Viral marketing is a concept with blurry edges. What some people see as viral, others see as another form of advertising. In reality, though, viral marketing can come in any form. What makes something viral is the way the audience reacts to it, namely they help spread the message as far as it can go.
Some of the best examples of things going viral online have nothing to do with advertisers or spreading a message which is perhaps why they worked so well but the protests of Chris Crocker or the actions of the Jedi kid will live long in the memory of so many across the globe. It’s quite possible that if there was a brand or advertising message attached to either of these their success would have been much more limited. It is, however, possible for a large corporation to have advertising material go viral, but they need to work a lot harder for this to happen.
One of the early innovators of viral marketing was Hotmail. When the e-mail service began, it was one of the few that was free and let you check your messages from anywhere in the world (rather than from one computer). To make sure people heard about this, Hotmail put a footer in every e-mail sent from one of its accounts to tell the recipient about the new, free service. Hotmail soon became the most popular e-mail provider online and many others since have tried to emulate its success with the same tactic.
Viral marketing campaigns often flounder. While some such as Shakira’s YouTube campaign prior to the release of her single She Wolf simply proved ineffective, other advertising campaigns can backfire significantly on a company. Habitat, the UK furniture retailer, found itself receiving a lot of bad press after a Twitter campaign gone wrong, namely that they were tweeting about their special offers and using unrelated trending hashtags to help get them seen hashtags that, at the time, included a lot about the Iranian election protests. They say that there’s no such thing as bad coverage, so maybe the Habitat campaign was actually hugely successful.
Old Spice got their commercials, and rather odd catchphrases, to go viral simply with humour. The success of their ads and the lead star was seen when they held a question and answer day, allowing fans to get funny video responses to their queries round the clock. The Facebook page has more than a million followers, which isn’t too bad for a deodorant.
T-Mobile garnered interest in a different way. They were one of the first advertisers to make use of a flash mob, taking over a whole railway station with a dance troupe as they filmed from various angles. The novelty and overall appeal of the whole video soon spread round the internet.
The importance of a viral marketing campaign is that people will want to, or have to, spread it to their friends. It doesn’t matter if it’s done in a funny, thought-provoking or just plain entertaining way, so long as people want to share it. If it’s been done before, people are unlikely to be impressed. If it’s intrusive or is too complicated to pass on, they’re unlikely to do so. If there’s nothing actually interesting about what you’re doing to anyone outside your company, it’s not going to spread. Getting the balance right can be a tricky thing as quite often, the closer you get to something that’s likely to go viral, the less corporate and professional it looks. Although many companies these days are trying to be as casual as possible, there are still others who are determined to keep up their straight-edge image.