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How to Catch the Bug – A Crash Course on Viral Marketing

Before we begin, a disclaimer: I quote many sources in this article, so feel free to read a more thorough dissection of those points from people smarter than I. This article is not meant as an exhaustive examination; there is far more to be said on this topic. Also please note that I am not addressing bogus, insidious or “fake-out” viral campaigns. The Tyee does an excellent job of that here.

What Is It?

What is exactly is viral marketing? Sure, the name is pretty creepy but it is appropriate as it is meant to describe something that spreads from person to person (uh, intentionally in these cases).

In The Six Simple Principles of Viral Marketing, Dr. Ralph Wilson defines viral marketing as:

“any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence. Like viruses, such strategies take advantage of rapid multiplication to explode the message to thousands, to millions.”

Essentially, the advent of the internet has taken buzz to a whole ‘nother level.

The fact that I can easily find the specific clip above and link to it is a prime example of this phenomenon. As recently as a few years ago you may have seen a great commercial on television and told a friend about it, but they may never have encountered it again on the tube. Or you could have forgotten what the product was.

Now you can easily find what you want in a manner of seconds and forward it to your friend, or tell them to check it out on YouTube. Think about it: how did you find out about this SNL clip?

The advertising climate has changed as well. Says Alex Kovach at portal Lycos Europe, “People trust traditional institutions less and are relying more and more on peer-to-peer recommendation.“.

How It Works

Urban legends are both “sticky” and contagious (if such a thing is possible – I ain’t no scientist…). Those legends have plenty going for them (Chip and Dan Heath analyze their lingering appeal brilliantly in Made to Stick). However, in the case of most viral marketing the message itself isn’t always critical. The point here is to get the ad/medium to go epidemic by being passed from person to person.
“You have to have something which is so valuable for the recipient that they’re compelled to forward the message to other people,” says Lazar Dzamic, digital strategist at EHS Brann.

Often the medium itself (e.g. video) contains humour (a perfect example is the (alleged) thief story outlined below) and is something everyone’s just gotta see. Other times it’s a message that really hits home or something people want to be part of, especially if it means a chance at their 15 minutes of fame (e.g. Jones Soda’s label contest).

But what really makes something go viral? Even the experts admit there is no guarantee of success. Ken Schafer’s talk with Steve Wax of Campfire Media had Steve commenting (roughly):

“people have to stop saying they’re going to ‘make a viral video’ because you can’t decide whether it’s going to be viral or not. It’s the same as saying ‘I’m going to write a hit song’ or ‘produce a hit TV show’ – it just doesn’t make sense”.

While it is hard to be certain of something’s appeal (filmmakers, record producers and ad agencies grapple with that all the time), there is something to be said for employing tactics and formulas which make a video (or a message in another medium) more likely to be passed on.

Contagion and Other Tactics

Nic Howell in his article has a comment from Matthew Smith of The Viral Factory that you must “ask the basic questions [of viral] you would ask about any campaign”. The Viral Factory claims that web viral marketing campaigns have several elements each of which are critical: “strategy, creative, production, seeding and tracking”.

Publicity advises:

“Another critical strategy to viral marketing is to make your viral object so good — so “virusworthy” — that people absolutely want to pass it along.”

Most experts will also advise you to tailor [your campaign] perfectly to your target market. Many suggest video as the medium and suggest that you choose your site/medium appropriately.

Thomas Baekdal has some highly useful strategies in his article on Six Steps to Successful Video Advertising. They include doing something unexpected, not making an advertisement (the product should not be in the forefront, being pushed or sold as in old-school commercials), making it easy to share and making it accessible, not exclusive.

The Point?

The medium is new, but some of the marketing and basics still remain, namely being aware of your audience. Others ideas are more recent – such as not advertising for your product directly. And creativity still counts. It’s a fine balance but in the end you need to make sure people will need to pass it around, talk about it and make it popular.

Ask yourself: “Would I have to share this?”. If you can make that happen – you’ve got a full-blown (and likely profitable) virus on your hands.

Examples of Viral Success

My favorite example of viral success is not, in fact, an ad. It is, however, hilarious, recent and local (it’s got everything!). It’s the strange tale of the (alleged) thief who “exposed” himself on Flicker (no, not like that – but, actually, possibly worse). It started on this blog and on Flickr, went all over including people’s blogs and most importantly was Digged. It then concluded in the mainstream press (Vancouver Sunand The Globe and Mail). I don’t think I need to get into why it went viral so fast. Suffice to say one clever person commented that it wasn’t often we got to see a real example of “Canada’s Dumbest Criminals”.

Smirnoff Tea-Partay – Smirnoff Raw Tea stages a battle between the East Coast and West Coast. Many sites (including Memelabs) cite this as a wonderful example of viral marketing and I agree. It’s funny, catchy and clever.

SEOBomb conducted a campaign for which got 200,000 unique users from the contest, went on Digg, doubled their average daily traffic after the contest, got over 5000 new customers and increased their organic search engine traffic by 1258% – in one month!

The Escalator – a Becel commercial which stirred up a bit of controversy (added bonus as it can increase traffic) in the Globe and Mail.

Other Fun Viral Ideas

These viral ideas and videos ensure their products get attention. Plus (more importantly) they keep me entertained:

Monk-e-mail: I can’t tell you the pleasure my friend and I derive from making this monkey say the vilest things. And I now know about the Careerbuilder service – which I didn’t before.

I also loved this Reebok Escape the Sofa commercial because it was so relatable.

More Viral Marketing Reading


  1. miro
    miro October 11, 2007

    EXCELLENT post
    thank you for the crash course
    looking forward to more

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