When Volkswagen ran a viral ad showing a suicide bomber attempting to blow up his VW Polo in 2005, it caused outrage around the world. Yet the spoof TV-style execution by Lee&Dan was just the culmination of a spiralling tendency toward testing the limits of taste by viral marketers.
However, the tone of activity over the past year suggests that viral advertising is quietly coming of age and growing into a credible medium, inspiring clients with far more confidence as a result.
Even brands that might not be expected to run viral activity are doing so, if somewhat gingerly. In the US, Unilever is running a series of 'webisodes' called 'Sprays of Her Life' to back the US version of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. Based on soap opera Days of Our Lives, the webisodes have been created by media marketing agency Story Worldwide to target middle-aged women. They have been a considerable success; 100,000 consumers voted on its 'Who framed Spraychel?' plot line. On average, visitors spent 12 minutes on the site.
Jon King, managing director of Story Worldwide, believes webisodes are the shape of things to come in the UK. 'Because of the fragmentation of media channels, brands now also need to be media,' he says. King's prognosis fits perfectly with viral activity, as it shows brands 'becoming' a wide range of media: games, Flash animations, films, variations on TV ads, webisodes and pictures.
There are two principal viral approaches for brands: games or videos. The first option tends to follow a get-rich-quick pattern, according to Simon Walton, viral chart manager at The Viral Chart. It also achieves more views; video content rarely takes off in the same way, although paid-for placements on viral sites can boost performance.
Troublingly, the UK lags behind the US in terms of uptake of social-networking media, on which viral thrives. This begs the question of how marketers can find a way to turn their virals into a web epidemic.
Tony Effik, associate director of Modem Media, which created a viral for Hewlett-Packard called 'Tea runner', believes better mapping of social networks is required. 'We need to identify the core adopters and disseminators of information,' he says. 'But it has to be done on a client-by-client basis; there is no one place you can go to find out who your potential customers are.'
As Effik suggests, data holds the key to viral success and evidence of the medium's burgeoning maturity can to be found in its increased use in eCRM campaigns. Though virals still tend to be ejected into cyberspace with little more than a prayer from the marketing manager, more agencies are now offering data collection as part of their remit.
King stresses that honesty is crucial. 'You can collect data through virals, but it has to be very clear what that data will be used for,' he says. 'Consumers will reject anything they think is suspect.'
Seeding sites such as boreme.com and kontraband form a controversial part of this authenticity debate. Clients pay to have their executions featured on the sites, which do not offer any differentiation between 'real' virals and ads. Moreover, such sites are growing; according to boreme.com, its audience has increased by 30% in the past year.
These sites have a useful role, according to Oli Christie, creative director of Inbox Digital. 'A good game should go viral without seeding,' he says. 'However, seeding sites are great for getting targeted audiences and helping to launch a campaign. We occasionally use them and will do so more in future.'
Viral marketing can be ideal for those on a limited budget. Online fancy-dress supplier Joker's Masquerade ran its first viral last October. 'Attack of the Funky Disco Zombies', by Matmi New Media, drove 50,000 visitors to the brand's website; 20% of those who visited the game went on to make a purchase.
The company tracked links throughout the game. 'We wanted to wait until we had a way of measuring success,' says marketing manager Beatrice Butler. She adds that the results were not as high as expected, but the tracking findings have kept her interested in the medium. They demonstrated, for example, that the game fuelled a rise in searches for zombie outfits.
Despite the rising focus on data capture, the main problem viral faces is a lack of a cohesive metric. The Internet Advertising Bureau does not include the medium when collating its adspend figures because it cannot measure it.
Virals are often distributed without any media spend to boost views, so it is impossible to determine the return on investment. Panasonic, for example, did not place any investment behind the launch of a viral game for its Lumix camera (see case study). 'We didn't have a seeding budget, so we were reliant on the game going viral,' says Panasonic UK web communications and e-commerce manager Gaele Lalahy. 'We put the budget behind the creative and production.'
While not providing an overarching consensus, there are ways to gauge how a viral is performing. A mix of viral charts, awards and sites have sprung up to show which executions are doing, including Viralchart.com and an area on Guardian Unlimited, all of which use differing types of measurement.
Inbox Digital's Christie has set high standards for judging a viral's success. 'Between 10,000 and 50,000 views is a failure; at least 500,000 is good,' he says. 'A lot of games reach the 3m-4m mark. Our top score was more than 10m for a game we created for bookmaker Stan James.'
One characteristic of the changing market is that brands are learning to use viral more strategically. Hotel chain Malmaison ran a viral through Halpern Cowan to give customers an insight into its Oxford property, which is housed in a former prison.
'When Halpern Cowan suggested the viral (areyoucorruptenough.com) for the launch, I thought it was an ideal vehicle to reinforce the unique character of our "prison hotel",' says Malmaison chief executive Robert Cook. 'From that day, online booking at Oxford has far exceeded the average for our hotels.'
While some see the popularity of social-networking sites working in viral marketing's favour, Paul Dawson, head of interactive at business technology provider Conchango, sounds a note of caution. 'It's fantastic for the attention, but think about the competition,' he says. 'Look at YouTube: it's full of individuals putting up stuff that can be considered viral content. Brands are having to contend with that in a very competitive marketplace. The last viral most people received probably wasn't from a brand; it probably featured an individual who decided to do something very silly.'
So, while viral marketing can offer data-capture, engaging content and improved measurement, it faces stiff competition from the very people it is trying to reach - online consumers who enjoy the content found on networking sites. The upside of the situation is that it is forcing the medium to leave its troubled adolescence behind and embrace a more adult approach.
DATA FILE - BRANDED VIRALS
TOP 10 VIRAL VIDEOS 2006*
TITLE BRAND AGENCY ESTIMATED VIEWS
1 Balls Sony Bravia Fallon 4,296,000
2 Paint Sony Bravia Fallon 747,000
3 Coin Dominoes Vodafone Dare 381,000
4 Honda Civic Choir Honda Midas Collective/ 321,000
Wieden & Kennedy
5 Swansea Tango Clear Hall Moore CHI 308,000
6 Rooney Mo-Cap Session FIFA 2007 OWN&P 307,000
7 Billions Lynx BBH 258,000
8 Mark Your Territory Gangs of London Maverick 231,000
9 Rooney Volley Coca-Cola AKQA 110,000
10 118 Choir 118 118 Meme 105,000
Source: The Viral Chart *Based on viral community sites tracked across
YouTube, Google Video, MySpace and MetaCafe.
TOP 10 VIRAL GAMES 2006
TITLE BRAND AGENCY ESTIMATED VIEWS
1 Viva La Volley Stan James Inbox Digital 13,273,000
2 Snack Dash School Food
Trust Kerb 8,979,000
3 Elf Attack Churchill Inbox Digital 2,680,000
4 How Does Your Growing
Garden Grow? For Life Tamba Internet 2,444,000
5 Keep 'em Uppy Virgin Money Skive 1,905,000
6 Caliber Buzz Dodge Caliber Inbox Digital 1,490,000
7 Lose Your Anger Virgin Money Skive 1,346,000
8 Diary Defender Vicks First
Defence Inbox Digital 942,000
9 Chimney Challenge Bentley Jennison Tamba Internet 844,000
10 Studs-up Soccer William Hill 4T2 422,000
Source: The Viral Chart.
CASE STUDY - PANASONIC LUMIX
Panasonic supported the launch of its Lumix digital-camera range with a viral game. The activity, which launched last August, is intended to increase brand awareness and boost the number of registrations on its website and visits to its online store.
The game, 'Gyrorunner', created by Inbox Digital, requires players to balance a 3-D stickman on top of a gyroscope for as long as possible. Players who manage more than one minute are rewarded with a £20 Panasonic e-shop voucher. In addition, a competition alongside the game offers free entry to a prize draw to win a Lumix. Both incentives incorporate data capture via opt-in forms.
The game was sent out to 175,000 members of Panasonic's eCRM database and consumers registered with Inbox Digital to receive games. It has also been seeded on several global viral websites.
More than 595,000 people have played the game and the site has recorded 1.6m unique visits. Nearly 40,000 players registered for more information, with 21.38% clicking through to view the Lumix range. The game is being played 1400 times a day.
'There is no point doing a viral for the sake of it. It needs to suit the product, message and target market,' says Gaele Lalahy, web communications and e-commerce manager, Panasonic UK. She adds that a viral can play a vital part in an integrated campaign. 'It can end up being the element that drives the most relevant traffic, creates brand engagement and achieves data capture.'
Dos and don'ts
- Do embed your viral in a microsite so that you can monitor views.
- Do think about using viral games rather than films. They are less likely to damage the brand, will keep people online for longer and offer greater opportunities for data capture.
- Don't use shocking content without considering the risk that it could destroy the brand's image.
- Don't use viral advertising as a quick alternative to a proper idea. Make sure the activity is warranted.