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What Can We Learn About Marketing From “Viral” Media?

Posted by Casey Lewis on Thursday, March 19, 2015

Topics: Social Media



marketing-viral-mediaHere’s a riddle for you: what type of marketing is impossible to purchase, hard to predict, and guaranteed to boost your traffic and social media following tenfold? The answer is viral marketing. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you know exactly what “going viral” means. It refers to movements like #TheDress, which probably spread like wildfire through your social media channels in February.

For the uninitiated, the dress in question appeared in a photograph, and most people saw it as white and gold; however, a vociferous minority saw a black-and-blue-colored dress when they viewed the image. It sparked heated debates among friends, family members and even lovers, if you believe Buzzfeed. The site wrote a tongue-in-cheek post titled: 18 Relationships destroyed by the Dress that Broke the Internet.

Just like any good idea, sneaky marketers have tried to co-op the “viral” movement to create viral marketing campaigns. The results are mixed, to say the least. The truth is, a viral marketing campaign is very hit or miss. Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to give viral marketing a shot:

You can’t force it

Part of what makes a viral movement so fascinating is the fact that it’s unplanned. That only adds to the hysteria surrounding something like #TheDress: its spontaneity is part of its appeal. So when marketers try to force it, it doesn’t always work out so well.

Cartoon Network’s popular late-night programming block, Adult Swim, learned this lesson the hard way in 2007. The company tried to engineer some online buzz by hiding battery-powered LED devices that resembled the old Lite Brite children’s toys in major U.S. cities. These devices were supposed to drum up publicity for the show Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Instead, they ended up being mistaken for Improvised Electronic Devices (IEDs) and leading to a major bomb scare in Boston. Oops.

You have to take chances

Cartoon Network may not have considered all of the possible implications of their LED stunt, but they had the right idea. You have to be brave and perhaps a bit reckless when trying to cause a viral sensation.

Lay’s decided to test the public’s imagination and creativity in 2012, when they announced a contest to invent the next flavor of Lay’s potato chips. And it worked like a charm. According to Entrepreneur Magazine, they received nearly 4 million flavor ideas, ultimately deciding to put three into production and letting consumers decide which would become a new Lay’s staple. The eventual winner, Cheesy Garlic Bread, can now be found in grocery stores nationwide. And your author can vouch for its deliciousness (seriously, it’s fantastic).

You never know what’s going to resonate with the public

Chance is always a factor in viral marketing attempts, because you never know what is going to make people talk. Viral marketing is kind of like a one-hit wonder for a musical artist – a perfect storm was created for that song to succeed, and no future songs, no matter how similar, can replicate the success of the original. Therefore, trial and error is a given when it comes to viral marketing; you just have to keep trying to see what will finally strike a chord with the public. And because “going viral” is so unpredictable, it will probably end up being the campaign you have the least amount of faith in that finally gets the job done.

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