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Trends, commentary, and insightful rants from the bleeding edge of advertising, content & branding.

You Are Not Viral. Stop Trying.

funny-pictures-strings-forte-pleaseSo you’ve decided to save some money this year by crafting a funny, on-message, stealth viral campaign.

Congratulations. You’ve already failed.

Here is the sad, honest truth that keeps a lot of creative people cranking out a lot of subpar home videos and releasing them to the web:

Viral is a lottery ticket. So many factors have to be working with you that it is impossible to predict the success and failure of any one idea, no matter how brilliantly conceived and on-target. In fact, the brilliantly conceived, on-target viral campaigns are the most doomed to fail. Here’s why:

It’s not the perfect storm. For a viral campaign to really catch fire, every wind has to be blowing in your direction. For ten years now, everyone in Hollywood has been trying to recreate the campaign for The Blair Witch Project. This just happened to be the first movie that utilized the web as its main promotional medium, by creating a virtual, creepy, unpolished world that heightened the verisimilitude of the movie itself. It couldn’t have been done after that, it couldn’t have been done prior to that. It only worked because there happened to be dramatic technological upheaval and a new form of communication.

The idea has come and gone. Let’s stay with arguably the most successful viral movie campaign of our lifetimes, Blair Witch. In the wake of that film, a hundred movies tried to do exactly the same thing with a thousand times the budget. But viral is a fickle mistress: once you’ve seen it, it’s over. I mean, over. The target for Blair Witch probably didn’t notice the desperate attempts to catch their attention, because they saw it the first time, when it was still cool.

Your competition has multiplied. By a million. When you make the leap to the web, you’re no longer competing for eyeballs with other marketers. You’re competing for eyeballs with everyone who owns a computer. There are a million people in Los Angeles alone trying to craft “viral” videos to advance their career, to land an agent, to hit the big time – and they don’t have a product to push. Andy Samberg creates a viral video on SNL every couple of weeks, has a million people watch it on television, and (aside from Lazy Sunday) still can’t get much viral traction. Professional entertainers can’t do this. It’s hard.

You’re smarter than a doorknob. Afro Ninja. Numa Numa. Star Wars Kid. Some of the most popular viral videos of all time. What do they have in common? They are viscerally stupid. They’re humiliating. They are the web equivalent of a blooper reel. If you’re smart enough to say the words “viral marketing campaign,” you’ve intellectually excluded yourself from being able to judge whether a viral video will succeed or fail. Your sense of humor is not America’s. Please trust us.

You can embarrass yourself. A lot. Because the most successful viral videos tend to be the most outrageous, marketers frequently assume that outrageousness will get noticed. This is deadly thinking. For every Bruce Campbell Old Spice or JC Penney’s ad that gets traction, there are a thousand misfires, some of them crippling. Agency.com is a smart agency in general. How did this happen? But by far, the majority of viral efforts just never get noticed at all. And that’s embarrassing enough.

Viral does not mean free. Pay to play, baby. Unless your video features NSFW images of people doing unspeakable things (or a skateboarding cat) you can’t just release into the wild on its own and expect some sort of wildfire runaway hit.  You want people to know about it? You want your viral thingy to get seen? You better be prepared to ante up for that viral goodness.

This is not a screed against web content in general. The smartest thing you can be doing is looking for new opportunities to spread your marketing message via the internet. Just don’t go looking for the viral force to be with you.

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Filed under: online advertising, skateboarding cats, supergenius llc, viral, , , , , ,

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