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How to make viral marketing work

How to make viral marketing work

By Dan White from Millward Brown

Making viral marketing work for your brand owes as much to research and insight as a creative idea.

Smirnoff Vodka North America posted its ad ‘Tea Partay’ on one of its own websites and, before long, the spoof music video featuring rapping yuppies touting Smirnoff Raw Tea was posted on YouTube, where it’s generated over two million views to date.

Envious? Who wouldn’t be? Keen to get your brand a slice of the action? Simply produce a clever ad, invest a small amount in seeding it then sit back and watch the web videophiles spread your message for you.

A few companies have made successful viral marketing look that easy. Yet for every ‘Tea Partay’, there are dozens of weak viral ads that garner relatively few views, and – worse – misjudged ads that have a potentially damaging effect on a brand.

In the UK, an ad for the Ford SportKa featuring a pigeon getting whacked by the Ka’s hood with the tagline: “Ford SportKa: The Ka’s evil twin” was pulled because of viewer complaints. It differentiated SportKa from the Ka, but potential buyers may have taken exception to the ads and been put off.

So what’s the key to creating the right sort of buzz? Where do some marketers go right, and some so wrong?

The key is understanding what motivates someone to send an ad or link to another person, and knowing your brand and target audience well.

People pass along ads for the same reasons that they pass along ‘funnies’ – to say “I’m thinking of you, and I hope you’ll enjoy this”.

Ads can also become units of social currency, saying: “I’m cool and special because I’m hooked into this new, fun, interesting stuff.”

The sender must be engaged by the ad, and believe it will also be appreciated by the recipient; thereby reflecting well on them.

Sending a viral ad that’s considered stupid or offensive is as embarrassing as telling a joke that falls flat – but potentially a lot more harmful to a brand’s reputation.

Millward Brown conducted a study in the UK testing 32 different ads among more than 3,000 people, to understand the properties of a successful viral ad.

Unsurprisingly, there was a strong relationship between the degree to which an ad was enjoyed and the likelihood that it would be forwarded on.

Ads that were “laugh out loud” funny were most likely to be shared, with Budweiser’s ‘Magic Fridge’ achieving the highest potential pass-along score.

Ads with some shock value, an ‘edge’, or ads that generated a high degree of involvement also scored highly on pass-along potential.

But IKEA’s ‘Pig Hunt’ illustrates how difficult it can be to get the balance right. The ad features a near-naked couple caught playing ‘farmyard’ by their children.

A substantial minority found the ad humorous enough to pass on, but many found it disturbing, shocking or repelling.

Viral ads can also achieve ‘must-share’ status through being compelling. Dove’s Evolution ad achieved an estimated reach equivalent to 150 broadcast TV GRPs.

It engaged viewers on the issue of ‘beauty’ as defined by the cosmetics industry, and its effect on self esteem.

But the elements needed to make viral campaigns successful are not compatible with every brand. Trying to force them together can do more harm than good – alienating, insulting or confusing the people you want to engage.

Truly knowing your brand, and understanding your market, is essential. Use research into customers’ attitudes, beliefs, preferences and intentions; and explore how they currently view your brand, the media they respond to, and the factors that influence their purchasing decisions.

You also need to consider if it matters where and when the ad is seen. The global nature of the web offers amazing opportunities for exposure and influence – but can prevent tailoring of ads.

Once a viral ad is released on the web, there’s no telling how far it might travel, and it can be impossible to eradicate.

This creates complications for brands that are positioned differently in different regions, and makes it easier to fall foul of cultural differences.

For the right brand, viral advertising offers a powerful means to reach target consumers for little cost. But unless thought through and adequately researched, it can damage instead of enhance it.

If a viral campaign won’t resonate with your target audience and fit brand objectives, or risks offending viewers outside your target group, you would be wise to pass it up, not pass it on.

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