Viral Smoke n’ Mirrors: Comparing Stunts vs. Buzz in a Viral Marketing Campaign

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I’ve been in the marketing and public relations business close to 15 years now and if I had a dollar for every client who ever wanted to ‘build buzz’ I’d have a lot more money to show for those years.

Buzz is the elusive goal of any marketing program. More recently the notion of ‘viral’ marketing is bandied about. These are related ideas and are a valid goal for any well thought out marketing plan. However, as I’ll discuss below, many clients and agencies are missing the point — mistaking the means for the ends. The means are a well thought-out marketing program that might include a viral component. The end is the ever-elusive and often ill-defined buzz.

Unfortunately, many agencies take the easy way out. In the rush to come up with something ‘edgy,’ they offer their clients stunt marketing programs guised as viral campaigns.

How do you know the difference? Ask yourself does the campaign have anything at all to do with what your company actually does? In his blog, The Head Lemur described what he calls the ‘Clown Suit Rule.’ If there’s a guy in a clown suit in front of a store, it usually means the store is about to close down. The exception of course is if the store is a clown suit store, but you get the idea.

He was referring to the zero percent and at-cost financing the auto industry was offering last year, but he could have been talking about any attempt to capture attention the quick and easy way without a well-thought-out plan.

Of course, there are stunts, and then there are stunts. There are plenty of examples of agencies wasting piles of their client’s money on ill-considered adventures — sending interns to stand at the window at the Today Show carrying a sign with the client’s logo or baking the world’s largest cake and taking it on tour to a shopping mall near you. But there are also perfectly good examples of agencies and clients doing something eye-catching and clever that gets to the heart of the client’s business and creates a bond with their customers. This is where we get into the world of viral marketing.

Examples of this range from the “Sent from my Blackberry” or “Get Hotmail” messages appended to emails to the complementary snacks, headphones and satellite television on jetBlue flights. These are subtle, barely noticeable but over time you find you want to get your own Blackberry or you realize that other airlines just don’t stack up to the level of service you’ve come to expect.

Good viral campaigns make you stop and look. They sneak up on you. You have an ‘aha’ moment of realization. Stunts make you look, but you quickly forget. Viral campaigns make you wonder who’s behind them. Stunts often have nothing at all to do with the company paying for them.

Smart viral campaigns take advantage of the intimate connection between a brand and the community. It gets ordinary people blabbering like fanboys about their new Mac or their flight on jetBlue. That’s buzz. Buzz is not a marketing program. You can’t buy it or have your agency create it for you. You have to earn it.

Now with all of this, you might wonder where to start. A good beginning is Alex Wipperfurth’s excellent book, “Brand Hijack: Marketing without Marketing”. Wipperfurth shows how marketing can truly engage with customers, instead of shout at them. He gives some real world examples of brands building long term buzz as opposed to short term hype. The book is a must read for any smart marketer.

Remember the clown suit I mentioned at the beginning of this article? While driving in Cape Cod last month we passed a lobster shack with a guy in a giant lobster suit standing in front, waving at the cars as they passed by on Route 6A. Now lobster is lobster. There’s no difference from one Cape Cod lobster to shack to another but our kids are still talking about the giant lobster they saw on their vacation. Want to bet we go back next year?

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