/Culture/ Create the perfect viral campaign

With the right idea and a little planning, you can own the web. Matt Smith of The Viral Factoryreveals all

Creating the perfect viral campaign is both much harder and much easier than it looks. Easier because all we’re really talking about is making something people like and want to share; harder because there are lots of things to mess up along the way.

So what do we mean by the perfect viral campaign? Well, as a punter I’d want something hilariously funny and clever, which won me kudos for sending it to my friends. It should also make me really like the company behind it (and at least want to consider the product it was punting). That’s pretty much a 10/10. What I wouldn’t want is some tired old rubbish, cynically designed to appeal to The Internets by some marketing hack that bored me, wasted my time, made me angry and made me hate everything about the company and product. That would be decidedly less than 10/10.
Where to start

So, funny, clever, want to buy stuff, but how? First off, don’t start out thinking about what your client wants. Come to that later. Start by thinking about what the audience wants. To do this, you’ll need to get to know them intimately, maybe even become one of them. This will probably be both time-consuming and complex, but it can also be great fun.

Next, write something that’s either enjoyable, informative, useful, shocking, sexy, cute, or whatever else it takes to entertain the audience. If you (like me) can’t be entertaining, then find someone who can. If you can’t find someone who can, give up.

Simply entertaining people isn’t enough, though. Lots of very entertaining content resolutely fails to go viral. Some people watch it (yay!), but they don’t talk about it (boo!). And if they don’t talk about it, they’re unlikely to share it – and virals are all about people sharing stuff. So introduce something that will make the masses talk. Uncertainty, odd details, references to memes and/or celebrities are always a good bet.

Eventually, you should have an idea that, with some skill, expertise and a bit of luck, could be turned into a big successful viral. Well done, have a biscuit. That was the easy part. The hard bit is saying something good about the product at the same time without (in italics because it’s important) upsetting what was good about the idea in the first place. There are no rules here, no lists of surefire ways to succeed. As I said before, you need to know your audience – especially the kinds of things they’re talking about, what content they’re watching with specific reference to the sector, or better still, the product you’re advertising. Incorporating elements of this general ‘buzz’ into your creation will get you a long way. But if you’re essentially nicking other successful ideas, be very careful – at the very least, make sure you add to the idea in some way. Otherwise you’ll get the savage online kicking you so richly deserve.

Bear in mind as well, that although you’re creating a marketing campaign, your audience’s primary reason for watching what you make will be for entertainment. For them, the marketing bit is secondary. This means you’re competing with brilliant million-pound TV ads such as the Cadbury’s gorilla or Evian’s rollerskating babies. You’re also competing with the likes of us who’ve been around the block a few times and know what we’re doing. Face your destiny with courage, young grasshopper.

The other thing to remember is that just when you start to think you know everything, it all goes and changes. The internet is a ludicrously dynamic place that evolves in odd and unpredictable ways. That’s what makes the job brilliant, but also what stops us from sleeping properly. For instance, about two years ago, YouTube and blogs came along and changed viral marketing radically. Virals generally stopped being “edgy” and crass, relying on slapstick and boobs, and grew up to become part of polite society.
The Twitter effect

It took a while to adjust, and now, just when the dust has settled on that major upheaval, Twitter is changing everything again. No one’s quite sure how yet, beyond the obvious (people link to virals on it), but it promises to be pretty fundamental. In fact, it may well make the term viral marketing itself redundant – because any successful marketing will be viral.

Like any discipline, creating a successful viral campaign requires dedication, creativity, craft, experience and skills honed over time. One of the best ways to get your throat torn out by one of our creatives is to say something like, “Wow, you work in viral marketing? That must be great! You get to sit around all day dicking about and coming up with stupid ideas…” Wrong. A good idea requires the judicious application of blood, sweat and tears, in more or less equal measure.

And coming up with an idea is just the start. Now you’ve got to make it, produce it, execute it. Many ATL (Above the Line) agencies rather dismissively outsource this job to production companies. Why? Because it’s a massive headache and not hugely profitable. However, it’s very important, and at The Viral Factory (TVF) we think anyone who doesn’t have full, hands-on control of the production process is a fool. Let someone else bring your idea to life and it won’t necessarily be how you want it. Here are some practical pointers:

  • Anything that smacks of corporate might, lies, subterfuge, fear-mongering, double speak, taking yourself too seriously or censorship is bad.
  • Overt commercial messages are fine, as long as they’re entertaining: the Will It Blend? campaign was a brilliant example of what was effectively a product demo being made web-friendly and relevant.
  • The us vs them mentality that many corporations still adopt doesn’t play well. Slick, glossy content is generally not well received, whereas more lo-fi accessible material is, because it’s something the audience could make themselves if they wanted to (or at least it’s perceived that way), so there’s a sense that the playing field is level. We did a campaign for Samsung that involved drawing a little stickman character onto someone’s body to create a stop-frame animation. We could have post-produced the whole thing and made it look great for the money we had. Instead, we did it for real, which looks a bit ropey and was an absolute ballache. But it was hugely popular (it was watched 10million times on YouTube alone) because the viewers were able to engage with it on their own terms. Any one of them could have made it, had they had the patience and imagination. That changes the relationship between them and the brand.
  • Optimism and positivity are good. But then so are cynicism and dark humour. Less good is setting up the audience for a really great experience and then not delivering (we made this mistake recently and got a right kicking for it. From the audience, not the client. And no, I’m not going to say which campaign it was).
  • Let human qualities show through, rather than hiding behind a corporate mask. Companies, even big scary ones, are generally staffed by people, usually quite nice ones. Letting their voices come through is much more engaging than issuing decrees in the weird, dehumanised, faintly sinister corporate double-speak nonsense that has evolved over the last 20 years.

Re-reading this, I guess you could sum it up thus: be nice, be honest, be real. So there you go, that’s the creative bit, and I honestly hope it helps, even if you become competitors and end up beating us at our own game. But that’s only the half of it. A perfect viral campaign needs seeding. For the uninitiated, this is the process by which a viral is launched onto the net, put in front of the first generation of viewers and given the momentum that will carry it on to greater things.

If your content is perfectly viral, then in theory, you should be able to stick it on your Facebook profile and by lunchtime the entire world will have seen it. On planet Earth, however, things don’t always pan out quite like that. Two things make seeding important: other content and timing.
Rise above the rest

As I noted earlier, your viral is in competition with pretty much every other bit of content on the web – and there’s a lot of it. The latest mind-boggling stat from YouTube is that “every minute, 20 hours of video are uploaded”. Even assuming that 99 per cent of the 20 hours is unwatchable rubbish, that’s still 12 minutes of perfectly watchable stuff being uploaded every minute. To stand even the smallest chance of getting on the radar, you’ve got to get above all of that.

As for the importance of timing, here’s a little anecdote. A few years ago, before YouTube existed, we made a viral for Lynx as part of its Click campaign. It was called ‘Webcam girls gone wild’, which is about as good a title as you can get for the target audience and it had pretty good viral potential.

A couple of days before launch, the client pulled the seeding budget, so we did the best we could, pulled a few favours, and it got 100,000 views or so, then sank. Fail.

About four months later, after the main campaign had ended and the site the viral was supposed to drive traffic to had been taken down, the director sent us a link to it on Google Video. It was number one, and had been for about three weeks. It had had 14million views – just too late to be of any use to the client. Had they not pulled the seeding budget, they would have got all that and more during the campaign, the viral would have been hailed as a great success and they would have been verbally fondled by their superiors.

I recently discussed the nuts and bolts of seeding a viral marketing campaign on my blog. There isn’t space to reprint it in its entirety here, but here are the salient points. Seeding activity breaks down into two sorts: paid-for placement and outreach. Paid-for placement, as the name suggests, involves finding websites that you’d like your viral to be featured on (usually because they’re influential and popular with your audience), and paying them to feature it. Outreach is the harder bit and is usually what people mean when they refer to seeding. It involves contacting influential users online and making them aware of your viral.

Influential people usually run a blog, or have a highly followed or respected Twitter, Digg or Reddit account. When they post something, lots more people see it, and many of those other folk will, in turn, re-post it. You can’t pay them to take your content, because they would find that insulting. They might accept a gift of some sort, but don’t bank on it. The surest way to get them to take on your viral is to meet these key criteria:

  1. Already know them;
  2. Make something relevant and good;
  3. Give it to them while it’s still brand new.

First, of course, you have to find the best people to talk to. This doesn’t mean writing one email and then sending it to every address you can get your hands on. That will do you no good at all – in fact it will anger a lot of people.

Think about who is most likely to be interested in what you’re promoting and, crucially, who will find it worthwhile telling other people about it. Once you’ve worked that out, you have to get to know them. People generally don’t like unsolicited marketing crap from people they’ve never met. If your content is brilliant, they might not mind, but if it isn’t, beware. If you’ve already been in contact with them and built up a relationship, though, they’re far more likely to respond.

Remember to be highly respectful. In their world, these people are well-known and influential – that’s why you’re trying to get in touch with them, right? So treat them extra nicely, or they’ll be rude to you and maybe your client, possibly very publicly. And that’s the last thing you want.

In particular, spamming people is the height of disrespect, so contact them personally, whether by phone, email or instant message. Take the time to talk if they’re in the mood and if they ask questions, answer promptly and be friendly.

Focus on what you can do for them, not the reverse. Unless they run a marketing blog, it’s highly unlikely they’ll care what your marketing objectives are. They’re interested in anything you can give them that will help them look cool and entertain their audience. Don’t expect them to be interested in helping you drive traffic to your site, even if it does have a cool quiz, game, competition or film on it. There needs to be a quid pro quo arrangement. You have to give them something that attracts traffic to their blog (not forces them to drive people away from it). This means that you should seed embeddable content, in the form of code that they can drop straight onto their page without any messing around.

If you’re seeding video, there are lots of different sharing sites you can use to host your clip, and then seed the embed code. If possible, choose YouTube, because it’s the one that people trust and it gives the best data.
Route to success

Every viral campaign is different, but certain key aspects remain largely the same. Know your audience, be creative and entertaining, sweat the production but without making it look like you have, seed like the wind, use the force, be lucky, and you too can experience the vertiginous heights, the veritable whirlwind, the smorgasbord of mixed metaphors that is viral success.

Of course, remember that what constitutes viral success is down to the client. You might think it means millions of views, loads of good comments, great ratings, and thousands of blog posts, some on very influential blogs. But if the client wanted to sell 50,000 widgets and your viral only sold six, none of the above is important.

Go back to the original brief you got. Did you achieve the aims outlined there? If you did, then congratulations! Well done! Do you fancy a job?

source: .net mag


1 Response to “/Culture/ Create the perfect viral campaign”

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