Viral Marketing Offers Risks, Rewards

Viral marketing campaigns can be great fun for the consumer and deliver an excellent return for the company. But they can also backfire, sometimes in unforeseen ways. It never hurts to go over the possibilities one more time.

Burger King’s Subservient Chicken web site is still around. It was one of the first to combine advertising with user interaction in a way that was uniquely Web 2.0. It wasn’t the last. While many have been successful, many others have failed – in some cases spectacularly.

That’s one of the hazards of a viral marketing campaign. You’re setting it out in the wilds of the web, to be played with and judged by the people you’re trying to reach. You can do all the market research you want, and try to think of everything, but you’re still giving up a certain degree of control. If you want to test the viral waters, you not only have to be prepared for this; you must embrace it if you wish to be successful.

What brought all this to mind was a recent piece written by Karl Greenberg for Online Media Daily. Titled “A Cautionary Tale For Viral Wannabes,” it’s the first time I’ve heard of a buzz campaign being killed before it even had a chance to start. It’s also the first time I’d ever heard of a buzz campaign being killed in quite this way. Maybe that shows my inexperience in the field, but I thought it was interesting enough to share – and certainly anyone could have a marketing campaign go bad for them in exactly this manner, especially if they forget the old slogan “Loose lips sink ships.”

Most of the time, when you’re doing marketing, advertising, or public relations, you want to be in touch with the press. There’s a reason those things are called “press releases” after all. Speaking as someone who has read innumerable press releases (and even written one or two), they’re certainly appreciated, even if we have to wade through a huge assortment of superlatives to get to the meat of the matter. But sometimes you need to think carefully about those reporters, what they’re going to do with what you tell them, and where things will go from there.

Greenberg wrote with a bit of a guilty conscience, since in one sense it was his story that killed the buzz campaign – and he thought it was a good one too. He’d written an item about an ad and web campaign for MTD Products Cadet Cub riding mowers. The web campaign talks about a fictional kudzu-like strain of grass “that has reportedly begun taking over several states. Per the story, this grass grows several inches per day and defies nearly every effort to cut it,” explains Greenberg.

There’s no one web site devoted to the ad campaign, as there is for the Subservient Chicken. People are supposed to stumble across news of the strain from several different sites: a blog by a scientist, a conspiracy theorist, and an enraged stump clearer. One could also Google the name of the grass strain to find the sites. And that’s where the trouble starts.

You see, Greenberg’s source told him the name of the fictional grass strain. He naturally mentioned it in his story, though not in his “Cautionary Tale.” So what happens when someone puts the name of the grass strain into Google? The search engine, in its infinite wisdom, returns Greenberg’s story as the number one result. “And right below my story, whose slug mentions the three fictional web sites, are those three fictional web sites. Therefore, the fiction is ruined by my story about the fiction. Yes, the company got buzz but not the kind it wanted,” Greenberg elaborated.

It’s a little tricky to find Greenberg’s original story; when you do, you see that he mentions the fictional grass — Loogootee Strain – only once. Greenberg’s editor insisted that the story couldn’t be taken down, and the name of the grass couldn’t be eliminated from it. The lawn mower company is probably relieved that Greenberg’s story now appears in the fourth position rather than the first one, but that’s still fairly prominent for viral marketing purposes.

If I hadn’t found the original story, I would have been tempted to wonder if Greenberg’s warning was intended more as a tongue-in-cheek punning statement about the hazards of faking your grass roots in viral marketing campaigns. Still, the issue he points out is quite real: you don’t always know what’s going to rank, or how, for a particular viral campaign. This is why SEO often seems like it is as much an art as a science.

“What hits me over and over in my job about getting press for my various clients is all the places online that press shows up in,” Greenberg quotes the Cub Cadet media relations person as saying. “You can’t tell where a story is going to show up.”

Creating something artificial doesn’t always backfire. An Adweek story from June 2005 talks about a viral marketing campaign created for Volvo to promote the S60 in Europe. The campaign featured two web sites. One site showed a pseudo-documentary about a small town in Sweden where 32 people purchased the same car in one day. A second site, supposedly made by the director, disputed whether the documentary on the first site was authentic. Are you confused yet?

Confusing or not, the campaign, dubbed “The Mystery of Dalaro,” was a success. According to Tim Ellis, global advertising director for Volvo, the car “broke every sales record.” But it was a risky campaign, and Ellis admits it was hard to convince Volvo to go for the idea.

Wal-Mart learned just how risky viral marketing campaigns can be in late 2006. That’s when not just one but several blogs that showed the super discount retailer in a positive light were revealed to be fake, created by public relations firm Edelman for Wal-Mart. The one most people heard about, “Wal-Marting Across America,” supposedly featured a family traveling across America in an RV and staying in Wal-Mart parking lots; it spoke positively of the store and its employees. Another fake blog, Paid Critics, was devoted to “exposing” links between unions and other vested interests said to be “smearing Wal-Mart” through the media. Once the blogs were found out to be fake, Wal-Mart and Edelman received a tremendous amount of bad publicity.

Sony didn’t get it right either. About a month and a half after the Wal-Mart revelations, their attempt at a viral marketing campaign was revealed as fake. You may have seen the blog site and the YouTube videos with the theme “all I want for Xmas is a PSP.” Well, it surprised almost no one that these were made by a marketing company (Zipatron by name); for one thing, a number of bloggers remarked that the males featured in the videos looked too old to be trying to convince their parents to get them a PSP.

That doesn’t mean that these kinds of sites never work, you just need to get a handle on how to do it right. Take Norelco, for instance. Do I really need to mention ShaveAnywhere.com, the site for the Philips Bodygroom? The somewhat racy site (which might not be safe for work depending on where you work) racked up hundreds of thousands of visits for the company, surprising and delighting many with its humorous approach to hirsute hygiene. Alas, I don’t have any sales figures for the Bodygroom, but I would be very surprised if the campaign did not encourage sales.

Viral marketing and linkbaiting are basically cousins. So what works for one, generally speaking, will work for the other. Tyler Reed, a young South African college student and self-described “entrepreneur, social media strategist and blogger” got it right in an early April entry in his blog. He talked about what advertisers should and should not do when attempting a viral marketing campaign.

The things you should do should come as no surprise. First, you need to target your audience. The very nature of social media means you aren’t trying to reach “everyone” because the people who participate are self-selected; they all but display their interests on their sleeves. This means you can focus on a smaller group.

Once you know who your group is, do your “focus group testing;” choose several members of that group, show them your marketing material, and get their feedback. Thank them for their feedback; don’t get defensive if they tell you that your original plan is not going to work. They’ve just saved you a ton of effort.

After your campaign is released in the wild, watch it like a hawk. Most of the commentary about your campaign is going to happen on the blogosphere. Be prepared to engage with these people and respond to comments, whether they’re positive or negative.

At the top of Reed’s “don’t” list is “Don’t trick or mislead.” That’s what got Wal-Mart and Sony into trouble. Norelco’s site and spokesman for the Bodygroom didn’t get the company into trouble because he isn’t really trying to pretend he’s something he’s not; nobody is surprised to find out that he’s an actor. Those who participate online in social media have finely tuned BS detectors; set those off and the response from the community can be very unforgiving.

Above all, don’t wing it. If you want to get someone to pass something on, it has to be of genuine interest. That typically means a certain amount of work has to go into its creation. It also means not insulting people’s intelligence. A viral marketing campaign is like an invitation; make sure it’s the kind of invitation your target audience would want to receive.

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