Way back in time, when the human race was, arguably, living in caves, man spent all his time satisfying his basic needs, like food, air, water and sex. And while some of these pursuits were as satisfying as their eventual attainment, even our primitive ancestors realized there had to be more to life than just the day to day struggle to prolong it.
Then man created tools. These tools, including the old standbys like the wheel, fire and sharp rocks, afforded man the luxury of free time to pursue other interests -- like communication and artistic expression (language; cave drawings), the culinary arts (wooly mammoth tastes much better when cooked than when raw)… and probably more sex.
Thus, the human race evolved.
Kind of like how internet advertising evolved. At first, it focused on basic forms of communication (email and websites). Gradually, it grew more sophisticated, moving from providing basic information to improving the quality of marketing communication (behavioral targeting; search) and enriching life itself (MySpace; YouTube). This, in theory, has led to today's golden age of online marketing – where people gather in their modern "caves" and use electronic tools to interact, express themselves and acquire goods like fast food, carbonated beverages, and sex.
Fundamentally, viral campaigns rely on marketers' ability to tap into these basic human needs and wants, as well as their means for achieving them. In his hierarchical theory of human needs, Abraham Maslow outlined many of the key principles that marketers embrace in their efforts to engage audiences in the name of this goal.
If we extend his psycho-social theory of needs and wants to the practice of marketing, we get an idea of the innate drives that dictate the purchase process. For starters, there are the basic needs like, "I need to eat every day or I'll die, so I'm going to buy a sandwich at Subway," or "it's cold outside, so I’m going to buy a pair of Ugg boots to keep my feet warm." But thanks to online tools, human beings of the marketing persuasion have moved beyond satisfying basic consumer needs, and now have the free time to appeal to individual and collective desires on a more evolved level.
So what do humans desire when communicating about a product or service? Well, connection is definitely on that list -- we want to connect with others, and often we do so based on shared interests. And if someone shares our interests, we want to share our discoveries on those interests. Thus, the viral marketing campaign was born.
When it comes down to it, marketing is nothing more than matching people to the things they need, and then to the things they desire. And when you don’t have the chance to connect with the right people on an individual basis, the next best thing is to connect with what makes people, well, people.
Therefore, if it is true that the most effective advertising is based on a knowledge of human nature, then it is in the satisfaction of desires that the secrets to viral success must lie.
What else are humans interested in while on the path to actualization (psychological, spiritual or consumer)? Here are some common themes, and how they may affect your campaign's viral viability.
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Let's go back to our favorite basic need: sex. Ask anyone on a dating site what they are looking for in a potential partner, and a common theme will be humor. Everyone wants to be with someone who will make them laugh, because when we laugh, we feel good, and when we find someone who laughs at the same things we laugh at, we satisfy our social need to feel connected.
Similarly, when we find something that makes us laugh, we want to share it with others we have connected with, to make them happy and to reaffirm our status as someone who knows quality entertainment when we see it. As Russell Scott said in his recent iMedia article, "Make 'em laugh, and you can make them do anything." This includes supporting your brand.
Entertained but not pitched. While academic literature has not seemed to make a definitive connection between humor and advertising success, there's no arguing that we remember things that make us laugh. And this potential for recall is key when researching our purchasing options. An additional benefit of humor in advertising is that we feel less manipulated and pitched-to with humorous campaigns. If a brand goes to the trouble of entertaining us, we have a greater tendency to believe that this is the prime motivation, rather than the cold, hard sales pitch.
Recently, some brands have done an excellent job of putting funny first, including Hanes' recent battle against the wedgie. Women across the world can relate to this spandex-induced struggle, and thus have found a good reason to share the humorous -- and brand-promoting -- struggles of actress Sarah Chalke.
Apple has also embraced its warm and fuzzy side, with its series of spots featuring "Mac" vs. "PC". These humorous viral campaigns have been updated and altered to coincide with holidays and OS updates, and have spawned numerous parodies, including those from shows like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "South Park."
As evolved as we are as a people, there are always some things we look at as not changing for the better. New Coke, the buzz of the Blackberry when we are on vacation and suburban sprawl are just a few things that come to mind. Some things were just better in the "good ole days," when we were carefree kids who didn't have to worry about bills, responsibilities and ROI for the great idea we convinced our skeptical clients to shell out additional budget for.
This is where nostalgia comes in, and why its use is so powerful when marketers look to connect with consumers and get them to pass messages along to their social circles.
Ask any hipster: Retro culture will always be a powerful touchpoint because once we are far enough removed from the embarrassment of things from our childhood (like pet rocks and parachute pants), we realize that they are part of our pool of experience, part of our personal history… part of the innocent days where advertising was a novelty and not so much of an assault on all media fronts.
Geico's recent Ben Winkler ad revisited the days of the Cabbage Patch Kid in an effort to relate to 1980's-loving Generation X-ers. Moving in a less cuddly direction, but still capturing the power of the past, Orville Redenbacher Popcorn brought its iconic company founder back from the dead (literally), in a new series of ad spots.
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Even though we may long for the simplicity and purity of how we remember the past, that has never stopped the human race from striving to conquer the next frontier. And, as every conquest must start with a first step, we respect and revere the trailblazers who followed their dreams and paved the way for progress. It's these first steps that we remember and celebrate: first dates; first man on the moon, first time we downloaded a new U2 song for free on Napster or saw a grainy video of the "Blair Witch" and needed to learn more about it.
Maslow believed that humans have a need to increase their intelligence. This cognitive need manifests as the expression of the human need to learn, explore, discover and create to get a better understanding of the world around us. Ads that appeal to our desire to see something new taps into this need to explore and discover. This is followed closely by our desire to be in-the-know and on the forefront of that new thing; hence, we are driven to share our new-found knowledge with our peers.
Early web marketing innovations such as BMW Films paved the way for first-of-its-kind ad creative to secure a spot in the cultural Zeitgeist. Our industry's beloved Honda Cog is another prime example of the human love of discovering something unique. Even more recently, projects like LonelyGirl15 and films such as "Cloverfield" used unique means of online subterfuge to garner early enthusiasm and word of mouth. And indie-film pioneers like Kevin Smith used the power of online to transform die-hard fans into MySpace activists by rewarding those who helped him spread the "Clerks 2" message with a personal film credit.
Of course, not everyone can be the groundbreaker. But the rest of us still want to feel included, or at least feel that we aren't going to be left behind when our peers evolve and start to walk upright.
Our need to participate is the foundation of one of the key principles that marketers should strive to convey in any campaign: letting us know what's in it for us. If people can find a place for them in your brand activities, they are much more likely to pay attention to those brands.
Mash-up campaigns have been particularly successful on this front, as they allow users to play with official campaign assets -- like movie trailer footage or commercial clips -- and add their own unique touches. Advergames like Get the Glass also let users directly interact with brands and reward them for the time spent playing.
Another tactic to garner involvement is online and mobile voting. When watching a show like "American Idol," viewers like to feel like they are part of the action, that their opinions matter and that they have the skills to recognize true talent, so they will go out of their way to send that text message and deliver their preferences to the receptive "Idol" format. In addition, by rewarding participation in these mash-up and dial-in opportunities with prizes or additional behind-the-scenes information, brands can amp up users' interest in the brand -- and their willingness to pass the message along.
Once we've satisfied the universal needs that make us human, we have the luxury of satisfying the need to feel unique and special. Maslow described this as moving from physiological need to self actualization need, which includes the need to be creative and to be recognized and valued for who you are.
One of the most recognized campaigns that leverages this need for personalized attention was Burger King's Subservient Chicken, which allowed viewers to directly interact with the web mascot and think up personalized commands that it would follow. There was no list of tasks users could ask the chicken to perform, and while the chicken certainly had a roster of tricks he was programmed to show, users could be rewarded with a little-seen move for thinking out of the box.
Last year's "The Simpsons Movie" offered the ultimate personalized encounter with its world: a Simpsonizer engine that let fans create their own Springfieldian likeness, which could then be inserted into the background of the website's many play areas. Within the first day of the Simpsonizer's debut, core and casual fans alike passed the world along so virulently that the site was unavailable for long spans of time.
Though marketing, like the human race, has certainly evolved, few would deny that there's still a spark of magic -- perhaps even a divine intervention -- in why one campaign seed grows and another dies out. There's the science of adapting the potential elements of success -- like humor and innovation -- to meet your particular marketing challenge, and then there's the art -- the unquantifiable "it" factor that puts something like "Flavor of Love" on the map. And that's why a true formula for viral success will likely remain as unattainable as the true and definitive meaning of life. But of course, there's a Darwinian reward in this industry for experimenting with a new, potentially successful pathway -- even if you never find that same road again.
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Jodi Harris is managing editor at iMedia Connection.
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