Viral Marketing: When the Ad Overshadows the Product
I have a confession to make today. I must bare my soul and throw myself on the tender mercies of the Marketing gods. May they have mercy.
I don’t (if you’ll forgive the phrase) ‘buy into’ the concept of viral marketing campaigns. I find them gimmicky, trite, and often far too reliant on low-brow, frat boy humour. More important than all that however, is the fact that more often than not, viral marketing campaigns overshadow the product or brand being featured.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I have watched and enjoyed viral campaigns in the past. One notable example is the ‘I Believe in Harvey Dent’ and ‘Harvey Dent for Gotham District Attorney’ video ads that were scattered throughout the web in promotion of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film ‘The Dark Knight’. Clever use of characters from the film fed the media buzz, while also adding slightly more depth to certain plot points.
Another obvious example is the Old Spice ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ campaign, which I’ve written about recently. It should be noted that while the campaign worked in the beginning, much of the viral momentum it gained later was more about Isaiah Mustafa’s hilarious portrayal of ‘Old Spice Man’ than it was about the product itself.
These campaigns were well made, entertaining, and seemed (at least superficially) to achieve their purpose. The problem is, I believe these are anomalies and FAR from the norm.
Whenever I bring this up in discussion, I am usually reminded by someone that XYZ company did a viral campaign and it got a bajillion views on the various social media networks. They say it as if ‘views’ or ‘clicks’ are the most important metric here.
It is true that views, shares and clicks are important measurements when running any sort of marketing campaign in the online space. However I believe the most important metric for any brand is whether or not the consumer, having clicked, viewed or shared the ad actually responds to a call to action and makes a purchase at any point. In other words, do these viral campaigns actually translate into conversions? I’m not sure that they do.
I have often heard people say that the goal of viral marketing is ‘brand awareness’, on the logic that in the future, when the consumer is ready to purchase, they will somehow remember the brand because of the funny cat video the person shared six months prior. It’s an interesting argument, and to be fair brand awareness is a very powerful tool for marketers, but I think it’s pretty shaky ground on which to build a marketing platform.
What often ends up happening with these viral videos is that people remember the video, ad, etc., but not the brand or product to which it is referring. This is particularly prevalent in ads that have little or nothing to do with the product. (These ads are source of particular vexation for me, but they will have to wait for their own blog post.)
Let me leave you with a final (though admittedly unscientific) example. Some time ago I was speaking to a group of friends when the subject of advertising came up. I asked the group if they remembered an ad in which a large red button was placed in a town square somewhere in Europe with a sign that said ‘Push to Add Drama’*. When, eventually, some brave soul did so, a series of incredible events, from car chases to gun fights suddenly exploded around him, leaving the person shocked and amazed. My friends remembered this readily, each one excitedly giving detailed accounts of the various elements of the ad. Several of them had seen the ad multiple times, and all had shared it with at least five friends.
So these people had been throughly entertained (even to the point of multiple viewings), and had shared the video with their friends, who had presumably done the same. By the normal metrics used for viral videos, this was a definite win. Intrigued, I then asked what brand the ad represented. After a short period of thought, the group responded with utter silence.
Therein lies the problem with viral marketing. While in certain circumstances it can work (film seems to be particularly well suited for this), all too often the campaign itself is the only thing people remember.
Most, if not all businesses have a fervent wish to be talked about by consumers, hopefully positively. This often leads to increased sales, which leads to greater profit margins, which allow companies to make better products and services. Everybody wins. However with viral marketing, a business runs the risk that the only thing consumers will be talking about is the ad itself, not the product or service it represents.
If that happens, everybody loses.
*For those who are curious, the ‘Push to Add Drama’ video referred to here was from television network TNT Belgium.