Spread the word – viral is catching on

Hit viral campaigns can generate explosive results – but understanding the nature of the beast is crucial to creating virals that go forth and multiply.

Everybody dreams of generating that golden piece of viral content, the one that people feel compelled to share and that skyrockets the brand into the social stratosphere. Last year, when men’s grooming brand Old Spice looked to change consumer perceptions around its values as ’the older man’s aftershave’ it hit upon this kind of success through self-parody. The ’Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ viral video campaign has now been viewed almost 20 million times. Meanwhile, fans of the Dark Knight film franchise, eagerly awaiting the cinema release of next year’s installment, are tapping into a viral campaign in their droves. An audio clip of next year’s movie has already been shared thousands of times and generated a buzz of activity across social networks such as Twitter.

The growth of social networks over the past five or six years has increased the potential value of viral significantly. Social media has created new channels through which content can be shared while dramatically increasing the number of people that can be reached. A few years ago a person would send an email on to 10 or 20 of their friends; now content posted on someone’s Facebook page has the potential to reach everyone they know on Facebook and other social media sites.


But the real value for brands lies in the opportunity for them to leverage viral to create a deep level of engagement among existing networks, while building relationships with new online communities. The way that brands seed campaigns has changed in parallel with the growth and development of social media. Earning attention and building relationships versus simply getting content to ’go viral’ has been a really crucial element in Nokia’s social marketing. “We put a lot of effort into personalisation – whether that comes through creating personalised materials or having them take part in the production experience itself,” comments Michael Melazzo, global marketing activation at Nokia.”It’s about building for the longer term and avoiding the quick win.”

Nokia recently ran a viral mystery game themed around cult sci-fi film Tron Legacy. Supported by creative agency 1000heads, Nokia’s strategy supported a ’takeover’ of its social media sites in a game that saw 80,000 people get involved in an online scavenger hunt within the first 24 hours.

“The goal was to drive positive conversation by appealing to a very ’tuned in’ audience of Tron fans with high social networking potential,” comments Melazzo. “What better way to engage this audience than by creating a cooperative challenge that unlocked unseen footage from the film and gave participants a chance to attend the world premiere?”

The Tron Legacy/Nokia N8 promotion has been Nokia’s most successful marketing-led Facebook activity this year so far. The Nokia NSeries Blog saw a 150% increase in average daily site visits, and a 97% increase in weekly Twitter conversations. The brand estimates that by the end of the first day the equivalent media value of the consumer-created content surpassed €500,000.

Faecal attraction: WaterAid combined shock tactics and humour to create engagement

Accepted viral wisdom argues that not being like a TV commercial is the secret to a good viral campaign. The new consumers, or ’prosumers’, don’t care for typical TV advertising. One of the reasons they don’t consume conventional media is they don’t want to watch ads. For brands to win out in this context, there has to be a value exchange of some kind. And the value the new consumers want is entertainment, often comedy or simply newness or brilliance.

Last November, in a bid to reach new audiences, the Royal Opera House launched a surprising twist on its traditional brand values. The spoof reality TV show Danny Knows Best centred on ’real life’ style stories paralleling the famous operas Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, and Rigoletto. The arts venue tagged the shows ’I’m a slave in my own home’, ’My racist father is holding me hostage’ and ’I’m sleeping with my father’s boss behind his back’ respectively.

“We wanted to introduce the Royal Opera House to a new audience and appeal to anyone who enjoyed reality TV programmes such as The X Factor,” says Caroline Bailey, director of marketing at the Royal Opera House. “It aimed to raise our profile and people talked about it because it challenged perceptions around the Royal Opera House.”

In the two weeks following the campaign there was a 14% conversion rate on ticket sales from viewers watching the campaign. “If people engage with it and we get the distribution right, it has enormous word-of-mouth value,” adds Bailey. “You can really harness that and make it work for you.”

Knowing your audience is as important with viral as it is with any other marketing discipline. DJ Hero: Mix 2gether, created by viral specialist Fish in a Bottle for FreeStyleGames, aimed to create a viral that introduced the DJ Hero game mechanics and deck control to as many gamers as possible. The aim was to make the viral look and feel as much like the console game as it could. “We invested a huge amount of resources into making sure we had the right look, music and style in our video game DJ Hero 2,” comments Andy Wafer, head of digital platforms at FreeStyleGames. “The viral benefits from that work, so it will resonate culturally with our targeted audience and provide a very polished, visually exciting and entertaining experience.”

In addition to the console-quality visuals, the viral featured licensed mixes from popular artists like Lady Gaga, Blackrok and Tiesto. The mechanic focused on delivering a high-quality experience to the player that was long enough to be fun, but short enough to leave them wanting more. A feature unique to the viral and specifically designed to maximise its growth rate was enabling people to make their own mix using the licensed music and then letting them challenge their friends to play it.

The campaign is a good example of minimising explicit brand messages to engage with the target audience. “Corporate messaging was downplayed and instead we built in viral components like being able to create and share your own mix,” comments Wafer. “This way it would feel less like an advertisement and more like something fun to engage with – if something is personal to someone they’re far more likely to share it.”

Viral marketing challenges the traditional ways of communicating with a much more switched-on consumer. Jewellery brand Links of London’s multi-channel campaign Friendship Blitz, which ran last year, was an awareness campaign about the brand’s Friendship bracelets. “Customers had to join our official Facebook and Twitter pages to get clues to locate garden gnomes,” explains Sarah McNamara, marketing director at Links of London. “Then, armed with a photo of themselves and the gnome, they went to their nearest Links store to claim their free bracelet.” All this built into a fun way for the customers to engage with the brand across a variety of touch points without any hard sell.

The shift in the way that content is shared has changed who the influencers are online, with social media users with a large following now becoming increasingly important in seeding a campaign.

“We generate secure exclusive content for our super-users and every month we contact bloggers or fan sites and offer some exclusive content and drive back the fans to our website,” comments Jean-Francois Beaudry, head of product and marketing at BBC Global Digital Properties. “For us now it’s all about bringing the viral element (or facilitators) to all our digital platforms but especially mobile where content can be captured and shared instantly.”

Softwind Studio runs monthly competitions; seeds image galleries and synchronises content with offline initiatives such as Doctor Who live events; deploys fun and fast-paced branded engagement apps; and drives traffic to the Doctor Who microsite.

The rise of everything social has been the largest internet trend of recent years and it is logical that it should be applied to advertising. Consumers seemingly gain control of their advertising experience when, with ’social advertising’, they have the ability to use the ’like’ and ’share’ buttons on online display adverts. In this way, social ads become about turning consumers into brand ambassadors.

This trend is evident with social networking sites including Facebook collaborating with brands on ’engagement’ ads that allow the user to choose whether to look at the advert or not. If they like it, they can put it in their personal ’news feed’ so that other friends will see it and may follow that recommendation.

Nielsen reports that, on average, people are 68% more likely to remember seeing an ad endorsed by someone they know than one without social validation – and twice as likely to remember the ad’s message.

“The best form of recommendation is one you get from a friend and Facebook allows marketers to tap into word-of-mouth marketing at scale,” comments Jon Harvey, UK sales manager, Facebook. “Adding ’like’ functionality to your ad helps drive awareness and talkability, as people are more likely to pay attention to brand messages endorsed by their friends.”


A humorous viral film centering around some remote-controlled fake faeces chasing real Londoners around town made its mark on development charity WaterAid’s integrated ’Dig toilets, not graves’ (DTNG) campaign last year. The aim of the online video was to stop people in their tracks and recruit new supporters for a campaign to stop 4,000 children dying each day from poor sanitation.

“The subject of sanitation naturally lent itself to an amusing and slightly shocking creative idea, obviously one of the prerequisites for virality,” comments Chloë Amstein, direct marketing manager of WaterAid. “We chose then to invest in a viral film to capitalise on this – with the aim of reaching more of our affluent 35- to 50-year-old audience and creating more ’noise’ around the campaign.”

Agency Kitcatt Nohr Digitas was responsible for the entire marketing campaign. The film was intended as a low-cost support mechanism that, if successful, would significantly boost noise around the campaign. As such, WaterAid only set a views target for the viral rather than hard conversions to gift or campaigning action targets, metrics that were reserved for its traditional DM channels.

For WaterAid, the viral offered the potential of a big free media platform, an opportunity to be more experimental with its creative approach, and the chance to engage with its target audience on a digital platform.

Video virals can be convincingly global. Importantly, the content for WaterAid was almost entirely visual – without dialogue – to allow it to communicate with people across cultures and continents.

“From our experience with the DTNG campaign, viral is suited for wider brand/issue awareness-raising, but is less suited to harder response objectives,” says Amstein. “These were our expectations at the planning stage and we therefore designed the DTNG video to maximise virality rather than conversion to action.” WaterAid chose not to feature its logo and only had a soft ’ask’ at the film’s end to drive traffic to the campaign’s microsite, rather than a fundraising or campaigning ’ask’.

WaterAid’s viral was designed to have a halo effect over the rest of the campaign. The awareness it generated – though views on YouTube, or through some of the extensive PR coverage – was designed to make consumers recognise the campaign when they saw the TV ad, mailer, or online. It was not a direct response vehicle in itself, but a platform through which to engage the target audience and drive awareness for when more direct calls to action were made in other media channels.

Aside from being a low-cost support mechanism, the other objective of the viral was to recruit new supporters, specifically from outside WaterAid’s regular donor base, to sign a petition to increase government aid to sanitation and water projects. The entire campaign generated 88,000 signatures of which 33,000 were new acquisitions.

Fact focus

What is viral marketing? A technique that uses pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness, centred around an idea that spreads rapidly.

What forms does viral marketing take? Different types of emails, videos, adverts, corporate messages, jokes and games.

What can viral marketing achieve? In addition to widespread reach, the obvious attractions of viral marketing are low costs and high credibility.

What are the disadvantages? A viral marketing campaign that does not work could leave a brand owner with lack of control over their brand equity.



Mark Tyldesley

Director grocery brands

Premier Foods

I think viral marketing has massive potential to drive emotional connection between brands and consumers. But it’s an absolute minefield. Get it wrong and, at worst, you massively offend your consumer base, and, at best, your brand is as cool as dads dancing at weddings. Get it right, and consumers become your advocates whether your viral is through humor, through service, or gaming. The trend I like is service, that viral doesn’t have to be student male humour.



Andy Windsor

Head of online marketing

Inventive Leisure

All campaign features need to have a key sharing element to maximise viral awareness. User-generated social content can really impact traffic and campaign awareness.

Social media has changed the viral landscape, as all interactions are instantly shared with each individual user’s personal social network, making the content relevant, local and personalised and therefore far more powerful.

Another key factor now is mobile, which thanks to the rise of the smartphone has simply accelerated the effectiveness of viral campaigns because sharing is far easier than ever before.

The future of viral is to enable customers to localise or personalise the campaign to make it more relevant to their individual community and therefore more effective.


Mike Melazzo

Global marketing activation


I see viral marketing becoming both more personal and more interactive. In future, it will be executed more frequently in ’real time’ to maximize relevance to the people and networks it reaches out to.

It will also become more mobile. People view and share content from their handsets, and there is an opportunity in this space to incorporate geolocation-rich features.

The use of HTML5 interactive video and NFC, and the increase in ’response’ content being launched in hours rather than weeks, are helping turn these trends into reality.

Anna Crona

Marketing director for UK and Ireland


Our herding cats TV ad was released on YouTube and worked as bait. People were very interested in how it was done behind the scenes. We will continue with this technique for upcoming campaigns.

It was interesting to see how people started Facebook groups like ’Pussy People’ without our involvement and two spoofs were created. The fame went beyond the cats campaign and the visibility and honesty created an increase in driving our brand values forward on how we want to be perceived/ honest, warm, human and innovative.

From my experience, the most important trends in viral marketing will continue to be the creation of happy, entertaining pieces supported by great behind-the-scenes films and strong music choices.

Top tips you need to know

  • Don’t sell your product, sell your brand. Provide something useful to your customers. Make their life easier and connect them to like-minded people through useful apps.
  • Motivate your audience. Give them great prizes, giveaways, treats, exclusive content. Make them feel special.
  • Involve your customers in the initiative. If you can get them to create something unique, upload a photo, write a song etc they will share their creations.
  • Be funny. People love to laugh, and if it’s funny, they will share it.
  • Social marketing is about the sum of your initiatives. Create an ecosystem of engagement around your brand where people can watch content, contribute, comment, play and connect.

As recommended by Frances Rodino of Softwind Studio


He who shares, wins

Michael Nutley

When dealing with those marketers still sceptical about the power and importance of social media, one of the easiest ways to explain its value is to talk about word-of-mouth. The idea that social media is, at least in part, the everyday conversations about the products and services people use writ large has become commonplace, and […]


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