September 13, 2008

“Viral” Does Not Mean “Free”: The Reality Behind The Buzz

What's that buzzing noise?

Where's that buzz coming from?

I recently had lunch with an entrepreneur to discuss her marketing problems. She had launched her company with a PR campaign, and the initial results were spectacular, with major media coverage and a torrent of traffic to her site… But that torrent dried to a trickle as the press and consumers lost interest. In just a couple of years her company had become “old news.” Since her operations were now sucking up all of her available cash, she wanted a low-cost marketing option, and she called me to discuss this viral marketing thing…

When I explained some possible elements of a viral marketing plan, such as a creative video backed by ads, her eyes glazed over. “That’s too expensive, and I don’t believe in advertising,” she told me. I suggested that she write a blog with regular postings and a strong point of view. “I don’t have the time,” she said. I offered to ghost write it for her, as I do for other clients. “I don’t have the money,” she admitted. So here was an entrepreneur without money or time for marketing. I wanted to suggest a third option — “sell the company and get a job” — but decided to stuff a forkful of food into my mouth before it could do any damage.

I then recalled a lunch I had last year in Palo Alto with some dotcom managers. The four of us were talking about our favorite TV commercials when the senior exec in our party broke his silence by authoritatively proclaiming, “If your product is viral enough, you don’t need advertising.” That statement of the obvious effectively killed the conversation. I wanted to call him naïve as a newborn lamb on ecstasy, but he was a part-time commander in the Israeli military who could break my neck with his big toes, so I stuffed a forkful of food into my mouth before it could lead to my early demise.

(Obviously, I need to choose my lunch partners better. Unfortunately, when offered the opportunity to discuss business over food — a combo plate I love — I always bite. Someday I’ll learn.)

Right now, in the safety of my living room, far from desperate entrepreneurs and Israeli commandos, I can make some authoritative proclamations of my own: viral marketing is not automatic and it’s not free. Anyone who thinks we marketers can make something go viral by pressing a magic key on our laptops is smoking something funny. Yes, we can all cite examples of products or companies that went viral with little to no marketing expenditure, but those are anecdotal exceptions.

In a May 2007 Harvard Business Review article, Viral Marketing for the Real World, Professor Duncan J. Watts and entrepreneur Jonah Peretti write:

“Viral marketing has generated a lot of excitement recently, in part because it seems like the ultimate free lunch: Pick some small number of people to seed your idea, product, or message; get it to go viral; and then watch while it spreads effortlessly to reach millions. Unfortunately, for every high-profile example of a successful viral product—FlashMobs, the Star Wars Kid, or JibJab’s 2004 election spoof—there are many more attempts that fail. Reliably designing messages to exhibit viral properties is extremely difficult, it turns out, as is predicting which particular individuals will be responsible for spreading them.”

Based on their studies, Watts & Peretti advocate combining viral-marketing methods with traditional advertising tools to create “far more predictable results than ‘purely’ viral approaches like word-of-mouth marketing.” Then, in typical business professor fashion, they make their theory appear scientific by converting it into a mathematical formula and graphing it.

Normally, I have issues with ivory tower analysts, but based on my own experience, I can vouch that Watts & Peretti are absolutely right: It is the rare beast that goes viral on its own. In most cases, consumers need to be informed with traditional press and/or advertising. The “viral” part is what happens when word spreads farther and wider than the traditional media on its own.

Here’s an example of a small viral campaign I worked on at Metacafe: “The Robotic Beer Launching Refrigerator”…

  1. Enter the Fridge: In February 2007, John Cornwell, a recent Duke University grad who invents crazy contraptions, uploaded a video about his Robotic Beer Launching Refrigerator video to Metacafe. The fridge, which cost Cornwell $600, can pitch a can of beer on target across a room. Clearly an amateur production, the video features Miller Lite and Cornwell watching a Duke basketball game — all in time for March Madness, which is sponsored by rival Bud Light.
  2. The Media Gets Involved: On March 6, the Duke Chronicle posted a story about the video online. I added a comment that the video had earned over $3000 so far at Metacafe. The fact that the video made money made it more “newsworthy” and helped get it on Syndicated College News and Digg’s coveted homepage. (I and other Metacafe employees also helped with the Digging.) AP then posted a story about the Beer Launcher on March 7. On the Web alone, over 50 sites linked to the video, which boosted its search engine attractiveness.
  3. Now Comes the Advertising: Excited about this publicity during March Madness, Miller ran Google keyword ads linking to the video. These are supplemented by Metacafe’s own ads. Miller also placed a banner ad right next to the video.
  4. The Talk of Late Night: On March 13, both Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert mentioned the Beer Launcher. Not to be outdone, David Letterman had Cornwell as a guest on March 21.
  5. The Final Score: The Robotic Beer Launching Refrigerator garnered over 1.6 million views on Metacafe alone.

There are millions of amateur videos online, with all the directors dreaming of going viral and hanging with David Letterman. But few reach this point.

To begin with, it takes an exceptional product: Cornwell’s fridge was authentically cool, not some special effects stunt. It was also something no one had ever seen before — and that’s critical. I nearly lose my lunch whenever some suit asks me to copy a successful YouTube video. For a “viral video,” one pinhead CEO actually handed me a camcorder and told me to interview one of his execs in a conference room. I told him that stood exactly zero chance of going viral. His reply: “Why not? It worked for lonelygirl15.” At that moment I wished I had an Israeli commando to sic on him.

(In case you don’t know, lonelygirl15 was a hit video blogger on YouTube. It was later revealed that she was a trained L.A. actress who was scripted and shot by trained L.A. filmmakers. She was a pretty girl who pretended to be a vulnerable and available 16-year-old as she broadcast from her bedroom — pure geek bait — not some middle-aged dotcom exec in a fluorescent lit conference room. There have been numerous lonelygirl15 copycats since then, none of whom have hit it big.)

Now there are Word-of-Mouth marketing companies who promise to turn anything you’ve got into a viral sensation. They boast platoons of young people hired to talk up your product in chat rooms and on bulletin boards. (Just like I did on the Duke website.) But these services aren’t cheap, and they’re really just another form of public relations — with a catch: if any of those paid mouthpieces is exposed, your company is likely to suffer backlash for being a spammer. Word of mouth has to be very carefully executed, and can be as involved and complicated as a traditional-marketing campaign.

So going viral can take effort, imagination and money, often with the contributions of professional creatives and marketers. It involves risk and zero guarantees. For most companies, it’s not easy and it’s not free. Apple has no problem having its products generate a buzz, but even Apple relies on traditional media and advertising. Yes, I believe every marketer should attempt to go viral, but that’s like saying everyone should try to be successful. “Viral” isn’t a method — it’s a destination.

Related Article: Public Relations vs Advertising: No Contest

Update 9/26/8: My client’s interactive zombie movie “The Outbreak” has gone viral, and it’s because all the elements were in place: an exceptional product, a professionally written press release disseminated across the Web, a dedicated MySpace page, and direct solicitations to key bloggers — just to name a few elements. It was a complete campaign surrounding an original creative product.

Update 11/1/9: In an article entitled “Let’s Kill ‘Viral’: It’s Time For a New Word,” Adam L. Penenberg (author of “Viral Loop”) advocates replacing this tired term with something new — and less evocative of swine flu. He’s even offering cash for the best substitute. I’d go a step further: let’s just abolish its use altogether, since “viral” has become the most abused term since the word “socialist.”

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

5 Responses

  1. You nailed it here. One of the search terms I use every day on Google is “”viral marketing” and I’d say 95% of what comes up is absolute nonsense. A high percentage of it is people linking to things other people have done. A smaller percentage is people trying to sell themselves as viral marketing experts while giving no examples of anything they’ve done which qualifies as v.m.

    As an experienced publicity stunt creator and media hoaxer, I have a notebook full of ideas for viral marketing campaigns I’d love to see come to life. I can’t claim any ad agency connections, however, which seems to be what people are looking for (although how you get “out of the box” ideas out of something as Old Skool as an ad agency, I have no idea).

  2. Thanks for the link to the article. I read Douglas Rushkoff’s Media Virus (1993?) and it is interesting that many years later people are really taking notice.

    Marrying a qualitative science (the art of the virus) with a quantitative one (even advertising is difficult to measure for ROI and has many qualitative features) will probably mean more headaches and less sleep for campaign managers.

    Thank you for your excellent posts!

  3. When I see something that is slightly cool but I can see they want it to be viral I have a tendency to ignore it in short order. The only viral stuff that I really like and will help in its viral nature are things exactly like the beer fridge, stuff that isn’t quite so “designed” although beer commercials seem to do quite well with or without my help. I get them via email quite often…

  4. Ah Freddy, how I love your writing. Everytime you have lunch with me we merely get that much poorer. But no necks break. Only self-esteem.

    sigh, I too thought viral meant “as in, or like, influenza”. I installed the stumbleupon toolbar decades ago and am still waiting for the rash of visitors submitting and thumbs-upping my articles. stupid virus.

  5. Great article– we all dream of internet stardom, including me. The simple fact is that you can’t plan viral events, you must simply plan the route in case it happens.

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