If another clueless idiot comes to me with a half-baked idea that’s “going to go viral!” I swear I’ll explode.  I realise that marketing people love buzz-words, but its like everyone suddenly “discovered” viral and is trying to nail the label to anything that moves.  Get real!

I’ve had this debate before and as far as I am concerned its done and dusted, but here are a few thoughts to consider before you start thinking about adding a viral element to your strategy.

Firstly a miniscule proportion of campaigns that are intended as viral ever break even – fact!  To avoid being a dismal failure a viral campaign has to at least cover its cost – very few indeed actually do.  The reason for this is simple.  Nobody is going to pass your material on to their friends unless it’s at least, well-produced.  Production costs are high and with the sales-to-view ratio being what it is, you’ll have to count on hitting more than your mates and your mate’s, mates to break even.  To qualify as a success a viral campaign has to create more than a blip on your sales graph.  That means it has to reach many more than a few thousand people, their mates and the rest of their families too and that’s definitely not going to happen unless your viral piece qualifies as a “big idea”.

Now I’m sadly very aware that very few people indeed really appreciate what a “big idea” really is.  It’s not for instance a video of your CEO, even if he does have Richard Branson’s charisma and profile, standing in front of your latest product telling you how good it is – just forget it, its at best naff and at worst … well, I can’t even go there!

And there’s another point.  The views that you achieve aren’t worth a jot if your viewers aren’t likely purchasers of your product and unfortunately, the kind of people who pass-on stuff on the internet aren’t big consumers of  things like ozone air-purifiers or stair lifts.  No, I’m afraid viral isn’t for everyone.

There’s also the question of seeding.  I’ve found that quite a lot of people with “great viral ideas” forget that they need to start the ball rolling themselves.  You don’t just upload these things and they miraculously get found by people..  Sure a few might bump into your masterpiece and some of them might actually pass it on, but, even with the world’s best SEO, if  you are going to hit worthwhile numbers you’ll have to mail it out yourself to people you know are interested and likely to forward it.  That could mean buying a mailing list – another cost – and maybe even introducing an incentive.

Finally, a viral initiative isn’t going to achieve much in isolation.  To make any sense, it has to be an integral part of a broader campaign that channels responses, gathers data and leverages the analysis.  Again, if you aren’t doing all of this you are wasting at least a part of your investment.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a case against viral marketing.  As with everything else when it works it works great, but the risks are arguably higher with viral than they are with many other communications routes and unless you are VERY good at it you will be wasting your investment.

If I haven’t put you off and you are determined to go the viral route I suggest you asses ideas against a comparison with Cadbury’s Gorilla, Garry Busey’s cameos for GotVMail, the Apple Mac v. PC movies, Tom Dickson’s “Will It Blend?” Vids or the absolutely brilliant Shiro “Cheers System” campaign.  Of course, viral doesn’t always mean videos, but the combination of sound and vision does give you a bigger chance of creating impact.  However, if your ideas don’t match those I have mentioned for bigness, forget it, save your money and think twice before you run around saying, “I’ve got this great idea, it’s going to go viral” because the probability is, it won’t!

Michael Weaver
April 7, 2011

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