Viral Marketing

Posted January 15, 2014, under Ad Absurdum

If you’re not familiar with the term, “viral marketing” in the simplest sense means to engage your audience and inspire them to forward your message. In other words, it’s an attempt to force a meme.

It’s not even really new – in the golden days of yore (the late 20th Century), it was called “word of mouth” – and that probably predates recorded history.

“Halima, I must tell you about the hand-boob vendor I found with my cojoined twin!” “No need, Khepri! I have also purchased a hand-boob. I did not know I needed one until I passed the booth of Ashai!”

The one thing that’s “new” is the immediacy the Internet brings, and the speed with which word can travel.

Not Always a Good Thing

Chevy Tahoe, 2006

Attempting to engage and invite creativity at the dawn of the social media boom, General Motors had actually kind of a cool idea: Provide basic video editing tools online for people to make their own Chevy commercials. There were prizes, and some perfectly earnest entries.

But because this is the Internet, other people did stuff like this:

If you can’t watch the video, the sales copy has been replaced with snarky commentary about ravaging the environment to the end of building gas-guzzling sport-SUVs.

Toyota, 2009

We don’t know why car companies don’t seem to get it. Maybe there’s some correlation between the significance of the purchase and how seriously their manufacturers take themselves. Because when car companies try to be funny, they often…aren’t.

Case in point: In 2009, Toyota launched a campaign that explicitly asked for contact info for people they could harass. We’re not joking – the “Other You” campaign involved phone calls, bogus bill collection claims, threats by strangers to visit the victim at their home, and more – before finally revealing the whole thing was a “prank.”

We can’t fathom how this is supposed to entice people to buy a vehicle. Maybe to escape the psychotic stalker? Was that the idea?

This is something that happened over the course of several days. The victims, one of whom filed suit, were not amused.

Pretty Much Any Corporation Trying to Use Twitter

Thanks to Twitter’s meteoric rise to social media prominence, hashtags (#) have become ubiquitous (though really the right word is “#obnoxious”). If a hashtag gets enough mileage, Twitter features it as a “Trending Topic,” inviting more users to contribute and spread the discussion even wider.

For Corporate America, this is the Holy Grail of viral advertising: minimum effort, maximum exposure. So they push their hashtags across multiple media, hoping to inspire a Trend.

But as blogger Miranda Miller points out: “If you want to gamble on user-generated content, at least make sure customers like you.”

McDonald’s learned this the hard way when they debuted #McDStories. Intended to be heartwarming, it quickly became… something else.

Yeah, that could’ve gone better – and these are tame examples – but in a sense they did become a meme. Just not the way they wanted.

At least ol’ Rotten Ronnie didn’t trick people into giving away access to their personal Twitter feeds, the way the 2013 New York Comic Con promoters did. See, part of the sign-up process was the option to link one’s account to the attendee badges. Those badges had RFID scanners, which registered entrance to the con and then proceeded to use attendees’ own Twitter accounts to spam their followers with promotional tweets about the convention.

Needless to say, the resulting PR flap was not the publicity they were counting on.

Getting It Right

It’s not all horror stories and privacy violations, though. Successful viral marketing has either a compelling mystery, or elements of bombast and humor, and maybe a little self-deprecation. This is nowhere more evident than in the Old Spice Guy campaign.

Launched in February 2010, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” is objectively the greatest ad campaign in the history of ever.*

Not content with a series of quickly beloved (and hilarious) television commercials, Old Spice sent Isaiah Mustafa to YouTube, where he answered questions sent to the Old Spice Twitter account, in character as Old Spice Guy. Almost 200 videos were produced and posted in two days, all of which can still be found on the Old Spice YouTube channel. These included a successful marriage proposal

The campaign was a success, with Old Spice showing a 107% increase in sales. Interestingly, our searches found no such information (or buzz) about the company’s later attempts to rebottle the viral lightning. Which just goes to show that success today does not guarantee future performance. Even when you’ve got the Man Your Man Could Smell Like on your team.

* Does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the entirety of Rigney Graphics.

Rigney Graphics is a Pasadena graphic arts company that can help you create an impact with design and marketing solutions for print and web.