Viral marketing is over-hyped and misunderstood. Viral Marketing is a good idea gone tragically wrong. Once you look past the hype, it's obvious that most so-called 'viral marketing' does not work; It is neither viral nor marketing.
You might be surprised that I say this at a time when there more good viral communication than ever. There is no shortage of fantastic things in my inbox; only none of them come from marketing companies.
Hobbyists hacking animations in their bedrooms have a better track record than the entire UK interactive marketing industry. (If you don't believe me, look at www.newgrounds.com , www.pox.co.uk or do a google search for 'all your base are belong to us')
Once we cut through the hype, it's impossible to spot a single effective viral campaign:
For example, the General Election has produced more dull viral marketing than any other British event. I have seen many variations on the theme of MPs bashing each other. These crude flash animations may be superficially different, but it's the same old joke. It's ironic that viral marketing, a medium that should be about radical innovation, inspires mediocre plagiarism.
Some 'viral' ideas are too bad to copy. PG Tips' so-called 'viral' offering should have been killed before it was born: A mini-site invites users to download an application that reminds customers to take regular tea breaks. This program features a character called Rosie who is a sinister cross between a woman… and a teabag.
Few of you will see this abomination online. Once you download the 1Mb file you have to unzip and then manually install the files. That's assuming you are prepared to go to this trouble for nag-ware!
People only share viral attachments with their friends if the joy of sharing outweighs, the cost and hassle of sending or downloading it. You are asking a lot when you expect customers to forward your latest creation. Unless you make it easy and worthwhile why should anybody choose to share your campaign?
The Saatchi 'Yes to Europe, No to the Euro' campaign was another example of a viral campaign that asked far too much; People were expected to forward a multi-megabyte movie clip. If you had a high-speed connection you might just be able to pass it on; but who would you send it to? Nobody wants to get a reputation for being the person who forwards tedious jokes? And those who do, are quickly ignored.
It's worth noting that three years earlier Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, launched their cartoon in exactly the same way. Their file was actually four times bigger but worked because their cartoon was really good. People are willing go to great lengths to get something exceptional. It's a shame most 'viral' marketing is barely mediocre.
Even this year's most celebrated viral campaign fails to meet the mark. A web murder-mystery promotes Spielberg's latest film 'AI'. Involving hundreds of websites, 'The Game' is complicated enough to deter even the most fanatical gamer. It lacks the simplicity and instant appeal required for real popularity.
I doubt that many of the people who have been hyping this campaign have ever played it. I respect its originality, but it works better as a traditional PR stunt than as a viral campaign.
I've learnt that good viral marketing needs to be original and accessible. People love to be the first to forward something new. The Felix viral campaign I designed over three years ago worked well because it was a simple original idea with broad appeal. There have been many technically superior imitators since, but the clones were never as popular; the audience had seen it already.
The problem is, that the people who plan and design viral campaigns are afflicted by vanity. They imagine other people would want to use an application they would never use themselves. I've heard this excuse justify all kinds of sub-standard ideas; "According our market research, the target audience loves this stuff". I've sat through long dull meetings where account managers explain why a particular idea is funny. If your idea really is good you wont need to explain it, and you will not need market research.
Creating a successful viral marketing project was never easy. Without a strong, original idea you have no chance of producing a successful viral message. No amount of production can compensate for a bad idea. Viral marketing is the only medium where success depends almost entirely on the quality of the original idea. Once we all realise that style can never triumph over content, Viral Marketing might regain a little bit of respectability.