Marketing Media-Less Campaigns: How Creating Viral is Like Walking a Tightrope without a Net

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“If only the client would let us take a risk…” used to be the common refrain/complaint/cop-out heard from creatives. Blaming the conservative client was always the last line of defense for justifying mediocre work. To be fair, with many clients, the complaint was probably valid. With the high-cost of paid media in TV, print, and even online, it’s an expensive gamble for a client to let creatives loose to stretch the boundaries beyond a certain comfort zone of predictability. Experimenting was left to companies that were very rich, who could afford to experiment, or very small, who needed to be innovative to make a small budget impactful.

Today’s creative firms that focus on creating viral campaigns have no such complaint (or scapegoat). With viral marketing, the fear of wasted media expense is eliminated, the media being replaced by the person-to-person spread of the campaign. Faced with an ever raising bar of what’s new, interesting, exciting and compelling online, creatives are tasked with the opposite challenge from clients: take a bigger leap, let’s do “something outrageous.” The worry that the creative has gone too far has been replaced with the fear, “is this going far enough.”

It’s an interesting and anxiety-ridden challenge to continually be asked to create “the next new thing.” It can’t be bought with a bigger budget, achieved through the mere use of cutting-edge code or technology. It comes from the most unpredictable and intangible assets that a creative team can possess: instinct and intuition.

The reality is that good instinct is not a vague sixth sense, but rather informed by a distillation of research, observation, and experience. There is a lot less mumbo jumbo, luck or randomness to it than meets the eye. But since the creative process is almost impossible to document, at the end of the day you might still find yourself saying to the client, “trust me.” This is the Catch-22 of selling a idea that is risky or new to client: you can’t point to something similar to help sell the idea if it doesn’t exist, and if you can point to something similar to prove that audiences will respond, it means that it’s already been done.

Getting a client to sign off on something that has not been seen or done before requires a two-way leap of faith: A leap of faith on the part of the client that you know what the hell you’re talking about, and a leap of faith on your part that the client is not going to crucify you if things don’t work out exactly the way that you had hoped.

And when the client finally does take that leap, and sign off? As the saying goes, it’s like being given enough rope to hang yourself. The first thought that might occur to you after the initial euphoria of selling an outrageous idea on the premise that it will be wildly popular, is many times (and I am paraphrasing here) “oh s***, now what?”

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