Developing Digital Epidemics: The Dos and Don’ts of Spreading the Ideal Viral Campaign


It was in the headline all over the world: “EU declares bird flu a global threat”. It’s not the first time animals have served as a medium for an epidemic, though – mad cow disease, for example. But this time is worse, an Italian friend explained, “cows don’t fly”.

Behind the simplicity of this retort lied an enlightening lesson for advertising agencies, marketers and anyone interested on the hype-ish viral marketing: global & universal is more efficient than local & specific.

Viral marketing ideas for small targets don’t fly – they might generate a little buzz, but will never become as relevant as you think they should be. Eventually, the emails, as the mad cows, will die before they reach someone they can infect. And then the epidemic process is ended.

Some of the most popular digital phenomena, like the 90’s dancing baby and the Mahir “I kiss you” fever, or, more recently, Subservient Chicken and that computer monitor glued on the wall, were not niche specific – they were as general as human humor and curiosity can be. They worked because they were able to cross demographics, cultural borders and interests, oceans. They were not threats, but definitely global (online) epidemics.

The exceptions to this rule are the uber-connected groups, like teens, geeks and gamers. And even then, only when the viruses are striking enough to infect anyone that it has contact with it and still be sent to as many friends as possible before the victim’s interest dies.

That’s why projects like ‘Perfect Dark Zero’, Origen360 and the alien-targeted website for Halo 2 – to name just a few – were successful. Maybe you haven’t heard of them. But the gamers had, and they told each other immediately, transforming the challenges proposed on those campaigns into a collective challenge which none of them could refrain from being deliberately infected.

But the wings of a bird are not the only reason why the avian flu is so threatening. It’s also because this variation of the disease is relatively new, and we haven’t had time to develop antibodies against it yet.

Viral marketing campaigns behave the same way. In our case, the antibodies we have to cheat are the cynicism that every consumer develops against advertising in general. Especially for things they have seen before and are easily recognizable as ‘another attempt to separate them from their money’.

The only anti-antibody epidemic-planners and virus-builders have is a mix of creativity and a keen sense of how people react to something completely new (those two mysterious skills that everybody believes to have, but very few actually do). In the absence of this magical power, there is only one option left: being open to unpredictable results – and possible failure.

Remember the only reason that viruses survive, and often come back stronger years after we thought we have killed them all is because of mutation: those unstoppable mistakes in the DNA replication process that, in the end, are the ultimate cause of evolution.

Again, nature gives us a lesson. If you are not open for making mistakes, your marketing viruses are condemned to a sad, lonely and instant extinction.


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