How to orchestrate effective viral marketing campaigns?

What do ALS ice bucket challenge, P&D Tampax, Unilever “Dove campaign for real beauty” Volkswagen: The Fun theory, Old Spice man aftershave or KLM surprise have in common. They are all good examples of how to plan and execute a successful viral marketing. Many believe viral marketing needs to have a whacky idea to attract interest/create suspense, and conversations amongst users and brand. Successful viral marketing campaigns go beyond these. Some common elements of good viral campaigns include: 1) surprise/interest element, 2) scalable idea unlimited by culture and religious restrictions, 3) persuasion by influencers, 4) exploit common motivations, and 5) market the marketing.

Surprise element is undoubtedly very important in viral marketing campaigns. The exhilarating moment packs the required spice of experience for individuals to stay connected with the campaigns. But the potential for disaster also lies within it. Toyota’s “the other you” game for advertising Matrix is a classic example. The rules of the game went like this; a person would sign up for his unwitting friend and then that friend would get stalked by strangers. The game not only scared the hell out of people, but also annoyed them. People felt that their privacy was infringed. Toyota focused too much on the surprise element while ignoring a very important factor – the emotions surprise is going to evoke. If the surprise doesn’t bring any pleasant emotions then the whole campaign goes for a toss.

ALS ice bucket or Volkswagen’s Fun theory campaigns like many other successful ones are scalable ideas that take an everyday activity and make it fun to positively affect people behavior. Volkswagen involved its targets/customer to series of experiments to find how these could make people healthier, environmentally conscious and safer, all the while creating a parallel experience with brand elements and the campaigns. Same goes for ALS which used a mundane daily activity of bathing into a ritual to raise awareness about ALS and seek donations through crowdsourcing. Co-creation where the company encourages users to become actively involved in the brand or product is a key component of viral marketing. This helps companies to stop selling to them, but instead market with them.

Persuasion by influencers, whether active or passive, is an important element of spread of viral marketing. Insights from social network theory reveal that “network central” influencers (one with many connections) are most effective to communicate the campaigns and if there is an element of persuasion, like invitation or challenge, people networked with influencers are baited to participate. ALS influencer invites are a case in point.

Social stigma’s of refusing a challenge or the need to be seen in the company of Page 3 is a “primal” drive which most successful campaigns cleverly exploit. The common motivations of Homo sapiens to be seen as the social animal, higher up in hierarchy helps people to donate and participate in events.

KLM using a similar surprise-and-delight strategy as Toyota identified irate passengers waiting for their flights ad presented them with thoughtful presents. The clincher in the campaign was actually the act being completely filmed live by a camera crew and that led to positive human emotional drama. This helped KLM use an effective marketing to connect and appeal to customers, but also market their marketing effectively.

Now onto some marketing campaigns that brought more bricks and bats than bouquets. The mistake of putting popularity above purpose is another factor. AT&T’s tweet had to face the consequences of doing it. AT&T uploaded a picture of a smart phone clicking 2 streaks of light at ground zero as a tribute to 9/11. The tweet had to be withdrawn immediately as it was considered offensive by a lot of people. Here the purpose was to pay the tribute but instead they tried to capitalize off of the emotions surrounding 9/11 for profit. A separate ad only for smart phone without linking it to 9/11 would have served the purpose. Well, they did get the popularity but only to tarnish their own image.

The marketers also seem to be overlooking the kind of conversations which are going to surround the campaign. Hyundai’s pathetic attempt to make suicide look funny created a lot of negative conversations. Some of the audiences could relate it to suicides of their closed ones and were tormented by the ad. It evoked bad memories and people went around talking about it which gave it a multiplier effect.

The 21st century audience is unforgiving as social media has emboldened them. Plan well to pursue viral marketing campaigns, ensure all elements are well packaged. With a small dosage of common sense and focus on objective, this aim is not unachievable.

Ajita Poudel

Young Dolphin Fellow

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