The real question is, does viral marketing actually have a future and can the concept be sustained? After all, we've seen enough fads and trends in our time to know that nothing lasts forever. (Vinyl LP's and video tapes, anyone?)
In many ways the keys to the future of the viral marketing concept are held by the World Wide Web because it has proven to be exactly the right medium to enable a good viral strategy—and ensure it crosses the language gap—before permeating the myriad social networks that now exist in cyberspace. Who can forget Hampsterdance, one of the very first Internet memes, or the proliferation of parodies (including a game) based on Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup Final?
According to many sources, the earliest examples of viral marketing on the Web are attributed to Tim Nolan of spent2000.com and can be traced back as far as 1996, when song lyrics, catchphrases, imagery, and URL associations aroused enough curiosity within the Internet community to spike traffic. These days, however, things have evolved significantly. The technology, artistry, and innovative techniques used to execute a successful viral strategy have become something of a science in themselves.
Today, one of the leading lights in the viral marketing business is the Viral Factory, a consultancy that specializes in building viral campaigns for the Web with offices in both the UK and the US. Toni Smith, the company's head of strategy and communications, explained to brandchannel how the company started and what it has achieved since its inception.
"The Viral Factory was founded in 2001 by Ed Robinson and Matt Smith," Smith begins. "Ed previously worked in film production while Matt toiled in digital and new media. They became fascinated about the way entertaining video content was spreading across the Internet. They made a short film called Headrush to test whether viral spread could really be achieved. The film became an overnight success, generating 500,000 visits to the web address, tagged at the bottom of the film, in just one month. Five years later the Viral Factory has been involved in some of the most successful viral campaigns on the web. Our work has been viewed a billion times and we have won a shed load of [advertising and creative] awards including two gold Cannes Lions, two Epica Golds, a BTAA award, and many more."
With a stable of major clients including Unilever Axe/Lynx, Microsoft, Ford Ka, Hewlett-Packard, and Trojan condoms, the Viral Factory has managed to build a very successful enterprise on the back of some very basic human characteristics: the need for social interaction and, of course, the demonstrative emotional attributes of curiosity and humor. It is precisely this psychological approach, however, that has led to a number of critics citing the viral marketing concept as an unethical method of advertising—a point that was very well illustrated when General Motors tried it out to promote its new Chevy Tahoe SUV on the hit television show The Apprentice during the second quarter of 2006 and subsequently found itself overwhelmed by a tirade of negative responses.
But Smith counters: "I would say that [the critics] clearly don't understand what true viral marketing really is! Viral success is entirely reliant on the audience sending it; therefore, the audience decides who is exposed to it. For example, you may send a viral film with a cheeky joke in it to your friends, but you wouldn't send it to your mother.
"We are often accused of trying to trick the audience or sending out covert advertising messages," she adds. "In fact, viral success can only be achieved if you respect the audience so we wouldn't risk annoying them. In addition, the audience is far more intelligent than they're given credit for. Although some of our work is deliberately made to replicate a certain style (such as news footage) in order to [hide the fact] this is viral film for a brand from the outset, they soon work out who's behind the film. This isn't a problem if the tone is right and if the film is genuinely entertaining."
So while it might be permissible to test the gullibility level of an unsuspecting adult that should, in theory, be old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong, can the same thing be said for the kids of today who seem to spend hours online, visiting chatroom after chatroom, and playing an endless succession of Net-based games? The answer: probably not, especially as parents have become more concerned about the influence of media in their children's lives.
Take Kelloggs, for example, which not so long ago found itself reported to the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) for its Apple Jacks campaign and a recently released report from The Kaiser Family Foundation, titled It's Child's Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children, which found that more than eight out of ten of the top food brands that target children through TV advertising also use branded websites to market to children online.
Smith's reaction? "I think advertising to school children needs to be regulated and the same rules should apply to all marketing forms and techniques, including advergaming. I don't think we should stop advertising to children altogether—otherwise a lot of the great entertaining content made for kids wouldn't get made—but certain brands or industries should not be allowed if they're clearly exploitive or a risk to children's health."
Perhaps in response to the clamor for action, CARU at the end of 2006 released a new set of guidelines to temper the amount of advertising that children were exposed to; these too had their critics. Gary Ruskin, executive director at Commercial Alert, which is an organization whose goal is to prevent the commercial exploitation of children, cited the fact that CARU is a self-regulated body, and "self-regulation is just another word for letting the fox regulate the chicken coop—which, of course, leads to dead chickens."
So love it or hate it, there can be no doubt that the viral marketing phenomenon has grabbed the world like, well, a virus. In order for a good strategy to work, it has to appeal to the human psyche in a somewhat covert way, which in turn gives the concept an illicit edge that some critics compare to the harmful aspects of alcohol and gambling.
The perception of viral marketing isn't always helped by those who practice it. "Unfortunately, badly executed virals are on the increase," Smith says. "A lack of understanding of the audience coupled with a stereotypical idea (such as violence or sex) means that a lot of viral campaigns have launched and then sink within days, and this gives our medium a bad name. Just by calling something a 'viral' doesn't mean that it will actually go viral!
"Another threat is that because of the rise in the number of marketers [who claim to employ] viral marketing tactics, the industry now wants to pay rock-bottom for a viral execution. This is a problem because not only is it now more expensive to produce virals (whatever the format), but the executions need to be better than ever, as there is now so much more content to contend with. Take YouTube as an example: There are 40,000 new videos uploaded every day, meaning our viral for X brand has to be as great as it can possibly be to rise above all of this other noise."
What is the future of viral marketing, particularly in the age of Web 2.0 technology and social networking sites? "[Like the Internet,] viral marketing is continuously evolving," Smith says. "It's a fulltime job to keep up! We are given new opportunities to explore all the time. More broadly, however, viral marketing presents a great way for advertisers to communicate with their audience on the audience's terms and therefore creating considerable goodwill and loyalty toward that brand or service. Yet this approach is uncharted territory for many advertisers—despite the benefits being proved time and time again."