Marketing is something that’s particularly susceptible to fads and trends. As marketers busy themselves with figuring out the latest trends, it’s easy to forget that the fundamental task of marketing lies in communicating your business to potential customers in a clear and compelling way.

“Communicating” is the keyword here – not superficial packaging, not vanity metrics.

One such trend, of late, is viral marketing. Which business hasn’t been enticed by the prospects of having their marketing message spread “virally”, fuelled by seemingly nothing more than the sheer enthusiasm of the online populace?

But viral marketing is surrounded by a number of myths and unfounded beliefs. Our goal, in this article, is to dispel some of these myths for you.

Dispelling the Myths of Viral Marketing

1. There is no such thing as a “viral campaign”.

The term ‘viral’, much like ‘success’, is often used in an evaluative sense. This makes the term tricky to define.

As noted in “Viral Marketing for the Real World”, a research paper by Duncan J. Watts, John Peretti, and Michael Frumin, there is no such thing as an ‘essential’ property that characterizes viral content. Qualitative measurements aside, how do you even quantify the virality of a video? By the number of views? Number of shares? Extent of reach? There is no consensus on this.

The second problem with viral marketing is this: Virality, again like success, can only be determined in retrospect.

It’s extremely hard to predict whether a marketing campaign will go viral or not. Watts et al. supports this point by citing a study conducted by the media-art nonprofit, in which a group of subject-matter experts failed to identify which of the 60 submitted websites would get the most views. There’s no guarantee that what has worked before would work again.

Furthermore, for every campaign that has gone viral successfully, there are easily hundreds of unsuccessful ones. And it’s sometimes hard to distill the reasons, as unsuccessful campaigns could have done everything just about right but still fail to take off. Predictably, we don’t hear about them. Nor do we really care about them.

It’s the famous case of confirmation bias –you think you can learn the secret sauce of virality from successful examples alone, when it is really the failures we should be learning from.

So, understand this. Before jumping onto the viral marketing bandwagon, know that success is elusive. Viral marketing is not a shortcut to effective communication. The same skills apply: know your audience, don’t rely on stereotypes, or you’d risk looking stupid.

Cheezburger, Inc.
Millennials like memes? Great! Why not combine social media automation and a meme-captioning contest so they get a chance to humiliate us?

2. Whether the marketing message is relevant to the business matters more than mere virality.

Relevance matters. There must be tight enough a connection between the marketing message and the business itself.

One viral campaign that did this well is Deadpool. Even in the weeks before its release, Deadpool has already generated a formidable amount of buzz online, 98% of which was positive, according to comScore’s PreAct.1 Marketing campaigns that contain obscene, crass, and otherwise R-rated messages are usually a hit or miss. But in this case, it was perfect fit – because of how Deadpool (the movie and the character) itself is like.

Nevertheless, there are still businesses that continue to shell out big budgets on advertisement campaigns that seem to have little to do with their core products.

Take a look at the following commercial, for instance. All the attention falls squarely on the narrative in the video. Which is not a bad thing, except that it leaves the viewers guessing what the advertisement is selling for the entire duration of the video.

Hence the takeaway: just because a video goes viral, doesn’t mean you’re conveying the right marketing message. And it certainly doesn’t mean that people are more likely to buy from you – especially when the link between the advertisement and the brand is tenuous and weak.

There’s still one last, you-think-it’d-be-obvious-but-apparently-not-so, point to make: Depending on your brand’s positioning, viral campaigns may not be for you. Are you a tax company? A supplier of industrial vacuums? A mortuary?

Sometimes, an informative explainer video is going to go miles further than videos of cute dogs.

3. Viral Content ≠ Quality Content

If there’s anything worth knowing about marketing, it’s this: Intentions don’t matter. In the domain of public opinion, people will believe what they want to believe. The greater the scope of your campaign’s reach, the greater the likelihood of backlash. And all it takes is just one or two skeptics to sow the seeds of distrust online, before your campaign blows up on you.

The hoo-ha surrounding Walkers’ latest interactive ad illustrates this point well. While Twitter is no doubt an invaluable tool for generating engagement, it can also backfire spectacularly. Don’t give the public the means or the incentive to humiliate you! Because 9 times out of 10, they will – especially if you represent a big corporation.
Walkers’ latest interactive ad leaves its spokesperson posing beside murderers, rapists, and dictators.

There seems to be an element of danger in fame itself, too. In 2014, ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge went viral online, receiving more than $100 million in donations within a single month. This was an impressive achievement, considering that it only received $2.8 million during the same period the previous year.

But despite its wholly charitable cause, the number of detractors grew. Some argue that the challenge’s success constitutes a case of “funding cannibalism”3, while others question its educational merits.4 There are also those who maintain that the Ice Bucket Challenge is the perfect example of “slacktivism”, despite the phenomenal results it attained.

Internet trolls and armchair critics will always exist. If businesses don’t want to become a target of their attack, they’d do well to tread the dangerous waters of the internet carefully.

4. Most viral campaigns go stale fast

Do you want to be a one-hit wonder? Or a slow-burner? If you want to be a slow-burner, then viral marketing is probably not the best long term strategy for you.

Information on the internet moves fast, and viral content is no exception. Viral videos usually go through an accelerated process of ‘spike’ and decline, with a total lifespan lasting just weeks, day, or even hours. On Facebook, for instance, an average post gains 75% of its engagement within the first 5 hours, after which it simply fades away.

At the end of the day, if you rely on a single campaign to sell your products, then what you’re gonna get is just 15 minutes of fame. This is not always a bad thing, especially if you are selling a perishable good. But not such a good thing, if you’re a music act!

Like most other viral sensations, Ok Go has not been able to replicate the viral success it achieved with Here It Goes Again.

To make viral content that is lasting in its reach and impact, businesses must continuously update a previously successful campaign with new content. It’s hard to think of any business that does this better than BlendTec, who spun out an entire series of videos starring the founder himself with his signature, all-powerful blender. These videos are instantly recognizable, leaving no doubt as to what the product and the selling points are.

Will it blend? That is the question: Blendtec shows us how to ride the waves of success.

5. Maintaining the bottom line is hard

Before we start with the question of finances, there is still the question of whether a campaign designated for viral stardom will even take off at all.

The viral potential for most campaigns is extremely limited. Watts et al., in the aforementioned paper, contends that viral success is relatively rare. In a study of 102 advertisements conducted by Millward Brown, the viral success rate came in at 15% (success was defined as the achievement of more than 1,000 UK views per week, or more than 5,000 US views per week).

15% is actually a rather optimistic figure, considering the fact that some of these advertisements probably went viral for all the wrong reasons.
I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees! And also the SUVs. Why is Mazda making me do this?

Putting aside the problem of dubious marketing campaigns, there’s yet another viral marketing myth that businesses ought to know: marketing campaigns don’t just achieve viral stardom through an organic propagation – the most successful marketing campaigns require substantial financial input.

Millward Brown, in a separate study, found that YouTube videos backed by paid placements attained much more views than those without. Placing on YouTube’s homepage gives the sponsored advertisement a significant boost, generating 86% of total views while increasing expected views by over 600%.8What this means for marketers is clear: Putting your advertisement out there, without committing serious financial resources to it, is unlikely to get you anywhere.

Let’s take an example to illustrate the case: Old Spice’s success with its viral advertisement campaign “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” is easily the stuff of a marketer’s wet dreams. But behind the campaign’s seemingly easy popularity lies the extensive planning and financial backing others don’t get to see: While the organic traffic generated by viral propagation alone was formidable, it was the critical mass of viewers, attained through paid media, that allowed the campaign to take off in the first place. Other campaigns of comparable virality that didn’t have the critical mass to begin with didn’t achieve nearly as impressive a result.9

While we don’t know exactly how much was spent on paid media, we do know that in the year the advertisement was posted, Old Spice spent $11.4 million advertising body wash – up from the $7.5 million spent the year before.

It helps to star the strapping Isaiah Mustafa in your ads, too.

Concluding thoughts

At the end of the day, achieving viral success is more like winning internet lottery than not. But this doesn’t mean that companies should give up on their viral dreams, and simply opt for posting a video online in hope that people will eventually find their way to it.

Aiming to achieve viral success is certainly desirable. But marketers must balance this aim with the knowledge that the odds are stacked against them. As this article has summarised, achieving viral success is not the most important consideration; other goals, like increasing brand awareness, the likelihood of purchase, and long term financial sustainability, matters too.

Solid market research and an intimate knowledge of your customers are always going to be prerequisites to successful marketing campaigns – more so than any marketing stunts you think you can pull.Why not start by learning about the current consumer trends using a data-driven approach? Or think about how new technologies will shape the marketing landscape?

And afterwards, if you are still fixated on viral success, then you better cross your fingers and wait. With all its unpredictable whims and fancies, you’re always going to need a bit of luck to win over the meme-adoring, cat-loving internet community.

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