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The problem with "going viral"

In an era of downward cost pressures, advertisers are looking for the biggest bang for the littlest buck. Typically, that means going "viral." And typically that means an advertiser asks its agency to make their advertising something that will "go viral."

The problem with this, of course, is implied by the very word "viral."

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The key to virality is in the word "viral." Think H1N1 -- we do not mean to give it; we do not mean to get it. If we get it, we spread it. If we don't, we may be none the wiser. Or, perhaps, we hear about others we know -- friends, co-workers, loved ones -- getting it. But ultimately, the intentionality of "viral" is not what makes something viral. There is a je ne sais quoi about the little piece of content -- that marketing artifact of culture -- that makes you want to share it with others. Though, when you think about it, then it isn't really viral at all; but let's not quibble right now with a precise definition of the word.

What makes something viral is in no small part its authenticity. The intentional structure of marketing is in direct violation of this authenticity. (This is also what plagues the use of social networking platforms for the purposes of marketing, but that's another subject for another column.) Part of the faux authenticity that marketers seek in a quest for viral, and what lies at the heart of marketers' belief that something can be made viral, is really just head-faking an intended audience -- trying to make that audience believe that what's being done isn't marketing. This means that an advertiser is found asking its agency to make advertising that won't be perceived as advertising. The protagonist of the value proposition narrative is neutered in the hopes of not seeming obvious that what marketing is trying to do is -- marketing.

What hurts so much is not that marketing tries to sell the hero of its narrative. The problem with marketing is that it tries to pretend that it is not trying to sell the hero of its narrative. Direct response works because it makes no pretense about its intention. When you see an ad for the ShamWow or OxiClean, it's no secret what the objective is. But when a brand like Miracle Whip tries to get friends on Facebook? The brand becomes a poseur (though it does have just fewer than 20,000 fans).

Viral marketing isn't a strategy. It's not even a tactic. Viral is a possible outcome that brings an unplanned life to a piece of advertising.

Yes, video of Saddam Hussein's execution or video of frat boys setting their farts on fire or cats playing the piano might attract a great deal of attention and gain exposure through word of mouth, but these things are not marketing, nor do they, as content, possess qualities that can or should be associated with marketing in order to somehow render that marketing "viral."

The fact that things like the above attract a large audience has a lot more to do with human prurient interest, our media-trained thirst for sensational spectacle, or our need for a shameful giggle. The same can be said of a lot of visual stimuli online -- hence the popularity of fat ladies falling off of trampolines or combustible effluvium. But these things are not viral. They are "popular," with their popularity having little or no relation to their quality as content. And they're certainly not great for marketing (unless you are selling trampolines or Zippos).

Among the qualities your marketing should have if it is going to have a chance of going viral are:

  • Entertainment -- the unit has entertainment value.

  • Utility -- the unit offers something the reader can use.

  • Palpable reward -- the unit offers instant gratification.

  • Uniqueness -- the unit is like nothing the reader has ever seen.

But when you get right down to it, this really should be part of any piece of creative product being proffered in the 21st century.

The truth is that the best one can hope for is, to paraphrase Peter Shankman, CEO of The Geek Factory and PR/marketing warlord, to make your marketing great. If you've done that, the rest will take care of itself, and viral will simply be one of the many symptoms.

Media strategies editor Jim Meskauskas is vice president and director of online media for ICON International Inc., an Omnicom company.

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Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Donna Bulford

2010, December 22

thank you for writing this. Working in Social Media, I often hear clients ask that something goes viral...and in an almost out of body experience I almost always hear myself and others agreeing ...LOL:). To be fair though I think there is a huge miscommunication...when people say viral what is often meant is NON CPM Media Buys. Having worked on many iFrame campaigns and Cost Per View Campaigns, I would say that all of the supposed "viral" successes included paid media but it was just on a non CPM basis.

Commenter: Steven Comfort

2010, May 25


I cannot believe I'm reading this from you of all people: "Let's not quibble right now with a precise definition of the word"...

I believe the issue is not whether "viral" is being used correctly, but whether the word "viral" or "virulence" should be used when describing the rate of speed that a piece of digital content spreads (I support the use of "virulence").