It’s official, banning viral marketing from my vocabulary

11 August 2009

Ran across an article on Advertising Age – a book review and interview with author Bill Wasik, the Godfather of flash mobs. In his new book, “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,”* he ponders the life (and possible death) of Word-of-Mouth Marketing in a Social-Media World. Mr Wasik notes that with the rise of social networking in which people are familiar with the ideas of personal branding, it poses certain future challenges for marketers – ie the more savvy consumers are, the harder it is to tap into them via social media.

While I have not yet read the book and do not want to misrepresent the context – it has got me thinking. I feel Word-of-Mouth marketing by nature is more important than ever. Research suggests peer influences are very important factors in a customer’s purchase pathway – for items big and small. They also influence perceptions of brands. I also feel social media with peer communities presents heaps of opportunities.

However I agree with the statement that viral marketing might be dead. Perhaps this is because the idea of viral marketing at its foundation is based on old advertising-models. As noted by Henry Jenkins in “If it Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead”** (a must read), the very definition uses a metaphor of viruses being spread involuntarily by unaware consumers. Like Swine Flu. Why would anyone want to be involved with that? The term was created by marketers who were comfortable with disruptive advertising models to hold onto an inflated sense of their role in the process.

But we all know the truth – we (collective we as in the marketing industry ‘we’) have lost control. Unpredictable results in social media campaigns, fueled by unpredictable behavior by consumers, is a source of great anxiety within business. It is a common story – we built it, why didn’t they come?

Therefore I have ditched the term viral and instead adopted Mr Jenkins’ theory of ‘spreadable media’ – which emphasizes the role of consumers, or what he calls ‘multipliers’, in shaping the distribution of content. This notion of spreadability is a direct contrast to outdated models which emphasize centralised control of distribution and message. The power is with those who spread, not those who create.

If as marketers we want to be able to harness and effectively engage the power of WOMM marketing within social media we need to better understand the role we all play.

Here I have developed 3 overarching principles I feel are important when successfully creating spreadable culture and ultimately developing communities. I originally had more but I felt everything else kept falling into these buckets – so this is what I am sticking with:

  • Stop and ask why – without your brand hat on. It can’t be said enough but in order to engage your audience you need understand the motivations – and let me give you a hint – your recent ad campaign 99.9% of the time is not serving the interests of the consumer. Consider what content you are offering and how that is going to strengthen the relationship with your consumer. Another way to look at it is to solve your customer’s issues, instead of your own.
  • If your strategy relies on one video to “go viral to extend reach” – go back to the drawing board. To best integrate into a connected society, you need to provide as many layers as possible, building an ecosystem around the brand. You might want to consider the role of RSS feeds, corporate blog, Twitter, EDM, mobile apps, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Yahoo! Answers, etc – that is not even to mention offline activations which should feed into all these as well. Social media is not “a” channel – it’s is heaps and these should play many roles in your marketing strategies, just not a mere campaign extension as in my opinion that misses the point a bit.
  • Stop thinking of your content as ‘free’, think of it as a gift. As Mr Jenkins notes in his whitepaper, “in a gift economy the gifts we share say something about our perceptions of the person we are passing them to as much as they express our own tastes and interests”. It is important to think that all these interactions should reward your consumers for participating in your brand. What gifts are you giving your customers?

While it may seem trivial to focus on the language, when you drill down it’s not the words we use it’s how we understand the mechanics of it that are misleading and ineffective. Perhaps by changing the language, we will change the deeper meaning.

For more information on the sources quoted, please see here:

*Bill Wasik’s new book “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,” a survey of the rise of the “nanostory” in America and its impact on culture, art, politics and, of course, marketing, is out now. Check out these Amazon reviews.

**Henry Jenkins’ white paper “If it Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead”, co-drafted by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, and Ana Domb Krauskopf with Joshua Green, was developed by the Convergence Culture Consortium on the topic of Spreadable media. Check out the paper available on Henry Jenkin’s blog Confessions of an Aca Fan here.

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4 Responses to “It’s official, banning viral marketing from my vocabulary”

  1. Magnolia Medina

    I am doing a research on viral marketing for The Robert Gordon Universiy. The purpose of this research is to analyze three successful viral marketing campaigns. If you want to participate, please click this link:

    http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=kir1HOU0ur4YjWIbqTy1QQ_3d_3d

    Thank you

  2. Meghan Stuyvenberg

    Thank you for posting, happy to help contribute to the reseach and suggest other readers of this blog do as well. Takes about 7 minutes (and there are a couple vids as well)

    Cheers
    Meghan

  3. Sam Ford

    Hey Meghan,

    Enjoyed your post and am thinking very much about this issue. I’m a collaborator with Henry Jenkins and company on this work/project and am currently working for Peppercom. I agree with you that language is far more than trivial. The language we use shape how we design a campaign and how we measure success, and I think “viral” has a fundamental impact on how people do/plan both.

  4. Empfehlungsmarketing

    Great discussion is going on this blog i’d like to join with you guys and gain knowledge from it.

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