Virals Prove Unpredictable In Eyebeam Contest

One Web site shows a 30-second video of a man sobbing while he eats fresh strawberries. Videos of a masked man dancing to the tune of cell phone ringtones are shown on a second. A third site advertises underwear with embedded tracking devices, for men who fear their lovers are straying.

The creators of those three sites are among 84 entrants in a viral marketing contest. All hope that visitors will find their projects amusing enough to forward throughout the Web. The competition, "Contagious Media Showdown," which began in mid-May and runs through June 9, is designed to study viral media and how ideas spread on the Web.

Contest sponsor Eyebeam, a New York-based nonprofit that studies new technologies and media arts, is looking to see which sites garner the most traffic, the most links from blogs (measured by Technorati), and popularity--in terms of how aggressively the content spreads across the Web--based on rankings provided by CreativeCommons.org and Alexa.com.

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The contest was announced in April, and the competing sites went live on May 19. All the sites are hosted on a server provided by Eyebeam.

Eyebeam's Jonah Perretti said the contest was put together to determine what kind of virulent virals Web-goers could come up with, and the common characteristics of content with very high pass-along rates.

In the early days of the contest, CryingWhileEating.com pulled ahead of its competitors with more than 150,000 unique visitors after just six days. The site features 30-second videos of people crying while they eat, with captions stating why they're crying. For instance, one caption explains that Daniel is eating "buckwheat noodles and rooster sauce," and he is crying because "he ruined Passover."

By the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, CryingWhileEating.com had 213,570 visitors--more than the second and third place combined.

Perretti said that the early dominance of the unusual CryingWhileEating.com shows viral advertisers the difficulty of predicting which virals will succeed, and which will be utterly ignored. "If you are creating advertising media for a client, it is unethical to tell your client that you can create something that will be wildly viral on the first try," he said. "If you're a client that's looking for viral marketing, you should expect to do a bunch of different attempts."

Pete Blackshaw, the co-founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, also said that the contest demonstrated the difficulty of predicting consumer reactions. "You're dealing with the curious black box of consumer emotion," he said. "For all the practice ... we still never quite nailed the secret formula of consumer emotion. It's elusive and it acts in weird ways."

Blackshaw predicted that contests such as this one will encourage advertisers to take advantage of talent or creative ideas that would otherwise go unrecognized in the advertising world. "We're in a massive competition for consumer attention in this new age of consumer control. The reality is that most consumer Web sites are far more interesting and engaging than most brand Web sites," he said. "One of the ultimate torture tests for brands is how do we create content that creates a contagious desire to tell others--and I don't think anyone's there yet."

"There's probably a few promising ad directors in this list of crazy videos," Blackshaw said.

One site, Blogebrity.com, a gossip Webzine about bloggers, is using the contest as a trial balloon for a print magazine. The site is a collaborative project by a number of bloggers, including Jeremy Hermanns and Greg Johns--who are both with Tribal DDB's Los Angeles office--and Kyle Bunch--who works for Pinacol, an Orange County, Calif.-based Web design firm--as well as several authors who prefer not to be identified. The bloggers behind the site will continue the site after the end date of the Showdown, and may even start a print magazine for special editions. "Right now, with the blog launch, we're trying to build interest for the print mag, to build an initial subscriber base for a launch," said Bunch, who handles the sites' design and technical details.

Although Blogebrity trails the leader significantly in terms of raw traffic (with just 67,670 unique visitors as of Friday), Blogebrity has garnered an impressive number of Technorati links--177, compared to CryingWhileEating.com's 119. The site garnered links from high-profile bloggers like Steve Rubel and Glenn Reynolds, speculating on whether the site was real--or a parody.

Bunch said that he and the other authors had been kicking the idea for Blogebrity around for some time, but decided to launch it as a contest entry because it appealed directly to the audience they hoped to capture. "We thought the contest, being very blog-centric and targeted towards our potential audience, provided an ideal place to introduce the concept," he said. As a result of the buzz garnered by the site during the contest, a few potential advertisers have contacted them, Bunch said.

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