Important Elements of a Viral Marketing Campaign

It’s every marketer’s dream: deliver a message so compelling that everyone who sees it passes it along to their friends, increasing your brand recognition, sales, and bottom line. On the Internet, we call this viral marketing, though it is certainly used in other media as well. How do you make your marketing campaign go viral? In this article, I’ll talk about some elements you should include.

The first viral marketing campaign I can recall coming across – at least on the Internet – was Burger King’s Subservient Chicken. Yes, that old bird from early 2004 is still around, and still will do whatever you type into the text box – well, unless you tell it to remove its mask; then it scolds the screen. The site also features some still photos of the chicken in action, and a “chicken mask” that you can print out, with the following instructions:

1. Cut out mask on dotted line.
2. Put on chicken face.
3. Be subservient.

Most important of all, it includes a link that allows visitors to tell their friends about the site. This is one of the keys to running a successful viral marketing campaign; you need to make it easy for those who visit your content to pass it along so it can spread.

It’s not the only important element, however. Let’s look at what else Burger King did. Not every campaign needs to feature everything I’m going to discuss, but if we can understand why this one was so successful, we can figure out how to repeat it.

The biggest element of the campaign was user interaction. If you don’t tell it to do anything, the chicken will just stand there, or perhaps fidget amusingly. Give a visitor something to do, and they’ll stick around for a while. Make it amusing and/or entertaining, and they might stick around for quite a while. If you’re going to build something that calls for user interaction, however, you need to think it through carefully. Visitors can type literally anything into the Subservient Chicken space; Burger King needed to be prepared for that. The Subservient Chicken will respond to 300 commands.

Importantly, the Subservient Chicken is totally “on message” for Burger King’s campaign. They wanted to promote their chicken sandwiches and meals, and get across the point that you could have chicken with them any way you wanted it. To all appearances, they succeeded.

Burger King also took advantage of the element of surprise. Honestly, who would have expected a big corporation to do something that seemed, for the time, so strange and even a little illicit? Taking what people expect and turning it on its head, but in a good way, is sure to get you noticed.

Philips also made use of a fresh approach, in more ways than one. You may have heard of their electric shaver for men, the Bodygroom, which is designed to shave everywhere. Women have long shaved their legs and underarms (among other areas), but when the Bodygroom was introduced, most men only shaved their faces (if that much). If a man was particularly fastidious, and had major hair problems, he might shave his ears or nose hair.

The Bodygroom came on the scene with a handsome man in a white bathrobe who had the air of your older, more knowledgeable friend who always gets the women. Well, okay, he was also slightly smarmy to female eyes, but that just made him funny and non-threatening. Anyway, this time, he was sharing his secret: the Bodygroom. The site featured plenty of PG-13 material, discussion of the extra “optical inch” you can gain from using the Bodygroom, some interactive elements…and it worked.

At the time, it was hard to imagine a big company letting down their hair in this way to serve up something “fresh,” in more ways than one. But Philips did it. What’s more, they kept doing it. If you’ve been doing SEO for any length of time, you understand the importance of fresh content. I just visited the Bodygroom  web site and saw that Philips had made some significant changes. Playing off the popular vignette-laden dramatic work “The Vagina Monologues,” they introduced a “Bodygroom Manalogues” portion of the site.

The Bodygroom Manalogues takes reader letters about their experiences with shaving various parts of their body and displays them in a friendly, interactive, easy-to-read format. You really relate to the embarrassing experiences of the guys who have written in, even if you’re not male. Are they letters that readers have actually written? Well, that’s hard to say — but they could be; it’s easy to picture someone actually having the experiences described. If these were written by the advertising firm, they did their homework.

At the end of each Manalogue – and you can choose from quite a few – you can give it a score of one to five razors. Before you click on any of the stories, however, a spokesman comes out, dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt, saying that “we knew you guys like to keep things tidy below the belt, but we didn’t know how vocal you’d be about it…” He goes on to encourage visitors to write in with their body grooming experiences, and “who knows? If we like them, we just might put them on the web for all to see.” Now that’s user interaction, and a great way to keep your viral marketing campaign fresh.

Obviously, you need to create some kind of content for your viral marketing campaign. But what kind? What should you do with it? And what lessons can you take from Burger King, Philips, and others about how to do it right?

Well, one of the big things they did right was listed by Baekdal.com as the second of seven tricks to viral marketing: do something unexpected. The site used a video of a man attacking a bear to get the freshest salmon possible as an example.

So what’s the first thing you should do? If you’re a marketer, you already know: make your viewers feel something. But it has to be something strong. Love, hate, anger, compassion…you have a wide spectrum from which to draw. The thing you must not be is neutral – or boring. Nobody is going to pass along content that just kind of makes them nod and shrug.

Now, if you’re going to be playing with emotions, that may mean building a story, or at least a situation to which your visitor must respond (a la the Subservient Chicken). If you’re doing that, guess what? Your product and/or service is taking a back seat. You are NOT creating an advertisement. This is a good thing, because most people HATE ads. If you watch the ads during the Superbowl, for example, you’ll see that most of them are little vignettes, and the product itself might barely get a mention. Of course, you should keep your theme in mind; if you’re a pool builder, for example, you could run a Funniest Pool Stories contest. But you’re telling a story, not yelling at people to buy your product.

Okay,  so you have your visitors’ attention. Now what? Bodygroom did sequels, and so have others. If you don’t keep adding content, you will lose their attention. You can give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at making the content. You can blog about the content. You can invite them to write in and react to it. But don’t leave them with nothing.

The whole point of a viral marketing campaign is to get visitors to spread the content elsewhere. So you should make it easy for them to pass it along, right? For some reason, a lot of campaigns will stumble at this point. Perhaps marketers forget just how many different ways users can spread information now; “word-of-mouth” is a lot more like word-of-keyboard.

Baekdal makes several recommendations in this area. Of course, you should let users send your content to their friends; include a link on your site that makes it easy for them to email either a link or the content itself (you can even give them a choice). You should also let users download your content in a usable format – this means MPG for videos, JPG for pictures, and so forth. If you want to appeal to bloggers, let them easily embed the content on their own sites (and for that reason, you should watch your bandwidth). What could be better for spreading your message than someone writing about your content and showing it to their visitors?

Make sure your content is social-media-friendly. You can add widgets to let visitors add your content to social bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us, searchles, and others. And of course, don’t forget the social networks: Digg, YouTube, etc. Digg might be tricky, depending on your content, but tons of viral campaigns have found their way, one way or another, to YouTube.

I’ve referred several times to user-generated content, though not in those terms. Phillips says that it solicited – and received – a lot of letters from men about their body grooming experiences. Other companies have run contests for commercials from ordinary people about their product. The point is, when you get visitors excited about what you have to offer in this way (remember that you’re trying to produce a strong emotion), they want to talk about it. Let them, by enabling them to comment.

This means you’ll have to do a little moderation, though perhaps not the kind you think. You should NOT delete comments from people who say they don’t like your campaign. You should, however, prevent vocal visitors from attacking each other. As Baekdal emphasizes, “It is not a sin to delete comments from people who attack another person, if the comment is off-topic. But, it is a sin to delete comments from people who just have a negative opinion.” Oh, and one other thing: be prepared to make comments in reply. Don’t get defensive; simply appreciate the give-and-take. It could give you some marvelous ideas, and frankly you can’t BUY this kind of marketing research.

Finally, remember that viruses need to be free to spread. So don’t restrict them. This means that you must not require people to register to use this content. They should not have to become members or download special software. They should not have to enter some kind of code to “unlock” the content or otherwise do something tricky in order to get the right link. According to Baekdal, “Viral marketing is never about exclusivity. It is about getting it out there for everyone to see.” Here’s hoping you get your campaign seen!

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