Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Two Ways Viral Campaigns Can Work Without Risky Content

I've suggested that viral campaigns often involve an element of risk. Is this necessary? Is it possible to "go viral" without embracing some level of risk?

One risk that is inherent with all marketing activities is the risk something doesn't work--a costly campaign may not improve brand awareness and perception, might not generate sales or site traffic, and in the worst-case scenario, a campaign might even do more damage than good to the brand.

But aside from the usual run-of-the-mill marketing risk, viral campaigns often involve some risk that is essential and at the very core of the viral strategy. The reason for this is that, by and large, "safe" things don't go viral.

BMW Films is a good example of a viral campaign that worked and involved a level of risk. BMW might've considered shooting inexpensive video featuring beauty shots of their cars, but would anyone have talked about or shared that sort of video? Instead, BMW hired well-known actors and top-flight directors to create mini-films in which BMW cars are prominently featured. BMW took several chances with this viral strategy, including significant financial risk, the risk that consumers would object to the ultra-violent content, and the risk that comes from showing one's product being beaten, dented, abused, and virtually destroyed.

BMW Films demonstrates that to achieve some level of "viralness," content has to excel at moving consumers through a viral funnel:
  1. First, consumers must be made aware of the content
  2. Then, consumers must have their curiosity sufficiently engaged to view or participate in the experience
  3. Finally, consumers must find the experience so engaging, fun, inspirational, exciting, or shocking that they're willing to share it, essentially endorsing the content or experience and putting, to a small extent, the sender's reputation on the line with friends, family, and peers.
If a video, game, interaction, or other content fails at any of these steps, a viral campaign simply won't be viral. And, for the most part, things that are "safe" will not capture consumers' attention and emotions sufficiently for them to engage, endorse, and share.

As far as I can tell, there are only two exceptions to the risk/virality equation (but I am open to your insights as to other exceptions):
  • Content perfectly suited to activate a particular psychographic: Some content can speak so perfectly to a particular group of people that they'll eagerly devour and share it. For example, it generally takes little for tweens to want to share something so long as it features the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus--these two multi-media artists are their own viruses.

    Another example is the "Yes We Can" video from Will.I.Am in support of presidential candidate Barack Obama. The video probably does little to capture the imaginations of conservative Republicans, but it caused liberal Democrats to go into a frenzy; versions of "Yes We Can" have been viewed over 13 million times on YouTube. (To put that into perspective, if "Yes We Can" were a TV show, the number of people who viewed it would've put the video among the five top-rated broadcast TV shows for last week.)

  • Content that can be personalized: Another way to have content go viral with minimal risk is to make the consumer the star. Clearly, the undisputed champ of this approach is Elf Yourself. According to Ad Age, 26.4 million people spent a total of 2,600 years at, pasting their faces on the bodies of animated, dancing elves.

    One caution with this approach is that the content must relate closely to the brand, or you risk having the brand disappear completely. Elf Yourself is a perfect example. You probably visited the site or know about, so can you name the brand that sponsored the site? Few people can identify OfficeMax as the sponsor; in fact, as I've asked people about Elf Yourself, I've had more people identify the sponsor as Office Depot than OfficeMax, so this viral campaign may actually be benefiting the competition more than the sponsor. Furthermore, as noted on Future Now, there was almost zero incremental traffic driven to the OfficeMax site by the Elf Yourself campaign.

    The lessons of Elf Yourself are twofold: First, allowing consumers to create their own customized content is a great viral strategy. And second, elves and office products have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, so this campaign did a better job of promoting the Elf Yourself site than it did OfficeMax's brand.
Can you think of other ways for a viral campaign to achieve success, other than some combination of 1) being edgy or risky, 2) focusing on perfect content for a very specific group of individuals, or 3) allowing the consumer to customize the experience? Your ideas would be appreciated!


Anonymous said...

Two points on the ElfYourself site.

First, web traffic did increase significantly. ComScore made reference to it in their December 2007 traffic report:

"OfficeMax led the category with 15.3 million visitors, up 170% from the previous month, with much of the growth generated by the popular Office Max branded viral holiday greeting "

Second, while your right that everybody does not make a correct recollection about the brand (as is typical with virtually every campaign). When you have over 200 Million interactions with the brand, if even a small minority have a good brand experience it can go a long way.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Anonymous,

I appreciate the link to the comScore traffic report. I'd not seen a positive report on OfficeMax's traffic as a result of Elf Yourself.

I wonder if the brand can tie any ROI back to the campaign, such as an increase in online or store sales. I've seen one very brief overview ( that indicates the demographics are very differernt between Elf Yourself and OfficeMax. According to Quantcast, Elf Yourself was HUGE with seniors, which may not be a very lucrative demographic for OfficeMax.

I'm not sure I agree with your contention that brand recollection is an issue with "virtually every campaign." The weaker the link between the experience and the brand, the tougher it will be for consumers to asssociate one with the other. I'd suggest with the example I cited, BMW Films, it is damn near impossible to forget the brand. Another strong association and decent viral was the Simpsonize Me ( are you going to forget that association?

I really respect OfficeMax for trying something different, but I'd still question if dancing elves impart anything valuable to the OfficeMax brand.

Kalus said...


Please check my entrance for a viral campaign contest I'm in for a chance to attend the Cannes Lions 2009 Festival, in France. Please tell others to do so and comment / rate it please.

It's in spanish, so here's the translation of the copywrite:

- "Doesn't the video load?"
- "Switch to Tricom's Broadband Internet"

Thank you for your support,