Chasing the Dramatic Chipmunk

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For me, it started innocuously. A friend forwarded a link described as “the best 5 second clip on the internet.” Given all the scandalous things celebrities can do in five seconds (not that I’ve personally seen those clips, and I have the clear cache to prove it), that’s saying a lot. So I clicked and saw a rodent snapping its head round and glaring at the camera to the sound of a cheesy 50s-style murder-mystery soundtrack.

Enter “Dramatic Chipmunk.” It’s no Paris Hilton sex tape, but this YouTube video, added in mid-June, has been no less sensational. Viewed more than 1.7 million times on YouTube alone, it has spawned countless spinoffs (see, for example, “Darthmatic Chipmunk”) and even clothing items. Hell, a creative director I work with even sent a dramatic chipmunk Facebook gift. “Unbelievable,” he noted. “Let’s remember this when someone needs a viral campaign.”

Ah, yes, the viral campaign. Who in interactive marketing doesn’t watch in awe as a five-second clip of a misnamed chipmunk (it’s actually a prairie dog) becomes the internet’s hottest item, while their quarter-million-dollar supposedly viral website goes nowhere? “Viral” is one of the most overused terms in interactive marketing. It’s also one of the most elusive goals. And the case of our over-acting rodent friend helps explain why: true virulence requires losing control, and few marketers are willing to take that risk.

Hotmail Ain’t So Hot

Exuberant talk about viral marketing has been around for several years, with Hotmail often given as the consummate example. The company pioneered by promoting its service in a single line at the bottom of each outgoing email. So every person who sent an email also advertised the service, helping it grow rapidly.

I used to take it on faith that Hotmail’s tactic marked a dramatic departure for marketing. But now I side more with critics who question whether it was really that different. After all, people buy Nike shirts and promote the company every time they get dressed. So was Hotmail that radical? Maybe in the speed of conversions, but definitely not in the underlying principles.

To me, a truly viral campaign is one in which consumers participate in the mutations. It’s this attribute that keeps a campaign going long after the spend. But it’s also this attribute that makes virulence so risky for brands and keeps so many so-called viral marketing campaigns confined to their initial hosts.

An Immutable Law of Virulence

Probably the most fundamental problem with so-called viral marketing, from a brand perspective, is that success almost always requires losing control. This, I believe, is an immutable law of virulence. After all, what makes viruses so dangerous to humans is their ability to rapidly mutate. If they didn’t have this ability, either our immune systems or our vaccines would halt them before they spread. The case of the dramatic chipmunk demonstrates this beautifully. Punch Dramatic Chipmunk into Google and see where our furry friend has traveled.

Now imagine that Dramatic Chipmunk was a brand, and you were trying to manage its image. Would you want it chopped, mashed, spliced and twisted every which way, just to achieve mindshare? Would Nike want people tweaking its swoosh, even if it sold more clothes, risking damaging mutations such as, say, a Swooshtika?

In my experience, when clients ask for a viral campaign, they’re often not thinking of the impact on their sales, the relationship to their strategy, or the long-term impact on their brand. Rather, they’re often looking for an end-run around the hard work required for effective marketing. “Viral” is often synonymous with “low budget.” How can we get the most bang for our buck? People too often think that the answer is to give consumers the ability to distribute their explosives. But that approach often blows up in their face.

This isn’t to say that virulence isn’t a desirable attribute. But we shouldn’t forget that one of the most infectious things in the world is a useful idea that’s clearly communicated. And that has less to do with network effects and stickiness than with good thinking, writing and design. Those efforts can’t guarantee a dramatic chipmunk. But they can guarantee a profound message that informs, engages and influences.

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