March 2007 - Ask the Expert…Viral Marketing

Viral Happens

By Timothy R. Hawthorne

Q: What are the pros and cons to viral marketing?

A: Circa 1984, David Letterman mounted his “Late Night” pulpit to impose a national catch phrase. Despite unflagging effort, “They pelted us with rocks and garbage” didn’t exactly catch on. Twenty years later, the little known Spiridellis brothers authored a web animation that satirized 2004 presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry. Within weeks, millions of netizens were buzzing about their barb-filled “This Land Is Your Land.” Unintentionally, jib-jab had manufactured the mania that Letterman sought.

Today, viral videos are bleeding-edge marketers’ Holy Grail. Viral “experts” seed themselves throughout the blogosphere as zealously as they seed their videos. Yet these highly planned productions tally a fraction of the audience enjoyed by that goofy high school kid chair-dancing to the “Numa Numa” song. That ought to raise a few eyebrows. Try as you might, you can’t force-feed a fad.

Enthusiasm for viral-video advertising is infectious, so you should inoculate yourself from succumbing to fever. You may rationally choose to go viral, but first assess the pros and cons. Among the latter, beware of self-proclaimed savants. (Talk about slogan woes: Owning Viral Since 2005?) While many agencies are well-equipped to devise and manipulate viral-video campaigns, the rules rewrite themselves weekly.

Impressive impressions, for instance, are not without drawbacks. Your footage will inevitably share space with jerky two-minute cuts of lip-syncing schoolgirls, blatant copyright infringements and lurching shots of raucous frat boys accidentally setting fire to their pants. The second you release intended virals into the wild, you relinquish all control. Attempts to manage video placement may protect brand associations, but media buying isn’t viral.

Worse, viral viewers become virulent toward corporations they perceive as dishonestly manipulative. Social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube encourage user comments that expose your creations to unflattering feedback. Unsurprisingly, Jupiter Research discovered that 69 percent of online users distrust product information from social media sites-the very locations that link and host most virals. So even if you reach your dream distribution, the message seeping through may be contrary to your intent.

We jump on this bandwagon because breakthrough virals rely on consumers to spread the word among colleagues. Media costs virtually nothing, allowing potentially unprecedented returns on investment. concluded recently that viral videos generate 750 percent more click-throughs than do paid banner ads. Sounds promising…if those clicks lead to sales.

When homemade videos of Mentos and Diet Coke geysers started viralating in earnest, Mentos sales jumped 14.5 percent in nine months. Notably, Mentos neither created nor circulated these rocketing videos. The sales boost they apparently fueled was the result of serendipity, not planning. While bigger profits explain why advertisers want to leverage the viral-video phenomenon, questions remain as to how.

The obvious old-school recommendation is to stress product relevance. To generate sales, viral video must spotlight unique product features. Otherwise, you get 45 seconds of Monsters Inc.’s revolving doors-exquisitely executed marvels that mean nothing if you don’t know the plot. Fortunately, direct response television (DRTV) advertisers already know that effective video relates product stories.

In 1990, BV (before viral), DRTV industry legend Mike Levey filmed one of the most dramatic demonstrations in infomercial history. To illustrate the protective power of Auri car wax, he set fire to the hood of a Rolls-Royce. It was mesmerizing imagery and it proved that the wax worked. Imagine the reception today…

timekillr23: Dude, u gotta c what i utoobd. Crazyman lites his ROLLZ on fire-SWEEEEEET! Herez ur link…

Setting aside the desirability of the leetspeak demographic, the Auri campaign today could repackage flaming Rolls footage to fire up a raging good viral. Video emerging naturally from traditional ad shoots virtually guarantees that the product and sales points remain front and center. Footage discarded previously may be perfect for viral shorts. Picture skeptical stagehands hysterically laughing, “No way!” when a demonstration shoot proves the goods as remarkable as claimed.

Infuse seeded virals with direct response elements. During the final five seconds, fade in URLs that point to microsites tailored to the social fun and games that viral devotees favor. Imagine Flash games where players apply car wax with increasing speed to save a Rolls from advancing flames. Set up comments sections where visitors discuss your video and featured product. Host contests where videoactive consumers submit their own product-centric creations (but please, no fires). Finally, link from the microsite to pages that offer detailed information: “To watch the entire ‘Rolls on Fire’ video, click here.” Fun-loving viralistas should feel neither tricked nor coerced into viewing traditional sales content and should click in conversion-friendly moods.

The top three factors that allow viral videos to drive sales are product, product and product. A hair-care company sells nothing by dropping Mentos into shampoo bottles. However, for a complementary hair color line, there’s promise in capturing mom’s reaction to her previously blonde daughter returning home as a redhead. The humor stems directly from the product’s effectiveness-the laughs draw attention, the information sells.

With viral gold beckoning, why not plunge right in? You want to experience viral? Okay, just release ho-hum footage. Then, you can expect your re-branding to be clueless and lame-o. Think clearly. Ensure that your footage is sufficiently buzzworthy and test before you seed. Don’t buy keywords to drive viral traffic. You want “hair color” searchers to land directly on your conversion site, not on the twice-removed microsite. Above all, don’t rush. Viral-video advertising demands patient observation. As you conduct traditional marketing activities, train your eyes to recognize unexpected openings.

Virals happen. If you’re not beating the drums for funny but unfocused footage, you’ll hear when opportunity knocks. Better yet, you won’t hear this:

MARKETING VEEP: So how’s the public reacting to that viral thing you pushed?

ACCT REP: Well…uh…it seems they pelted us with rocks and garbage.

Timothy R. Hawthorne is chairman and executive creative director of hawthorne direct inc., a full service DRTV ad agency founded in 1986. A 33-year television producer/writer/ director, Hawthorne is a cum laude Harvard graduate. He can be reached at [email protected].


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