Virgin Catches Viral Marketing Bug

The latest virus going around the office isn't the flu--it's Chrismahanukwanzakah.

The Internet spot, a cartoon jingle from Virgin Mobile USA that dismisses the theological concerns of the holiday season, proclaims: "Whose faith is the right one/that's anybody's guess/what matters most is camera phones for $20 dollars less." Virgin Mobile's product is no-contract cell phones, and the ad tries to draw a connection between not having to commit to a single faith during the holiday season and not having to commit to a single cell phone plan.

The ad is the latest hit in viral ad campaigns, and has been receiving extensive press in major news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Boston Herald.

The Web-based part of the campaign is accompanied by TV spots that aired on MTV and affiliated networks, like Comedy Central and SpikeTV, and in-store displays featuring the omni-denominational cast of the ad: A many-armed, sitar-playing Hindu Santa Claus, a dreidel-toting, afro-sporting, gold- toothed, black angel, and a reindeer whose antlers support a Hanukah menorah.

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The intent of the Web-based part of the campaign was to harness the buzz that advertisers so covet. Fallon, the company that created the ad for Virgin Mobile, had the intent all along to utilize viral advertising to spread the word about the ad and help brand the Virgin Mobile no-contract phones, in the newly founded tradition of Burger King's SubservientChicken.com.

That site, which featured an actor in a chicken suit who flapped, did jumping jacks, danced, and performed a host of other commands at the whim of the user, attracted millions of users even before the site officially launched in April, thanks to links on various independent Web sites and word of mouth among Internet goers.

"I think 2005 is going to be a really exciting year in this space," said Pete Blackshaw, the co-founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. "We're in a new era where intrusive, interruptive advertising has a high turnoff factor, and that's why consumer-to-consumer advertising is showing a lot of promise."

Another example of viral marketing is Google's Gmail, which enlists its users to promote the service by offering them Gmail invites that they can send to their friends.

This strategy is effective, Blackshaw contends, because people like to hear about products from their friends more than from advertisers. "There's clear evidence from dozens of studies that a recommendation from others is far more impactful than a regular ad," he said. "It all depends on the trust factor among consumers."

According to Blackshaw, a lot of the buzz depends on making a campaign that appeals to the blogging community that covers a particular product. "If you look at the history of viral ads, it's usually the bloggers who give them a lot of early momentum," Blackshaw said. "If a campaign is getting pretty good lip from certain bloggers, we see that as a pretty powerful early warning that it's going to be sustainable. Anyone who's doing a viral campaign should know the top 10 bloggers in their product category."

Other experts, however, are a bit more skeptical of the power of viral advertising. "I think that most viral marketing isn't very effective," JupiterResearch analyst Nate Elliott said. "You can't catch lightning in a bottle. Once in a while, one of these things will break out, but the marketer has no idea how many people have seen the ad or whether it's actually generated anything positive. And that's a best case scenario. The vast majority of viral ad campaigns are dead on arrival."

Virgin's Web campaign has met with some apparent success. According to their numbers, the Chrismahanukwanzakah site has had roughly 110,000 unique visitors, with 122,000 page views. The e-cards on the same site have been sent to about 500,000 Virgin Mobile users. The cell phone ring tone based on the catchy jingle has been downloaded more than 411,000 times.

"The goal of the campaign was to sell a boatload of phones," said Virgin Mobile Vice President of Brand and Communications Bob Stohrer--and according to him, the campaign is "kicking ass."

"Obviously, we're getting lots of press pickup and media pickup. More importantly, it's really resonating with kids, and we're able to monitor the buzz that's developed on various blogs."

Stohrer said that sales of the advertised phones are "overachieving versus forecast," and that Virgin Mobile is likely to continue advertising in the viral vein. "We're always looking for campaigns that can be shared peer-to-peer."

Whether or not the Chrismahanukwanzakah Web site had the desired impact on Virgin Mobile's holiday sales is up for debate, however. "There's no accurate way of measuring. You don't know if your target audience is seeing it," Elliott said. "Anyone who tries to tell you that they can track the impact of a viral campaign is lying."

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