When I was asked to join ADOTAS as a contributing editor, to write and comment on the topic of viral advertising, my first move was to ask my editor in chief what she expected from my inaugural article. Her advice was to offer a primer of sorts: write about what viral advertising is, she said. Tell your readers how you conceive of the practice—and explain to them how you defend the discipline as more than just a passing phase.
Well, as head of a viral agency that operates two small but very physical offices in London and New York and does work for two of the world’s top 5 advertisers, there’s no one better to tell you that viral is something that’s very real—despite the fact that we still have to defend ourselves on a daily basis.
So what is viral advertising all about? To those of us who consider ourselves viral evangelists, it’s about writing and creating exceptional content for the multimedia landscape. It’s about enabling consumers to find, choose and share your advertising, maximising your business investment and delivering ROI. And to those of us who make our living in this sphere, if it’s digital it’s viral—because people can share it.
We viral evangelists are the next generation of ad men. At our core we are digital kids grown up in a digital age; we are a product of our time. Some day soon, what we do will simply be called “advertising” like everything else in this marketplace. To quote Bill Gates at this year’s London IAB conference: “One day all advertising will be digital”. That’s the principle driving viral forward; it’s one we believe in wholeheartedly.
The last year or so has brought significant change to the way viral is most often employed in the marketplace, shifting it from a somewhat illicit (and often shocking) practice to a truly professionalized piece of the advertising puzzle. My company is a great example of precisely that shift. When we started out, our modus operandi was to produce explicitly shocking clips that relied primarily on their shock value to work. Since we did not have the cash to invest in promoting our own product in the beginning, we felt we had to be controversial in order to gain attention… and we were right: Last year our campaigns reached over 20 million US consumers.
Our shocking campaigns were a hit, making it a very rewarding time for all of us at the company. We watched our server stats rocket and tracked how our content spread over the many digital networks. And yet we quickly understood this was necessarily just an experimental stage in our agency’s development.
Somewhat predictably, our success has brought about a change in the professional landscape for us. We are now employed to answer some very important questions for some of the world’s biggest advertisers—and as such, things have progressed to a much more accountable and scalable model. To continue to grow, we have been compelled to take what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years and mature it into a scalable advertising model suitable for all types of advertisers.
Rather than shocking the consumer into paying attention, these days we work to create valuable content that communicates brand values, exchanging entertainment for consumer’s attention. We have developed skills to track and report results; we can scrutinize how a campaign spreads; and, importantly, we can control how a campaign moves through a market by directing and building awareness of it in our clients’ target markets.
So what are the salient developments in our newly professionalized approach to the viral marketplace? Here at our agency we have outlined three very straightforward but effective principles for creating successful viral advertising campaigns. Simply put, they are:
1) Trade entertainment for attention. Give consumer some value through your advertising and in return they will consume your message.
2) Advertise your advertising. Create content as a valuable product in its own right and market it to your target market.
3) Make your content universally accessible. Make it available in every format on every conceivable device, so that people can consume it in the way they want to.
If you are able to employ points 1, 2 and 3 effectively within your campaign, consumers will almost certainly begin to share your content with others. Remember: The path to viral success is no longer about creating a shocking 30-second QuickTime file and expecting millions of consumers to simply pass it on. The key is basing your business on scalable and accountable advertising models that can show true ROI to serious advertisers.