Thursday, March 27, 2008

"How much does viral cost?"

True story from this week: A peer of mine received a call from a client. He was working on his FY09 marketing budget. One of his brand managers was interested in experimenting with viral marketing, so he asked, "What should I budget for this?"

I understand the interest in testing viral techniques, but asking how much "viral" costs is like asking how much a car will cost. You could buy a 22-year-old Ford Bronco with 171,000 miles for $450, or you could purchase the Bugatti Veyron for $1.7 million. Both vehicles will get you from point A to point B, but the two satisfy very different emotional and logical needs.

The cost of a marketing program that is intended to achieve extended reach by being passed from consumer to consumer depends on a variety of variables. These include: Your current brand strength and positioning, your target audience, the reach you wish to achieve, the message you want to deliver, and the risks you're willing to take.

Two of my favorite viral marketing examples use video and demonstrate the range of investment that viral campaigns can entail:
  • BMW Films made a splash in 2001 with a series of custom mini-movies directed by A-level directors, all featuring BMW vehicles as integral to the plot. The first year the films were produced, 2001 sales numbers increased 12% and the movies were viewed over 11 million times in four months. The exciting films, which reportedly cost more than $10 million to produce, went viral and received a huge amount of publicity. Below are two of my favorite movies: the delightfully nasty "Star," directed by Guy Ritchie and featuring his wife, Madonna; and the supremely exciting yet surprisingly somber "Ticker," directed by Joe Carnahan and featuring Don Cheadle with cameos by Ray Liotta, F. Murray Abraham, and Dennis Haysbert.

  • On the other end of the spectrum is a simple series of online videos that promote a seemingly unexciting product: A blender. Blendtec produces the world's most powerful blender, and to prove it, they've produced a series of humorous videos putting the product to the challenge. I've not seen any data on the cost of this viral program, but my guess is that they've spent in the low-to mid-six figures for a campaign that's been viewed and shared tens of millions of times. The single video below, featuring an iPod, has been seen over 5 million times on YouTube. The campaign led to appearances on The Tonight Show and other programs, and revenue streams now include branded merchandise such as T-shirts.

I mentioned that one of the factors that impact the budget and success of a viral marketing campaign is the amount of risk a brand wishes to accept. Looking at the videos below, you can't help but note the risks. BMW shows its cars being driven in very dangerous manners, with the product beaten until nearly destroyed; one sequence shows a car's gas tank leaking and the pool of gas set ablaze. Think you'd ever see that in a traditional ad campaign? And Blendtec's attorney's must have had a field day with their concept--What if people try this at home and get inured? What if people take the challenge and find the blender doesn't performance as advertised on ridiculously impervious items?

Not all viral campaigns involve a high degree of risk, but smart risks can pay off. The point of any viral campaign is to create an unexpected experience--something so unusual, exciting, sexy, or funny that people will want to share and talk about it. If you create no experience, there can be no viral effect.

Of course, viral programs can also be launched for less than Blendtec's, but these two very successful campaigns demonstrate how a viral brandertainment program can take vastly different forms, approaches, and budgets.

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