The New Next: Viral Comes Into Its Own

Over the past year, I've observed a powerful new trend in the way brands have activated more viral, experiential, and participatory ideas and campaigns. This trend has manifested itself in the emergence of highly sophisticated multi-platform viral marketing ideas which in many cases allow the consumer to shape the story.

Although they are extremely well thought out and executed down to minute details, by and large they have narrative that is organic in nature. This requires quite a lot of attention to detail and on top of that, sheer bravery, because you are allowing the consumer a higher degree of control on the inputs and the ultimate outcome.

In place of crass, one-off Internet stunts that have given viral techniques a bad name, marketers and agencies have begun to realize that many eager consumers truly want to get involved and participate in this narrative-based entertainment, and to place themselves in a position to interact with the story and the brands.

The granddaddy of viral campaigns is, of course, the work done for the 1999 film "The Blair Witch Project." The trend is full-blown by now. For a wake-up call, check out any of these campaigns I've tracked, all of which have broken some new ground in this emerging genre.

They include Sega Games' "Beta-7"; Audi Auto's "Art of the Heist"; Halo's "I Love Bees"; Lincoln Mercury's "Meet the Lucky Ones"; Mini's "Men of Metal"; Honda U.K.'s "Change Something" (about which I intend to write in more detail in a future New Next); Stella Artois' "Sable & Shuck"; Rainier Beer's "Tim and Chuck" show (which I talked about last month); and Virgin Mobile's

The platform at the heart of all of these campaigns is the Internet, which acts as the ultimate connector and integrator, allowing the narrative to evolve via film, blogs, Web sites, etc., and inviting consumers to engage in whichever form, or forms, they desire. Audi's "Art of the Heist" is a great example. Though it used multiple platforms, the Web site got 29 percent of its traffic by advertising on blogs -- and with just half of one percent of the overall media budget. That illustrates the multiplier effect a big idea can have in activating viral word of mouth, intrigue, and consumer connection.

Sega Games' "Beta-7," produced by Weiden + Kennedy in collaboration with Chelsea Pictures, Haxan Films, Campfire, and others, took a bold tack with a narrative depicting the client as an evil corporate empire out to manipulate hard-core gamers. The storyline evolved through amateur-created Web sites, blogs, broadband film on the Web, voicemails, cryptic clues in advertising, and classified ads in gaming press. It created a huge buzz among both the gamers who can make or break any game launch as well as a broader youth target.

In this new narrative-based viral platform, the Web comes into its own as the ultimate chameleon and catalyst, allowing multiple facets of a campaign to be activated and to achieve the most important thing: the engagement of consumer attention and involvement. It adds intrigue and entertainment in a unique, experiential way. In this new environment, attention to authentic detail and new content, context, and craft skills are required. The only rule in this new environment is that there are no rules -- except to let the consumer take control.

Paul Woolmington is president-CEO, founder, and chief chef of The Media Kitchen. ( He is a regular contributor to MEDIA magazine. This column is re-published from the November issue.

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