checking your creative juices using people who are outside the campaign team. I suspect this didn’t happen with the » Burger King Angry-gram

You also need to decide if the target for the viral is the direct target for your business or if the aim some form of ripple influence where the viral recipient influences your ultimate customer group? An example of that approach is »L’Oreal’s ‘Every mum is worth it campaign’ from March this year

You need to be prepared for a number of things, including the viral element becoming dissociated from you and your brand and taking on a life of its own. If you (or your CEO) find loss of control unacceptable – maybe viral isn’t for you.

The other thing you really have to understand is why people share things and accept things from people they don’t necessarily know that well – and not just as this applies to the internet (quaint word, but I still love it).

People do things because they make sense at the time. Online is also disinhibiting, so people will share (and accept) things, including links to raunchy Kylie videos, which they might baulk at sharing face-to-face. So the reason to share a viral must be clear. Its humour must be instant and universal and any essential usefulness immediately obvious.

And Christmas is a great time of year for a viral. Which reminds of the music channel that created a viral of a boy unwrapping a Christmas present. It was a light sabre which he wielded with gay abandon – until he cut grandma’s head off. Ho, ho, ho – or no. no, no? You decide.