The concept of viral marketing is one that seems to have existed, in one form or another, since the dawn of commerce. The first time a proto-human turned to a friend and said “You know, Thag makes really great pointed sticks,” viral marketing had begun. Such simple word of mouth advertising is nothing new, but it is only in the last several years that I have heard discussion of how to leverage the power of this phenomenon become commonplace. In a sense, I guess you could say that the concept is reaching maturity.
We, as a society, fill the role of parental figures to this budding adult of a concept. Looking at such a child, are we in a position to be proud, as parents? What can or should we do to shape the development of our quirky offspring into the responsible adult we’d prefer it to be?
One of the largest obstacles to having a cogent debate over viral marketing stems from a blurring of the definition of the term. There are any number of options available to anyone willing to take the time to search for a definition. Frustratingly, a quick check of leading on-line dictionaries produces no entries, leaving one to sift through sponsored links, instead. Which definition I prefer depends in part upon which aspect of the idea I am debating at the time, but for the sake of this post, I’m going to define viral marketing as “any technique which relies on the consumers of media to engage in the continued propagation of that media.”
Unfortunately, this concept should not be confused with what might be more properly called “guerrilla marketing,” even though it is usually presented as the same thing. Guerrilla marketing covers the broader concept of any non-traditional means of conveying a marketing “payload” to a potential consumer. Given that they are unusual, guerrilla marketing campaigns often generate enough interest to entice those they reach to engage in viral marketing by discussing what they experienced with others, who are in turn motivated to seek out and experience the message for themselves. The difficulty is that many firms that offer guerrilla marketing services bill themselves as “viral marketers” in an attempt to suggest to their potential customers that they will be able to produce marketing campaigns that will be hip, edgy, or just plain entertaining enough to drive viral marketing in their target audience.
Sometimes, these efforts work brilliantly, generating huge interest, buzz, and secondary media exposure above and beyond what would be possible by traditional means even with an astronomical budget. Other times, they produce catastrophic backfires, generating powerful negative responses among their target audience. What factors decide at what point on this continuum any given marketing effort might fall? I don’t claim to have found the master key to unlock the secret at the dark heart of marketing (if I had, I wouldn’t be writing this post, I’d be relaxing on a pile of money the size of a large house), but anecdotally, I think I’ve identified several important guidelines.
There are, in my view, three basic rules to follow. Each of them builds logically on those that came before it. These are not complicated, and they’re not hard. They might be general enough that one will be required to invest more than a little thought into applying them to the complexities of a real world situation, but that’s what real life is all about, isn’t it?
1. Know your audience
This is a rule so basic I hesitate to even mention it, but it is so crucial that I couldn’t bring myself to leave it out. Of course, any successful marketing campaign will operate within an understanding of what appeals to the audience it intends to reach. This is even more critical when attempting to catalyze viral marketing, because the entire point is to be able to appeal to your audience in such a way that they enjoy your effort for its own sake, and work to spread your message to targets beyond your reach.
It is important to understand, however, that with viral marketing, you are, by design, relinquishing control over how and where your message is spread. This means that in addition to knowing who is going to be exposed to your message when you present it, you need to consider all of the people your message might eventually reach. This is particularly difficult because you will also need to take into account that, if you succeed, some of the people your message will reach are likely to get your message entirely divorced from its context. You will need to give careful attention to how your message will appear to people who might have no exposure to you or your brand or product at all, once it has been stripped of any contextual packaging.
In some cases, campaigns of this type have been reasonably successful. In December of 2005, Sony paid local graffiti artists in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Philadelphia to create a series of images depicting the Play Station Portable being wielded by urban-looking kids in unique ways. There was some backlash from people who felt the ads were in poor taste, but Sony did manage to avoid some of the earlier blunders of others by paying business owners for the right to decorate their walls.
Prominent counter-examples, where companies have failed to meet this criteria, are easy to find. A campaign by a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting begun in late January of this year was, by all accounts, cause for snarky laughter among fans of the late-night cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, but got into trouble when the campaign grated harshly against the sensibilities of any number of people outside of the target audience. Battery-powered versions of the children’s toy Lite-Brite were placed in various locations throughout several cities, depicting the outline of a character from the show raising his middle finger. When some citizen eventually became unsure enough of what this represented to call the police, the resulting security panic shut down large parts of the Boston transportation infrastructure for a day as the civil authorities switched into hyper-defensive mode. At least one of the toys was destroyed in a controlled explosion. This, after all, could represent terrorism in the fair city of Boston!
Now, I would like to make it clear that I think arresting two people and putting Turner Broadcasting in a position to pay out $2 million in fines is a clear case of overreaction. Children’s toys, even when depicting adult humor, are not bombs, and should, on even the most casual inspection, rarely be misidentified as such. On the other hand, I think that it’s a clear failure on the part of the marketing team that developed this concept to have not considered how people older and more tightly wound than their target audience might react to blinking electronic boxes in the subway tunnels of a major city. Just because the reaction was excessive and absurd does not mean that it wasn’t predictable.
Public safety officers are people burdened with the responsibility of protecting the general public against threats of bewildering variety. I think in general they are terrified of the very real possibility that they will, in hindsight, be accused of failing to react against the threat that nobody saw coming until there were already bodies in the streets. This is an unreasonable pressure to put any person under, and while it doesn’t serve to excuse ridiculous excess, it does help to explain it. This is the very heart of the argument here. The audience, as imagined by the marketers in this case, did not include all of the people outside their intended demographic. In reality, it included countless other people. To engage in viral marketing, you need to surrender control over your audience, and face the very real possibility that in the process of engaging some of your audience to take action on your behalf, other members of the audience may become involved in ways you will come to regret.
2. You don’t have to be real, but don’t ever be fake
The internet, in all its glorious variety, is home to everything from the most firmly grounded examinations of the mundane to the wildest flights of fancy. Both, and everything in between, have their place on the internet. There is certainly no requirement that attempts to instigate viral marketing be realistic. One of the more successful intentional viral marketing campaigns in recent memory, centered around the site ilovebees.com, included such far-flung elements as time travel, artificial intelligence, starships, and alien invasion. Clearly, this is not real. Nevertheless, it resonated with its audience, and fueled considerable interest in the product it supported (the video game Halo 2).
In stark contrast to this success is the shameful debacle of Sony’s “All I want for X-mas is a PSP” (AIWX from now on, to save me typing) campaign. In this case, Sony Computer Entertainment of America hired a marketing firm to promote their hand-held gaming device. The company set up a blog (now defunct) which purported to be run by two young, urban guys who were trying to convince the parents of a third member of their group to buy him a PSP for a holiday gift. As it was updated, the blog included stories from the authors about their ongoing efforts, as well as a series of downloads for interested readers.
In this sense, the AIWX campaign was a sort of meta-viral marketing campaign, in that it attempted to generate enough interest to encourage its audience to download further, related campaign materials and distribute them, generating multiple, parallel vectors to deliver the campaign’s message to a larger audience. Things like posters, a series of music videos produced by a spectacularly untalented “cousin”, and iron-on transfer designs to allow people to create their own t-shirts must have seemed like a great idea to the marketers. The difficulty, of course, is that the entire structure of the campaign was constructed on a single, fundamental lie.
It has been suggested that in spite (or perhaps because) of the unrivaled quantities of BS it produces, the internet also serves as a highly sensitive BS detector. It is pure, foolish pride to expect that you will be able to fool your audience for any appreciable length of time. Those with hubris enough to attempt to mislead even very modestly sized audiences online will soon raise the ire of the collective intelligence of the internet-aware. Once that demographic turns the harsh glare of its scrutiny on your deception, your humiliation is assured, and your exposure as a fraud will be tear-jerking in its swiftness.
The simple fact is that most people hate being lied to. In the case of the AIWX campaign, parts of the blog didn’t sit right with many readers. It was too partisan, too slick in some ways, and too carefully sloppy in others. It felt like a scam, and people started digging. It was only a matter of a few days after the first questions began to arise before the marketing firm behind the campaign was identified, their connection with Sony confirmed, the identities of the authors of the blog pinpointed as employees of the company, and the whole sorry mess came crashing down.
The problem, in this case, was that the blog had tried to convince its readers that the authors were people who didn’t actually exist. It claimed to be a spontaneous effort by dedicated fans, when it was in actuality a paid advertisement. None of it rang true with the audience, and once the truth was revealed, the result was a powerful backlash against the product, the brand, and the company behind them. Sony posted a “come clean and apologize” message on the blog, but by then it was too late.
The site was soon taken down as the company tried to forget the entire incident, but it has left a bad taste in the mouths of many of their potential customers. I know that among electronic gamers I speak to, it’s still a sore point. In a telling indication of how far bad news can travel, the day the apology went up, I saw references to it on four different news outlets in as many hours. Penny Arcade, one of the most widely-read online comics around, produced a crude but evocative comic that conveys how such a gross insult to our intelligence feels, as a consumer.
There is an important difference between deception and fiction, however. Perhaps it is the tie to crass commercialism that leaves such a bitter taste. It was not attempting to sell any product in particular, except perhaps the talents of those involved, but the series of YouTube videos attributed to Lonelygirl15 were a fabrication that was well-received. This was a video-blog, with new segments released on a regular basis. They told the story of a young girl, Bree, slowly building new elements of her family, her background, and a mounting plot into the story over time.
As the series grew in popularity, there were an increasing number of skeptics who pointed to the quality of the work and questioned if it had been staged. Faced with increasing exposure and mounting proof in the media, the creators of the series soon confessed that the titular character was played by a young, aspiring actress, and the story had been written and produced by several film makers. Some viewed this revelation with disappointment, but the creators continued to produce additional segments of the series. It remains popular, having now spawned several spoofs and an officially sanctioned alternate reality game based on the series.
The key, to me, is that LonelyGirl15 didn’t actively claim to be something it wasn’t. It was a series of videos, which may or may not have been fictional, but it didn’t claim to be impartial about something while trying to sell a product, nor did the creators ever talk about themselves outside of the content of the videos. Perhaps this is a meaningless distinction I’ve chosen to create, but it seems to be one shared by others, given the continued success of the series.
3. Never forget that your customers are smarter than you
This one is simple, but far-reaching in its implications. It follows directly from both rules #1 and #2, above. It’s important to know your audience, and in order to do so properly, you have to understand that any trickery on your part will be discovered, and sooner than you imagined possible. Lying to and insulting the intelligence of the very people you are trying to reach is not a winning strategy. As viral marketing continues to mature, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of it. As they become more savvy, the level of sophistication required to reach people steadily increases, as does their intolerance for sloppy or heavy-handed attempts to sway them.
At the same time, as consumers become more savvy, they are becoming interconnected in new ways. If you produce a message that resonates with your audience, that rings true, they will find ways to share your message that you never imagined. The standards for what it takes to “hook” someone have risen, but with them has risen the potential gains of a well-executed campaign. In the age of cell phones, email, blogs, video sites, and independent journalism, your message could be picked up and spread across the globe in a matter of a single day, reaching millions of people. Even better, when done right, it costs you… nothing at all. Produce a compelling message, and it will market itself.
This now leaves me at the item that made me think about producing this post in the first place. Namely, it is a company named Steorn. You may have heard that last year, they took out a full-page add in the Economist claiming to have produced what amounts to a perpetual motion machine. This is old hat when it comes to scams, but in this case the company seems to be doing things a bit differently.
They are spending a ton of money to market this “discovery” and the brand-name it has spawned. In the meantime, they have stated that they are not accepting further investment. This goes against the grain of a scam, because it leaves them with huge expenses and no revenue, and if it is a hoax, they are riding out the high point of their exposure, when they could be bilking gullible investors of huge sums, while they await a very public confirmation process of their technology.
As a result of these anomalies, people have begun a series of increasingly thorough examinations of the company. If you care to look at their Wikipedia article, you can find a host of analysis and even links to copies of the company’s financial returns for the last six years. People in Ireland have visited their offices, and examined virtually every piece of documentation on the public record for the company. As yet, nothing conclusive has emerged. It’s widely speculated that this whole thing is a viral marketing campaign, perhaps a follow-up to ilovebees intended to promote the upcoming release of Halo 3.
I’m certain that the company’s claims are not genuine, but I’m fascinated to see how this unfolds. I am, in fact, interested and engaged enough to have shared my thoughts with you, and provide you with links to follow up on your own, if you see fit. In that, if this is a viral marketing campaign, it is already working. Will it turn out to be a responsible one? Have the people behind the advertising followed my three rules? Time will tell.