The advertising industry has caught an infectious bug. It’s considered highly contagious and shouldn’t be ignored. They’re calling it viral marketing and ever since Crispin Porter + Bogusky created the now-famous Subservient Chicken, every marketer worth their salt has promised to include a viral component as part of a client’s next campaign. The thing is, while the dream of viral marketing is a nice one, the reality of producing a viral element, one that effectively spreads through one-to-one exchanges, is often an unpleasant one.
That’s not to say viral is dead, quite the contrary. Still, as with any element of a campaign, viral must be understood for what it is: a gamble. True, most often it’s a cheap bet. But it’s a bet nonetheless, and as any good gambler knows, the odds favor the house. A successful viral piece depends on a nearly infinite number of variables, the most important of which is distribution. When a marketer creates a print-ad or online banner, the means of distribution have been decided; well-received or not, there is little question that the advertisement will reach the target defined by the outlet. Viral is another story altogether.
In fact, just calling it viral is problematic. After all, isn’t the goal of all marketing to be viral? When creating an advertisement, the hope is that the message will infect the consumer and replicate itself inside them, thereby connecting the brand and the individual. The only online elements considered viral are those that find success. That’s because, as every good virus knows, it’s either spread or be dead.
By concentrating on the long-term goal of virality, marketers often lose sight of the narrower objectives and strategies specifically attached to online viral advertising. The strategy of a successful online viral marketing element concentrates not on incubating a message, but rather on spreading it. In other words, the viral message has to be contagious. In fact, contagious marketing is probably a much more appropriate term. Every time one of these elements is created, the hope is that one person will feel compelled to pass it to another, or better yet, many others.
It doesn’t matter how original, revolutionary or amusing your message is if no one sees it. And with ‘viral’ marketing, there’s no guarantee anyone will. After all, there’s no formal distribution channel, just those people you hope will email, water cooler, instant message and blog your idea. Seldom asked, however, is just who those people are. Really knowing your audience is an important part of any campaign, but it’s even more integral for ‘viral.’ Keep in mind, you’re not just trying to talk to these people; you’re trying to convince them to be a proactive co-marketer. If you don’t have keen insight into what gets your target consumer excited, then there’s no way you’re going to be able to craft a contagious idea that they will find worthy of passing along.