Shepard Fairey's project at the Rhode Island School of Design exemplified it; Hotmail used it to build a 30 million--strong subscriber list in three years; and British band Arctic Monkeys used it to take its music from obscurity to the top of the charts. It is viral marketing, word-of-mouth buzz created around brand awareness in a marketing campaign. Funny, provocative, eye-catching messages go viral when consumers who appreciate them pass them along to friends, who pass them along to other friends, and so on. The trend might sound familiar, as viral marketing is an exploitation of social networking, another network-built arrow in new media's advertising quiver.
Hotmail.com used the phenomenon of viral marketing to grow its subscriber list from zero at its launch on July 4, 1996, to 8.5 million by December 1997. The company appended a message to all email generated by subscribers that invited recipients to click on a link and sign up for their own free email account. The number of subscribers continued to grow apace and, by February 1999, membership had topped 30 million. Hotmail's marketing effort was automatic: Links to its site appeared at the bottom of every message sent. But other marketers hoping to make viral magic must rely on the willingness of email recipients and consumers to spread the word for them.
That has its challenges, but a study conducted earlier this year by interactive marketing agency Sharpe Partners highlights the potential of the effort. Eighty-nine percent of American adults polled in the study said they routinely share content with friends through email, with 63 percent confessing they did so once a week and 25 percent responding that they share content as often as once a day.
And they share it with lots of people--as many as 75 percent of those polled said they forward content to as many as six other recipients. According to Kathy Sharpe, CEO of Sharpe Partners, the challenge to marketers is to produce content that consumers want to pass along. The Sharpe Partners survey also found that humor, by far, is the key to viral marketing. Eighty-eight percent of respondents to the survey said they send jokes and cartoons while only 56 percent said they passed along the next most popular category, news.
Viral marketing and its ability to generate buzz around brands can turn relative unknowns into celebrities and put the names of their products on the tongues and in the email boxes of millions overnight. But that isn't easy. Viral success is often serendipitous, and some of the most legendary successes come from artists and hobbyists whose homegrown creations have, unpredictably, gained traction.
Rhode Island School of Design student Fairey 15 years ago designed an image to demonstrate a stenciling technique. His "Obey" campaign was an offline viral venture, but that image--a black-and-white, two-dimensional rendering of the face of the late wrestler Andre the Giant, accompanied by the word obey--caught the fancy of friends and classmates, who began plastering posters and bumper stickers of it up and down the East Coast on outdoor walls, signs, telephone poles, and barriers around construction sites.
The image generated a pop culture following as fans ascribed their own meanings to the message. Before long, Fairey became the de facto holder of a brand with no specific message, other than what consumers brought to it, and no product behind it. Years passed, but it was only after Obey became a brand in the real world that Fairey began selling bumper stickers, posters, and T-shirts on his Web site.
Martin Lindstrom, author of Brand Sense, calls viral marketing instant branding. According to Lindstrom, venues like posters, bumper stickers, and plain old-fashioned conversation are still a large part of the viral marketing mix that can turn concepts like Obey into a campaign. "Viral is channel independent," Lindstrom says. It is effectively the same phenomenon as word of mouth, which marketers have attempted to put to work for generations. One recent example of offline viral marketing efforts, Lindstrom notes, is the trend in retailing of asking shoppers who like a product to endorse it to others in the store.
Really, really quickly
Today, communications--specifically, the Internet--have turbocharged the speed, reach, and dynamics of marketing. Now many consumers have digital communications at their finger tips, and information travels rapidly via email, blogs, Internet links, and cell phone text messages. Recently two Mainers achieved overnight notoriety with a video of a backyard demonstration of what happens when 523 Mentos mints are dropped into 101 two-liter plastic bottles of Diet Coke. The men choreographed the geyser effect to resemble the dancing fountains at Bellagio Hotel Las Vegas, shot video of it, and posted it online where, within hours, it scored thousands of views and the attention of producers at both NBC's "Today Show" and CBS's "Late Night with David Letterman." Both shows invited the amateur producers, Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz, to New York City to reproduce the effect and then the outlets broadcast the performances. The mass media attention generated more interest and within three weeks the pair's online video received over four million views.
"It created an attention bubble really, really quickly. It's truly viral in every sense," says Andy Pimental, senior strategy manager at Avenue A | Razorfish, one of the nation's largest interactive services firms. "It's creating content, distributing content, and there's a lot of word of mouth about it that actually bubbled all the way up to the mainstream media. That's something we're seeing more and more with this social media movement."
Pimental finds the Mentos example interesting because the video was generated by consumers working without the knowledge of the companies involved. The video evolved into a campaign that effectively broadcast the Mentos and Coca-Cola brands to an audience of millions (prior American ridicule of Mentos's "the freshmaker"campaign seemed to fall away). "The Web is basically creating much more of a two-way interaction between the users of media and the traditional producers of it," Pimental says. This two-way interaction has ramifications for marketers and content creators. "In the most general sense it's almost as if consumers or customers are inserting themselves into the value chain of content creation and content distribution and essentially creating a disruptive force in top-down monolithic communications."
That trend has allowed performers, videographers, and animators who once brokered their appearances and contracts through agents, producers, and industry executives can now take their work to their audience and directly promote it.
Last year British band Arctic Monkeys pushed songs that had previously been turned down by record companies to the top of the charts in Great Britain by making them available for download from the Web and by generating buzz through email, blogs, and chat rooms. Users who found the group on the Internet purchased songs through downloads, spread word among their friends, and built a following for the band outside the recording industry. On the release of Arctic Monkeys' first CD earlier this year, more than 350,000 copies sold in the first week.
Viral marketing successes tend to be associated with a counterculture working outside traditional marketing organizations. But the Sharpe Partners survey and a growing number of corporate branding campaigns prove that viral marketing does work to promote brands and businesses. Although the viral phenomenon is associated with edginess, branding is not a turn-off. Seventy-five percent of those polled in the Sharpe Partners survey said brand sponsorship of messages had no influence at all on the content they forwarded and 19 percent said it had a positive impact.
Really, really wrong
Nevertheless, viral marketing is not without risks. Unlike radio, TV, or print advertising, which is placed by marketers that control the message, Lindstrom says, "You can't control viral communication and there is no guarantee it will work. In fact, it might turn 180 degrees against you. You should be prepared to lose control of the message halfway down the track."
Chevrolet's marketing department found itself on the defensive this spring when Chevy Tahoe offered users an online site where they could make their own Tahoe commercials. It was intended to piggyback on an episode of "The Apprentice." When green-conscious users used the tools on offer to declare the SUV environmentally unsound, Chevy kept the campaign from backfiring by responding quickly to the content and by moderating the conversation around it. "While I'm not so sure that's what Chevy Tahoe had in mind, they had to go with it," Pimental says. "I think they made the best of it because they turned it into a debate on the environment, using it as a platform to discuss their initiatives with ethanol and other alternative fuels."
Chevrolet turned a potentially negative effect into a positive. Still, Pimental says, "When you put stuff out there, there are unanticipated effects, so you really have to think through what could potentially go wrong."
Carol Ellison is a freelance writer in Secaucus, NJ.
Before you spread the word...
Andy Pimental, senior strategy manager at Avenue A | Razorfish, offers some guidance
to those planning to go viral:
Understand your customers' relationship with your brand and the triggers that will make them want to work for you for free to market that brand. It requires that they get something out of it. "Are you putting content out there that gives them some sort of piece of social currency that makes them want to be the one who forwards it to all their friends?" Pimental asks. "Or are you creating a platform where they can submit their own content and become minicelebrities through a campaign that you create?" The content of the campaign must resonate for them. It may involve some kind of understanding that may or may not currently exist within the marketing organization.
Brace yourself. Be ready to give up some control. Ask yourself: Is the reach and free PR the right kind of PR?
Understand what you're trying to accomplish. Are you just buying awareness in a cost-effective way or are you trying to build a community of customers and interact with them in a new way?
Build a campaign that is more than a one-off, one that feeds into a larger strategy. "People who are just getting started or just want to get their feet wet may want to experiment. But having an overarching strategy that you're trying to feed into is something to consider even if you're just starting out." --C.E.
B2B Viral Marketing How-To
Professional marketers with brand images to protect typically invest a lot in their concept. The creative costs of video, animation, and the construction of interactive Web platforms can run into the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And although the cost-per-view might still be much lower than the cost of traditional radio, TV, or print advertising, there is no guarantee that those views will come from qualified prospects.
"In B2B your viral program has to be designed with an understanding of who the audience is and what their needs are," says Stephanie Brown, vice president and senior creative director of interactive at integrated marketing communication firm Media Logic. Engineering search engine GlobalSpec.com created a catapult game, for example, in which players apply physics to compete. "It was so targeted to its audience that I'm not sure a lot of errant referrals would come up," Brown says.
Blogs or Wikis, which can be built for as little as $10,000 to $20,000, typically present better options in the B2B space, Brown says, because "they allow the audience to participate on a level that is more apropos to what their business needs are. It might include peer-to-peer insights and advice sharing that would be very meaningful and relevant to that audience."
Media Logic launched a blog targeted to bankers and college officials for student loan guarantor The American Student Assistance. It focused on the topic of debt management and was moderated by an author who was well known in the field. "For the influencer audience, you probably want to stay away from silliness," Brown says. "To the extent that you can conceive of something that really targets and understands its audience, you're going to be able to generate results that capture fewer unqualified leads." --C.E.