Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Thoughts on Viral Marketing

Some random thoughts about viral marketing that came out an in-house brainstorming session. Nothing particularly groundbreaking, but we discuss the different strains (integrated campaigns, the deliberate web-only approach and the accidental buzz) and how the Intarweb facilitates word of mouth.

In our in-house marketing department, we’ve begun holding monthly “idea” sessions. These meetings collect people from various disciplines — design, writing, public relations, proposal writing — to discuss marketing trends and ideas from a 30,000 foot vantage. There’s no particular goal other than take part in an inspiring, hour-long conversation.

Our first session’s topic was viral marketing. It was a great talk about what viral is, how it can be used and if it’s worth the time and effort to tackle internally. There was a lot of great commentary and I just wanted to record some thoughts for posterity.

It was difficult to define “viral” because its name inherently lends itself to different techniques. Most consider traditional viral work as the creation of a niche, buzz-worthy website, or the distribution of a unique video piece on YouTube. Sometimes they are simultaneous. The viral marketing we did not discuss — if only because it lacks creativity — is the leeching of MySpace and social networks to create artificial buzz via “friends.”

Bottom line: good viral pieces are simply good advertising delivered on the web. For years the Intarweb has suffered under the crush of endless blinking banners, and any good online advertising was derivative of a larger print campaign. Now, companies are moving in three directions:

  1. The “integrated” advertising campaign. This is when television commercials and print media support a deep website that expands the idea even further, creating a fuller story. The California Milk Processor Board (aka, “Got Milk?”) recently followed this approach with their “Planet in Need” campaign. Honda also did this for its recent ads for the Element.
  2. The web-only approach. The most famous might be Subservient Chicken. A more recent example is Norelco’s recent launch of the Shave Everywhere site, a fairly deep product site detailing a grooming product for men.
  3. The accidental buzz. This is non-internet media that is so good that it creates buzz on the web. The advent of YouTube has brought video to the masses, and even printed campaigns get passed around.

Both Subservient Chicken and Shave Everywhere created massive buzz. The major difference is the amount of branding done for the parent company. SC’s Burger King logo is so small that I would guess 80%-90% of people never see it, while SE is clearly a product of Philips / Norelco.

The web is such a flat, directionless medium that companies have discovered that to be noticed you need to actually produce worthy advertising. Television is a linear medium; the average person will sit through commercials before the show comes back. The internet is the opposite: fail to capture my attention, and I’m gone before you’re intro animation is done playing.

The web is also a free distribution platform. Word of mouth has always played a part in advertising. Think about the watercooler conversations the Monday after the SuperBowl. The internet simply facilitates word-of-mouth on an unprecented level, and clever, original advertising will always draw people toward itself.

The term “viral” is one of the few buzzwords that truly describe its nature. Which is too bad, because within a year marketers will be sick of the term just when most clients will start to “get it.”


commentary + criticism

Jacob Estes

wrote the following on Wednesday August 9, 2006

The ILoveBees thing, and the Hanso Foundation (or whatever it is) for Lost is kind of interesting.