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Why Some Viral Marketing Doesn't Work

Why Some Viral Marketing Doesn't Work Joseph Carrabis
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I wrote about viral marketing and how it works in my last column and used a video of Chris Bliss juggling as an example of good viral marketing.


This time I'm going to write about how and why some viral marketing doesn't work, what social networks are all about and why some things propagate virally whether you mean them to or not.


On Sunday, 2 Apr 06, I was watching Dateline NBC and saw a piece about a video attacking the Chris Bliss video. In that piece, another juggler, Jason Garfield, belittles Bliss for only juggling with three balls, rather. I hadn't seen the Garfield video at the time because nobody's sent it to me (and no, please don't). However, even without having seen it, that second video fails to meet the viral marketing criteria.


Here's why not.


As I discussed last time, the Meskauskas elements to good viral marketing are Entertainment, Utility, Palpable Reward and Uniqueness. Between these basic elements and a successful campaign are two social element factors: Trust and Fair Exchange. I'm going to include another social element factor that plays a role in the viral marketing concepts in this discussion, something NextStage calls Attainability.


The Gaelic term is "bhlas" (pronounced "vlas")
I've had the opportunity to spend time with some highly talented Gaelic musicians. One, Fred Morrison, is arguably one of the finest if not the finest piper on the planet. He got that way through lots of practice and studying with people having a specific trait-- the bhlas. According to Scots Gaelic scholar and columnist Calum MacKenzie, "The word 'bhlas' means taste and is normally applied to the sense of taste via nose-mouth. However in Gaelic idiom, the word can be applied to sounds. Not as a taste for the arts... more an accent that puts the sounds right in the groove. Or… if missing, sounds off, foreign, alien -- although letter perfect and sounding passably right -- it still has something missing."


You don't have to be the world's greatest musician in order to play with the good type of bhlas. All that's required is that you and the music become more than just you and the music when you're playing it.


Bhlas and attainability
There is a critical aspect to bhlas. People playing with the bhlas make their playing look truly, undeniably, effortless. They are so smooth in their playing and emit such a sense of joy when they play that you, watching, think to yourself, "I could do that!"


This sense that you, too, could play with the bhlas is what NextStage calls Attainability, as in "I could attain that level of competence." This experience, a willing suspension of disbelief in your own limitations, is what -- even if it's just for the briefest of moments -- lets you dream, lets you laugh, lets you play, lets you believe in yourself and others. It is devilishly hard to come by.


This is even noted in the Dateline NBC article about the Bliss video and the resulting attack video: "The big difference? Bliss keeps three balls in the air. Jason Garfield uses five, and at one point, ten. His point? That despite the applause, Chris bliss isn't that talented. On his web page, Garfield wrote, 'If you think he's a good juggler, you are wrong.' To him, the Bliss routine is too easy and lacks grace. But Bliss says it's uplifting and gives people a feeling they hadn't had in quite some time."


I asked several people what was different about the two videos. One person's response was typical of many, "The difference is that Bliss has the bhlas, so even if the routine is easy the viewer doesn't notice. They're caught up in the magic of the moment."


NextStage spends lots of time researching how people interact with information and know that Attainability is an important metric for businesses.


Imagine education or health providers broadcasting "You'll never get that degree." or "You'll never be as healthy as you want." These companies and others want people to believe they'll succeed going in. If not, why would someone spend their money on what the company's promoting?


So, the first lesson here is as follows: to create a successful viral campaign, make sure it is founded with Meskauskas' Entertainment, Utility, Palpable Reward and Uniqueness. Add some Trust and Fair Exchange. If the viral campaign requires people to be passive for some few moments (such as watching a video), make sure those few passive moments give them a sense of attainability.


Next: How critical mass and sustainability empower viral campaigns.

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Critical mass and sustainability
I'm going to recommend four books for people who want to get into viral marketing. These books aren't written by viral marketing experts because viral marketing hasn't been around long enough for experts to have evolved. These books are excellent resources for anyone interested in applying known principles of viruses and epidemics to making a viral campaign work.


One book, "The Extended Organism," is about the human-built structure called "the internet" although you'll never see that word used in the book. But replace "energy" with "information" in the book and you learn how the internet has grown, grows and will grow in the future as society continues to adapt to it and is adapted by it.


Two things coming out of the synthesis of these books are the concepts of critical mass and sustainability.


Before any viral campaign becomes a viral campaign, a critical mass of individuals must be involved in order for the viral campaign's message to be propagated. In order for the viral campaign's message to reach as many individuals as possible, the critical mass of carriers must be sustained as the message propagates through the environment.


How is critical mass achieved? Via social networks.


How is critical mass sustained? Via Entertainment, Utility, Palpable Reward and Uniqueness flavored heavily with Trust and Fair-Exchange.


A failure to dis Bliss
This brings us back to Dateline NBC. Bliss is quoted using the word "uplifting." That word was also used by people when I talked with them about his video. Remember my writing earlier that NextStage spends lots of time researching how people interact with information? People feel uplifted. Uplifted, as in lighter, closer to heaven, better about themselves and those around them.


Now along comes something that, in essence, communicates that it was wrong to feel good about something. The communication is "You're bad" or "You're wrong" for enjoying something. Psychotherapists call this "guilting" and "shaming."


Are guilting and shaming any way to move product or sell services?


Indicate that someone should be ashamed or feel guilty and that individual does a quick check: what neurolinguists call a trans-derivational search. They non-consciously question themselves, "Should I be ashamed? Do I feel guilty?" If the individual concludes there's nothing wrong with them, then there must be something wrong with the individual or marketing material indicating that guilt or shame should be felt, and there goes your dissing message down the tubes.


Dissing without getting dissed
The goal for a competitive message is that it replaces the principal message in the consumer's mind. This is easy to do. The rules can be found in another of those books I mentioned, "Virus Dynamics."


The competitive message has to piggyback on the success of the first viral campaign. Viruses are successful because they use what already works and make it work for them.


The Bliss message is uplifting. Piggyback on that success by building on that experience. Give people a reason to sustain the sense of attainability and boom! You have them propagating the competitive viral campaign, not the original.


Purely negative messaging rarely works. NextStage presented several papers on negative messaging that worked and didn't work during the 2004 US Presidential campaigns. The rules apply to viral campaigns just as well.


That's lesson two for this column: to take a rival company's viral campaign and make it yours, find the beating heart of why the original campaign worked and piggyback on it.


Summary
The two take-aways from this column are:



  • To create a successful viral campaign, make sure it is founded with Meskauskas' Entertainment, Utility, Palpable Reward and Uniqueness. Then add some Trust and Fair Exchange. If the viral campaign requires people to be passive for some few moments (such as watching a video), make sure those few passive moments give them a sense of attainability.

  • To take a rival company's viral campaign and make it yours, find the beating heart of why the original campaign worked and piggyback on it.

Viral campaigns work because they cue into the reasons a given group's socio-cultural behaviors work as they do. The goal is to get "heart-buys" and not "mind-buys," to get your target audience involved with your product or service because they want to, not because they have to. Viral and other marketing campaigns that target heart-buys will be successful every time.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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