Pass It On: Viral Works Only If You Catch It

The marketing world is all abuzz about word-of-mouth marketing. Tapping into the increasingly networked world and the natural tendencies for people to share...what's not to love? However, there is a growing trend of poorly executed "viral strategies" that prove that there is a lot more to word of mouth than the marketing intentions behind it.

Are We Trying Too Hard?

There are a lot of proverbial square-peg strategies being forced into the proverbial round holes of consumer desires and behavior. WOM starts with a great idea. An idea is either innately viral, or it's not. Of course there are some innovative viral distribution approaches, a la Gmail. However, in most cases it is the creative idea that makes a viral idea spread, once seeded through various distribution tactics. In either case, there is a value exchange--engaging, entertaining content or a functional tool in exchange for consumer attention. The more clever and unique ideas tend to get the most consumer reaction, while the more forced ideas are not received as well.

The practice of seeding chat rooms, forums and message boards with commercial messages has been met with mixed results, most of which go unknown to the marketers who hire PR firms and grass-roots agencies to execute these tactics. Whether disclosed or otherwise, this approach has been cluttering genuine communities and the experiences of the consumers who are loyal participants in these communities.

When commercial messages infiltrate loyal communities, there are negative effects that do not usually get reported back to the marketers, if captured at all. What is reported are "conversations," which stretch the definition of a conversation. Unless there is constant monitoring of the communities for a period of time after the seeded message occurs, in order to track all expressed consumer feedback, you are just looking at a snapshot. This of course doesn't capture the negative effect that these messages may be having on those who are not providing feedback or engaging in "conversation."

The effects are similar to sending e-mail to consumers who are not anticipating your message sitting in their inbox. While you may be able to generate some response, the double-edged sword of putting a commercial message in a consumer's personal space can and does have negative ramifications among many of those who do not respond, who are obviously the vast majority.

So, What Is Viral?

Consumers are aware of "viral videos", and even seek them out. However, the trend of actually labeling them "viral videos" to consumers has boggled my mind for a while now. What makes them viral? Because a marketer or publisher labels them as such? Does that mean that other video content is not viral? With the proliferation of consumer-generated content on the Web and our quest for standards, have "viral videos" become their own category? If so, then viral obviously extends way beyond those borders.

Engagement is generally a key factor in influencing consumers via digital media. Nowhere does engagement play a bigger role than in viral marketing. Watching silly video clips is engaging, as is playing a game, or referring friends to Gmail. It seems that the more tongue-in-cheek and humorous assets seem to pick up steam more quickly than the rest, although that's not always the case. Where engagement meets relevancy, lies the formula of effective viral marketing. Placed in the right environments, engaging and relevant assets can, and often do, become viral.

So the next time you sit down to brainstorm your big viral ideas, start by mapping out the creative and distribution tactics against a matrix of engagement and relevancy. Try not to force any round pegs in square holes. Viral marketing works at different degrees for different companies. Use your existing Web site audience as a testing ground if necessary, and then roll out your campaign. Don't be afraid to test and go back to the drawing board.

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is." - Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut.

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