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"Whassup with the sales?" The challenges of viral marketing

15th Jun 2007
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Not a Budweiser frog

By Louise Druce, features editor

Anyone who can still remember being irritated by e-mail greetings of "Whassup?" when the Budweiser frog ads were hopping from inbox to inbox will know what it’s like to become a victim of viral marketing.

Now the phenomenon has started to mutate into something less obvious than a marketing ploy, but is just as infectious among social networkers and bloggers. Even small companies have caught the bug and are exploring fresh ways to harness their message into what seems like a bit of harmless, recreational fun.

Viral marketing was first spawned around 10 years ago. Back then, you were more likely to be drawn into watching brief, risqué clips or take 30 seconds out to play an easy-click online game sponsored by a major brand. The idea was to create something relatively inbox-friendly that could be passed around your address book without much thought, or immediately attracting the delete button.

“Who would have imagined [then] that the stuffy seeming banks, building societies and insurance companies would ever be launching internet campaigns where they have little or no chance of managing their brand,” says Jill Tovey, managing director of viral marketing experts 10 Yetis. “This shows how mainstream viral marketing has become.”

The difference is, blogs and sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube have now majorly influenced the way we like to profile ourselves and entertain our friends, so viral marketing success requires a real knowledge of the audience and what engages them to share online content – something canny marketers are quickly catching on to.


"Campaigns are now strategically planned, well thought-out executions, rather than just a last minute add-on to a wider marketing campaign." Toni Smith, head of strategy and communications, The Viral Factory

“Campaigns are now strategically planned, well thought-out executions, rather than just a last minute add-on to a wider marketing campaign,” explains Toni Smith, head of strategy and communications at viral marketers The Viral Factory. “The combination of both a good idea and a good strategy is key as the competition of not only other advertisers but also user-generated content means it is easy for campaigns to just disappear.”

She believes audiences have become more particular about the content they share because they wear it as a badge that says something about them. “This doesn’t mean the end of one-to-one or select few viral send-ons – this will definitely continue, particularly via instant messaging,” she adds. “But the audience has created a more open broadcast method for viral, which still retains the positive associations and endorsement of being shared amongst friends and peers.”

Trapped in a sell

So it begs the question of what makes a good viral marketing campaign. Tovey believes the most popular are the ones that don’t look as if they are advertising anything at all but have fun with their products and brands. If people spot the company is attempting to overtly sell something rather than entertain them, there is the danger of creating the opposite effect to what the marketers had originally intended.

Meanwhile, Smith points to film as the most popular method of spreading the word as it requires less user interaction but commands the viewer’s full attention. However, she also cautions that clients have to be prepared to lose control of their campaign. By willingly creating content for the public space, they are opening themselves up to audience scrutiny and opinion which can be openly viewed by everyone – not always a good thing.

“We are very open and frank with our clients because viral requires this approach,” says Smith. “Success relies on the audience and, therefore, if a client has restrictive brand rules and demands overtly commercial messaging to be included then this will limit the viral capability of the campaign.”

When coming up with ideas, the most popular initial approach for viral marketers is to find the potential audience in their online habitat. “Let’s just say we spend far too much time playing on the internet and we know all the ‘cool kids in the classroom’,” Tovey happily admits. Seeding then takes place, which basically involves generating a buzz around the product or brand in blogs and forums, before launch.

Frog in the throat

However, we’re a fickle lot, which is why viral marketing can be a hit and miss affair. While we might be tickled by a 'You’ve Been Framed' style clip or spend a lunch hour relentlessly trying to beat the clock in an online shoot ‘em up, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to rush out and buy the product behind it.

Take the 'Whassup?' campaign, which gathered pace in 2000. According to figures, Budweiser’s US market share actually plummeted during this time, alongside barrel sales. Viral marketers Digital Media Communications (DMC) also cites Fosters’ attempts to promote Carlton Draft as evidence of brands throwing money at ‘old-skool’ viral ads that failed to ignite sales.


"Many successful viral campaigns are very entertaining and don’t do anything for the company and vice versa. Viral experience and knowledge is therefore essential for overall success." Jill Tovey, managing director, 10 Yetis

In May last year, the DMC article Caught On, But Not Keeping Up explains how Fosters spent £500,000 promoting the ‘Big Ad’ campaign in 2005, which was seen by over three million people (one million of whom were the target audience). It was even tipped for a Cannes Ad Festival award. However, sales figures remained static at the start of the July campaign. As DMC understates: “A little bit dissatisfying for an ad that included the line: ‘This ad better sell some bloody beer!’”

Smith says some of the blame for failed ads can be attributed to one or more parts of the viral process being neglected. For example, strategy, creativity, production and seeding are all equally important, as well as having intimate understanding of the campaign’s audience.

“The challenges are always changing and this is what is so refreshing,” says Tovey, who also adds that keeping the momentum rolling once the campaign has been launched is a particular sticking point. “The internet can be a brutal place and people don’t mince their words when it comes to liking or disliking things. This gives you a split second to make your impact.”

Kudos and clout

Get it right, though, and it can pay dividends – in image clout as well as cash. Tovey cites the recent Snakes on a Plane as a film that you probably wouldn’t have paid a bucket of popcorn for that suddenly gained huge kudos from its interactive marketing campaign. Fans couldn’t get enough of the hissing screensavers or Samuel L. Jackson taking a swipe at their friends using a personalised mobile messaging service.

At the end of 2006, The Viral Factory launched a campaign for Samsung Mobile to promote their X830 music phone. The film was viewed over three million times and qualitative research revealed that 40 percent of viewers said the phone was the most memorable thing about the film, 50 percent said they liked the Samsung brand more because of it, and 55 percent said they would consider buying the phone after seeing it.

“The balance of achieving the marketing objectives of a campaign, along with achieving viral success can be tricky to get right,” says Tovey. “Many successful viral campaigns are very entertaining and don’t do anything for the company and vice versa. Viral experience and knowledge is therefore essential for overall success.”

Smith adds: “Companies are starting to realise, and really love the fact, that in comparison to mass print and broadcast advertising, the cost of viral campaigns are much lower, with significantly higher rewards when they succeed. It is making them succeed that is the key challenge.”

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