Think viral marketing is the holy grail? Choose wisely

If you are a marketer, chances are that you have read about the holy grail that is viral marketing, the campaign so stealthy, so clever it takes off in exponential fashion, inspiring customers around the country to engage with your brand. Winning examples include Burger King’s “subservient chicken” and CareerBuilder’s “monk-e-mail.” So why haven’t you set aside a budget for viral marketing? In short, it is hard. Hard to develop something so brilliant that it resonates with vast numbers of people. Hard to identify the right set of key influencers. Hard to promote without seeming overtly commercial.

Morgan Friedman, founder of OverheardIntheOffice, recently named a top 100 blog by PC Magazine, points out that some of the best viral content was not designed by marketers at all. Hamsterdance, rendered on a Geocities page, was part of a competition between an art student and her friends to see who could drive the most traffic. The Dancing Baby was a development team’s early experiment in 3D animation.

What exactly made these pieces viral to the extent that they influenced offline culture? And, how can marketers replicate this aspect? Friedman feels very strongly that “viral content must be either humorous or profoundly useful.” While many marketers believe their Web content is useful, Friedman challenges them to compare the offering to profoundly useful sites such as Google, eBay and Hotmail.

Friedman also points out that creating the right content or functionality is not enough. The truth is that everything viral requires a boost.

“You need that first group of 1,000 people to spread the word,” stated Friedman, “which means you need to send it to an initial 40,000 people to identify the key influencers.”

And, of course, there is the advertising route. Friedman admitted that this is difficult. “If it looks like advertising, it doesn’t feel authentic.”

Friedman cited BlogAds as an example, because “they don’t feel overtly commercial and they carry the on-page conversation one step further.”

One marketer who relies heavily on advertising is Don Steele, senior director of digital marketing at Comedy Central and a speaker at SMX Social Media in New York. Despite his firm’s wildly successful programming, he acceded, “We can use limited amounts of money, time and resources to gain awareness pre-broadcast. But the post-broadcast opportunity is unlimited. We engage in viral outreach, search and syndicated affiliates during this time.”

As it turns out, viral marketing doesn’t always happen so fast. In what this writer has coined “latent virality,” it is frequently an offline event that brings viral content or functionality to the forefront at a later date.

Steele agreed. “There might be pickup on a video eight months after it aired, when the subject matter appears in the news.”

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