We’re not immune to viral marketing – yet

Viral e-mails are both cheap and novel. Tongue-in-cheek or risqué online executions can flash round the world in days. But is the medium in danger of becoming over-exposed? asks Jamie Hill

It’s not often that you get the chance to talk with a genetically modified super-intelligent baboon called Marty – but one recent online viral marketing campaign offered just that opportunity.

The offer of a conversation arrived in the form of an e-mail from fictional company First Genetics, which provided a link to a typing baboon through a “live” feed.

But it was only after four questions had been put to the monkey that the prank by The Sun newspaper was revealed.

Within weeks of the TBWA/ GGT-created spoof online campaign being launched, the site – and The Sun – had received more than 1 million hits from all around the world, all for an outlay of just &£16,000.

For marketers, this kind of campaign epitomises viral marketing – a snippet so funny or shocking that people will want to pass it on to their friends and family.

On the face of it, online viral marketing is an attractive proposition providing huge customer reach at a small cost. With successes such as 118 118’s Honda Cog parody, which featured the two runners knocking over a series of items, and the infamous John West “man fights bear” campaign, it is understandable why marketers want to jump on the bandwagon.

But experts such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) believe online viral marketing should be treated with caution – once an ad is in circulation, it is impossible to control and there is a danger of it being altered by internet users so that a new version portrays the advertised brand in a negative light. Dozens of unofficial, crude versions of MasterCard’s “priceless” campaign are circulating, many of which could easily be construed as offensive.

“While youth and alternative brands have benefited greatly from online viral marketing, it is not necessarily a formula open to all marketers,” says IAB chief executive Danny Meadows-Klue. “Let’s be clear – marketers cannot control what happens once a viral campaign is released. It’s out there and the internet users are the ones in control.”

There are also issues concerning how the reach of an online viral ad is measured, as there is no reliable way to do this. Some advertisers get round this by e-mailing out a link to a website where the ad is stored and then measuring the number of hits by those who access it. Others place their ads on websites such as Lycos and Kontraband.com, which store viral ads, and then measure the number of times their ad is downloaded.

With no standard method of measurement of the popularity of a viral ad, it is understandable that some are cynical about the medium and believe the appeal of viral campaigns has been exaggerated by enterprising PR companies looking for favourable press coverage.

TBWA/GGT head of digital operations Mark Andersson – who has worked on several online viral campaigns, including ones for 3 and Vauxhall as well as The Sun baboon ad – defends the medium, saying it can be incredibly effective.

He says: “With viral marketing, everything you do has to be different and original in order to persuade people to pass it on. It can be very powerful, but you’ve got to remember that the Web is naturally malicious and there are many pitfalls if you don’t get it right.”

Mitsubishi is about to use a viral campaign as a major plank in the launch campaign for the Lancer Evolution VIII sports car (the Evo). A short film depicting a man’s encounter with the strange cult of the Evo has been seeded in online communities for car enthusiasts. Scott Goodson, creative partner at Strawberryfrog, which created the campaign, says viral marketing works for specialist products such as cars because of the sense of community it can produce. The launch will be supported later with more conventional online and print advertising in car and lifestyle magazines.

Jasmine Montgomery, strategy director at brand analysis agency Futurebrand, says only certain types of product, such as telecoms, cars and alcohol, and certain types of brands, can use viral marketing effectively.

“In the main, brands that use viral marketing are those that have a sexy, young image and that don’t mind using this type of medium to be a bit more racy and risqué than they would be elsewhere,” she says. Sectors such as financial services, which have a more serious message to deliver, should “avoid it as much as possible”.

One thing viral experts agree on is that a good seed list of people is needed for the initial mail-out. Ideally, these are people who have not only shown interest in the particular product, but who also have a large database of friends and family to pass the viral campaign on to.

This leads to another benefit of viral marketing: to many marketers, viral marketing is not considered spam. It is not unsolicited mail, mainly because it is usually sent by a friend or family member.

But Direct Marketing Association head of interactive media Robert Dirskovsky feels differently. He says: “Personally, I don’t see much difference between viral marketing and spam. In my view, it is just spam sent by a friend rather than a company. It is still direct marketing but it is something we would be very cautious about endorsing as, by its very nature, it can’t be properly regulated.”

He makes the point that the recent spate of online viral marketing is nothing new – it is in effect word-of-mouth marketing, through a different medium.

But the full power of offline viral marketing is still being determined. In the US, Procter & Gamble is testing Tremor – a 250,000 strong database of teenagers, recruited to talk about new products to their friends, set up late in 2002 (MW October 31, 2002).

Mobile phones provide a further unexplored platform for viral marketing. Nick Wiggin, head of mobile at digital media agency i-Level, says: “Viral marketing hasn’t penetrated the mobile industry as much as it could, but I know companies are looking at it for retail voucher schemes using unique codes and competitions which people can text to each other. With the arrival of 3G videophones, we will start to see video and picture viral marketing campaigns, which is already happening in Japan.”

A number of marketers believe that viral marketing will one day be recognised as part of the traditional media mix. But the figures are still small, with some putting the amount spent on online viral marketing at &£1m to &£2m, although they expect growth of 100 per cent over the next year.

Matt Smith, managing director of viral ad agency the Viral Factory, says: “Viral marketing is an obvious way forward. It costs next to nothing compared to a television campaign.”

Like any medium, viral marketing has its strengths and weaknesses – and the more popular it becomes, the lower its novelty value – and hence its effectiveness.

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