Viral Marketing: Does it still work?

By Chris Lee

Viral video campaigns are a tried and tested way to raise awareness around the world. One of the most famous early examples was the promotion of the movie The Blair Witch Project (1999), which was marketed exclusively through virals. Conversely, some ads designed for television have in turn become huge viral Internet hits, such as the Cadbury Gorilla ad, which has been viewed more than 4.5 million times on YouTube and imitated by other viral creators.

Yet according to Jupiter Research, just five per cent of the Internet population has ever forwarded a marketing message, and most of those under 34 years of age, so is it a risky strategy?

“Viral campaigns are inherently risky. If they fail to catch on, the money invested in them has been wasted,” warned Nicholas Vangelis of consumer PR agency Skywrite Communications. “However, when they work, they are a force to be reckoned with. Virals are substantially cheaper than other means of marketing and can generate exponential growth in the visibility of your message.”

Vangelis argues that there are four elements to viral campaigns: They transmit themselves over existing communications networks; they are self-replicating – just like a biological or computer virus; the campaign can grow without your support (or control); the recipients pass on the marketing message voluntarily.

Clear Visibility

“Whenever we see the ‘V’ word on a brief you know it’s heading for the dog house,” Steve Mulholland, creative director at creative agency Brew Digital told NMK. “I’ve even heard that people have put a meerkat on a brief saying ‘this is what we like’ – I’m sure they do!”

Mulholland believes that many campaigns have failed miserably because of staged and sales-led content, and that most successful virals have no plan behind them, they just grow by accident and spread without any set direction.

“It is the decision of the people and only the people if a brand campaign is viral, not the marketers,” he advised. “The job of the client and agency is to supply a highly contagious creative thought which people can interact with, add their own strand to the infection then pass it onto their friends. If I receive a message from a friend which has a little bit of them involved I’m more likely to add a bit of me and pass it on.”

In Practice

One very successful marketing-led viral campaign was that of ComputerTan, led by ad agency McCann Eriksson London and PR firm LimeLight PR on behalf of skin cancer charity, Skcin. A fake “tan company” – ComputerTan – was set up with an advert-style viral to promote a spoof product which promised people a tan from their computer screen.

Within 24 hours of launch, 30,000 people visited There were 215,000 visitors after three weeks, reaching 400,000 by mid-May 2009 with 1.5 million page views and an average visit time of more than two minutes.

Limelight PR’s Patrick Barrett said that the secret to creating a simple viral is to entertain, shock, intrigue surprise or inform.

“Tick one or more of those in line with your target audience and remember that production, whether it’s low or high grade, matters and you should be on the way to producing something that will resonate with people,” he concluded.

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