The holy grail of marketing is the viral effect. A piece of content that is so brilliant that it engages the audience to such a degree, that that it spreads like a virus through the ranks of people all over the world. Or when speaking about marketing, the target market, which in most cases actually isn’t the whole world.
Why is the viral effect of such an interest to many marketeers? If thought about rationally and in a business context, the most common reasons mentioned are of course the key business drivers – effectiveness and cost. But in reality, there are also other forces in play.
1) The Effectiveness of the Marketing Message.
A well-known fact, that I’m not to going to try to argue against, is that when one chooses to engage with content (i.e. viral content) the message of the content is delivered more effectively than when content is broadcasted to you (e.g. television or newspaper adverts).
On marketing terms, we could also talk about the engaged audience moving faster or more easily from Attention to Interest to Desire to Action, i.e. climbing the ladders of the AIDA model. Of course, particularly with viral content, one is in many cases already partially predisposed towards accepting the message due to seeing ones peers like the content. Such is the effect of peer-to-peer recommendations or Word-of-Mouth (WOM) advertising as it is more traditionally referred to.
Viral marketing message spreads via relationships and contacts through recommendations and mentions either online or face-to-face.
2) Marketing Cost and Investment Effectiveness.
Costs and the effectiveness of the investment, on the other hand, is a much more trickier issue.
Simply put, on marketing the costs boil down to fixed operating costs and variable costs coming from production and media. In a purely viral marketing campaign the media costs should be close zero. Maybe some costs from seeding the content are added on top, but still, these costs are much lower than traditional media costs. Given the price of media or standard needed media investments, which are or should be multi-fold to the production costs (there are, of course, exceptions to this rule), the easy conclusion is that a viral marketing campaign can be a much more cost effective investment than a marketing campaign utilizing purely ‘traditional’ channels is. But there’s a catch to it, as there always is, and the ‘can be’ is the tell tale sign of it.
The contact price valuation method giving value both for the actual contact and level of exposure (time and duration) is the only way to plan a marketing campaign to be effective from the perspective of investment effectiveness*. A media agency could try to calculate a contact price and a relative engagement price, which would give you some insights on where to put a line with the production costs and possible media costs, if compared with the costs for ‘traditional’ media. But putting a right cost for the viral campaign will always be hard due to you not knowing before hand
a) the absolute size of engaged or even exposed consumers, and
b) the number of engaged consumers in your target audience.
Those figures are much easier to measure or estimate in a traditional media context, both before and after the fact.
The right investment level for a viral marketing campaign is often hard to define.
The above is also one of the major reasons why selling a viral marketing campaign plan to the board of directors is often like banging ones head to a brick wall. Very painful. It all boils down to trust. And to a good plan. Even when no campaign truly ever is constrained to the traditional media channels.
In addition to the standard business motivations, I’d argue there is also a third reason behind the keen interest and desire to create viral marketing campaigns. And that is the Holy Grail Factor.
3) The Holy Grail Factor
There is no bigger glory than being the one who designed the marketing campaign that got people all over the world discussing it (and on a side note also maybe got the sales up).
Isn’t doing traditional marketing campaigns with just TV, magazines, newspapers, internet and mobile advertising, PR, sponsorship, promotions, events and in-store shopper marketing just so passé?
Everybody is doing it, and we’ve all done that so many times. Wouldn’t it be fun to do a viral campaign? I know we can make it successful… I know we can achieve it.
The Holy Grail Factor – or the hint of vanity that is inside all of us is, and will always be, one of the key drivers in many business decisions whether we want it or not. Unfortunately, or maybe, thank god. Even that battle hardened CEO is doing decisions based on things that he would like to achieve, instead of just the things that are the most well analyzed, strategically sound and reasonable to be done. Not all decision and probably not even most of the decisions, but surely some. We are all just people in the end.
I am not saying, that basing a part of ones decisions on ‘this is what I would like to achieve list’ is wrong, I’d even go as far as saying that it is preferable. As long as it is in manageable proportion compared to strategically sound decisions. Sometimes the two are, in any case, the same. Furthermore, the ‘like to list’ is very often the product of intuition, which plays a key role in every important, and so difficult, decision. Throughout the history, many of the most successful business ventures, strategies and marketing campaign have been born out of passion to do things differently, of the passion to achieve something greater, of the small hinge of vanity inside of us, of the desire to get our hands on the holy grail.
Conclusion: Viral Marketing Is a Risky Business.
Doing viral marketing campaigns – how to do them and whether to do them at all – is and will always be risky. Especially if discussed as a separate entity – as a separate action – away from traditional media campaign. They are after all the holy grails of the marketing world, both extremely effective at engaging the target audience and low in cost. And maybe, just maybe, the sure ways to get some of that much deserved praise and glory between the everyday creative, well planned and executed, integrated, 360 degree campaigns. Where there’s a risk, there’s a reward. And here they go hand in hand.
Surely viral marketing campaigns can be more effective than traditional marketing campaigns, but measuring the correct investment level and guaranteeing the right exposure levels can be very difficult, if not near impossible. Or is it?
There are many successful viral marketing campaigns from both SME’s with small budgets to Multinational entities like Sony, Nokia or H&M, proving, that viral marketing campaigns – not just viral videos – can be done. But most importantly there are many companies, who are able to plan and implement them one after the other. Think about Axe (Lynx), Nike, Apple, DC or Old Spice they manage to create the viral effect in each and every marketing campaign. And it isn’t just these huge enterprises that are able to do it. There are also many examples of SME’s producing viral campaigns with close to perfect track records.
Is it just pure luck? Are the companies the epitomes of luck or posses the much coveted 100% real rabbits foot? Or is it, that even the viral effect can be planned beforehand, much like any other marketing activity? More on that on the next installment of the Viral Marketing Encyclopedia.
*I’m going to neglect discussions on sales targets on this notion totally, as they should be self evident in valuations – especially on the long term. Not necessarily so on the short term. It always depends on your objectives.