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5 mistakes to avoid when launching a viral campaign

5 mistakes to avoid when launching a viral campaign Michelle Wohl

The myth of "viral" feels like a brass ring everyone reaches for, but few can touch. What you really want to create as a brand manager is the best possible environment for campaign efforts to go viral. This is where so many of yesterday's processes are failing today's needs for success. From our experience, here are the five most frequent mistakes brands make in creating campaigns that invite sharing between friends and across networks:

Mistake #1: Overplanning
People see it all the time in sports when the team is behind: lots of strikeouts while everyone is swinging for the fences. In digital campaigns, the viral goal is often so lofty that it seems to drive entire teams to hit for power -- trying to come up with the big idea that covers every possible use scenario, irrational liability, and endless strings of meeting results.

The reality is that many of the most successful viral campaigns are simple, solitary ideas. The business benefits are two-fold:

  1. If the campaign doesn't work, you haven't built a mountain of billable hours that you have to try and beat.

  2. You have budget available to rework the campaign and take advantage of outcomes.

The Whopper Sacrifice campaign is a great example of what happens when you keep it simple and keep some planning time in your back pocket as the campaign continues.

Whopper Sacrifice took two dominant Facebook concepts: wanting to get rid of people you never really wanted to follow -- but not having an excuse to do so -- and playing on the idea that more friends equates to being a better Facebooker. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, just good insight on what users say, and how a brand can help.

By most accounts, the initial campaign was a success: 23,000 people used the service, meaning almost a quarter-million coupons were served to people who took action to get them. A deeper look into the numbers means that between users, sacrificed friends, and friends' news feeds, Burger King earned about 26,000,000 impressions.

That was only half of the campaign. The second half came as the Burger King application was sacrificed by Facebook's Terms of Service. If Burger King (and CP&B) had spent all its time working on an up-front strategy, the campaign would have been quietly canned. But by keeping the initial strategy simple and actionable, the respective teams had time to respond and continue promoting the campaign as though it had a new dimension: outlaw.

Burger King was able to leverage the decision into many more impressions by people interested in knowing what happened. Even though the application was killed, the fan page continues to live on, providing continued interaction. At the time this article was written, the most recent post was created by a fan only 15 hours prior (or 15 turns o' the hourglass, if your Facebook is translated into Pirate).

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Mistake #2: No optimization from metrics
This one ties into the first mistake of not allotting the appropriate resources throughout the campaign. Online efforts aren't print. They are living, breathing, and malleable. You're not shoving off from port never to return. This sounds elementary, and yet it always amazes me how many campaigns don't take advantage of the fact that this is online.

Use the power of how changeable your campaigns are to do just that: change them to increase engagement. For everything it is (and isn't), Google Analytics for Flash has a great funnel visualization and tracking method to show you exactly where people are abandoning ship.

Use these metrics to tweak the campaign as they come in. If the campaign goal is to get people to share, and they aren't sharing at the rate you expected, make a change to your call-to-action on day two and see how it goes. If you see that the interstitial is where people drop off, get rid of it! Staying flexible with resources and taking action on the metrics can be the difference between a viral campaign that catches fire or goes cold. Make sure you have the resources and technology to continue adjusting based on the behavior of the people you're trying to please.

Mistake #3: No investment in seeding campaigns
Another strange disconnect is the lack of coordination between display buys and viral engagement campaigns. While companies launch rich media applications in social networks, their display ads are often on portals trying to get hits for a microsite or coupon.

Use your budget to combine forces where there are paid insertions to be had -- and display to be fueled -- to seed the base for your rich application. Many of the seeding points in these networks target people who have already qualified themselves by installing and using applications just like yours in the past.

Seeding isn't cheating, it's giving the audience best suited to use and spread your application virally direct exposure to your campaign at a CPM that will most likely fit within your budget.

As with any online initiative, you can't forget the golden rule: People will spend more time on every other web property and promotion besides yours. Seeding helps put your campaign in front of the right people at the onset of the campaign, so your brand dollars aren't spent twisting in the wind of a vast competitive landscape.

Mistake #4: Not enough social media strategy
Sure, you have a great strategic team working with your brand to help plan campaigns. Yet, it's also likely that none of them have Beer Pong installed on their iPhone (two million downloads) or the "What Color is Your Aura?" Facebook application (growing at a 555 percent rate, according to AllFacebookApps).

These are just two reasons why it helps to develop strategies with companies and consultants that are specialists in social applications and audiences. What may seem ridiculous to you and your team because of your habits and lifestyle could be a sound, winning strategy to those who understand the markets and audiences actually using the network you want to create content for.

This may seem hard to do, with everyone and their mother professing expertise in social media. But one simple question will separate the chaff from the wheat: What is your track record with clients?

Tapping these experienced resources to help define your strategy in the platforms you need for viral adoption can easily be the difference between a budget well spent and one sent down the drain.

Spend a little time upfront to scour your contacts, check out popular applications, check out Google and social search engines like socialmention.com and addictomatic.com to find the people working successfully in social media, to get a foothold on what will work for your brand.

Keep in mind that viral strategies may not seem to make a whole lot of sense in the same way a traditional web or print campaign does. In social, your brand is sponsoring content that helps people express themselves within the context of their peer group. Sometimes, that can be directly aligned with the brand messaging; other times, it can take the form of "What's Your Stripper Name," last summer's Facebook hit among women ages 18-34.

OK, so maybe that example was a bit extreme. The bigger point is that there are companies that have experience creating successful viral, social campaigns, and it's not to the detriment of your team to bring those people in early during your planning process. Quite the opposite. It will be a tremendous learning experience for everyone involved in strategic planning going forward.

Mistake #5: Not enough real-time campaigns
With the state of rich media composition and creation tools available, brands have more ability than ever to capture the mindshare of large-scale trending events on behalf of their audience.

Following on the idea of facilitating experiences rather than forcing behavior around only pure product, let's look at a recent phenomenon as an example:

Susan Boyle.

Of course, you're familiar with the songstress who came out of nowhere to capture the attention of the world on YouTube from the stage of "Britain's Got Talent." Millions of hits later, just as many articles have been written about how no one has been able to monetize this worldwide fascination. Even a month later, her name continues to appear in Twitter's trending topics as one of the most-typed phrases.

Of course you're thinking, "What does Susan Boyle have to do with my brand?"

That would be fine in the old economy. But look at all the places where millions of people are satisfying their curiosity about the topic: Twitter, YouTube, blogs, news sites. Guess what? They all have free RSS feeds.

Using this simple, widely available technology, along with quick rich media tools, the brand that dedicates a single business day to aggregating this type of public domain content into a rich application is bound to capture interest, sharing, and lots of time spent through that branded presence. It's the same concept that "Britian's Got Talent" is using to monetize its product placement during the show.

All you've done is put the technology at your brand's disposal to give an incredibly wide audience more convenient access to the information they've already shown a deep interest in. By sponsoring this application, you are associating the brand with the needs of the audience in the place and time that works best for them. Isn't that what marketing is all about?

Go with the flow
Today's viral hits are more than mere flashes in the pan. What allows for viral spreading of content to happen is a foundation of resource and budget allotment for brand teams to stay on top of trends, the needs of their audience, and real-time media creation and measurement tools.

In today's economy, the biggest mistake a brand can make is to not continue trying small ideas within this environment, watch how users interact with that concept, and then continue to fund rapid iterative development and seeding to help these campaigns grow quickly into easily shared, highly engaging applications.

The brands that continue to stick with old methods of strategizing and funding for the "big idea" will continue to watch more viral hits come and go, along with the audience that used to pay attention to what they had to say.

Michelle Wohl is VP of marketing for Sprout.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Michelle Wohl is the VP of marketing and client services at Revinate, a San Francisco-based technology company that helps hotels manage their online reviews and social media.Prior to Revinate, Michelle worked at Sprout where she helped brands engage...

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