Speaking at the first Viral Summit last week, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, was Oli Christie, creative director of marketing agency Inbox Digital. 'I recently spoke to the UK head of marketing at Ford,' he said. 'He definitely said that the cat was part of the plan.'
Whether or not the cat viral was sanctioned by Ford's PROs, it crystallised the main message of the viral summit. Speakers declared it irrelevant to ask whether PROs were 'in' with the makers of virals (still or moving images, weblinks or online games that can be 'passed on' by the public). Because of the way in which virals are developing, they said, PROs should be able to take clear ownership of the discipline.
The institute was an ideal venue for such a discussion, having recently hosted what was billed as the first exhibition of virals, called Outrageous & Contagious. Included was the Sportka ad and the ironic 'Welcome to London' image by Neil Hepburn, aka Beau Bo D'or, who compiles a viral-themed blog at bbdo.co.uk.image. The latter won the 'best still viral' category in The Germ Awards
'Two massive changes are taking place,' explained Matt Smith, co-founder of agency The Viral Factory. 'First, there is no longer a guarantee of success and there are more and more virals out there: getting stand-out from other virals is harder. Second, until 12 months ago virals were spread by email. These days, blogs are where most virals get talked about.'
Smith claimed both changes were beneficial to PROs, arguing that virals need PR input to help them target bloggers. Last November, The Viral Factory shot a short film for Microsoft called We Share Your Pain. A spoof news bulletin reported how frustrated Microsoft users could send in their 'error' messages. Microsoft would locate the programmer responsible and administer an electric shock on the user's behalf. According to Smith, 90 per cent of the response to the campaign was posted on blogs, which often included a link to the host site of the film.
Promotion of virals is known in digital circles as 'seeding' – placement of material on websites such as BoreMe.com, Contraband.com and Killerviral.com – where visitors can browse, download and discuss virals. BoreMe and Contraband charge to host virals – £4,000-£6,000 to target a campaign at 7,000 subscribers, with the cost rising in line with the number of subscribers being 'seeded'.
Chris Kempt-Salt, MD of viral marketing agency Kempt, told delegates that this costing reflected the fact that virals had provable value. But Will Jeffery, MD of agency Maverick – which produces viral games for clients including Sony and Atari – said seeding-sites were not enough, and that comms specialists were needed to get virals out to the wider public. 'Clients want guarantees that a viral is still going to work,' he added. 'Getting newspapers talking about us produced an extra 100,000 hits for some of our virals; getting them on TV also tells the world they exist.'
Jez Jowett, head of digital at Cake, agreed. Every Friday he sends virals to 1,500 people – website editors, bloggers and opinion-formers – and said the best seeding-sites were the more obscure ones, such as inboxjunkies.com. 'These websites are the new editors, the guardians of what we watch,' he told delegates. 'Getting through these gatekeepers will be a comms job in its own right.'
The fact is that without traditional PR, some virals fail to get noticed.
'We created a viral game for Vicks, and owner Procter & Gamble used its PR team to get writers talking about it,' said Christie, who has managed to get campaigns reported in The Sun and on CNN. 'But only two weeks ago we created a viral without PR – it sank without trace.'
Virals also need PROs' involvement because clients want highly targeted campaigns rather than a broadbrush approach. Duncan Pringle, MD of Digital Brand Marketing, told the summit that success was no longer measured by the amount of people reached: 'A successful viral is about targeting the right people and getting it sent on to the right people. It's no use to a UK brand manager to have two million hits from the US.' He added that because of this targeting, bloggers were the future of viral promotion.
Meanwhile, BoreMe.com head of research Rik Lander believed the time had come for company PROs to work with external viral makers, rather than assume their work was an attack on the company in question. 'It makes bad press when companies try to ban virals,' he said. 'One of the funniest virals recently was an unauthorised spoof of esure's "Calm down dear" ad [for which the Michael Winner original is remixed to hard dance]. When esure realised the brand was being pummelled into the brains of youth, the PR office promoted the viral internally and on blogs.'
Rather than wait to be 'attacked' by unofficial virals, some firms, such as MasterCard, make their ads available on websites so film-makers can download and parody them. It is a risk, but one that can pay off.
Harry Cymbler is MD of Hot Cherry PR, which specialises in promoting virals. One of its clients, Lee and Dan, was responsible for the infamous 'VW terrorist' mock ad, in which a suicide bomber fails to blow up his car because it is so tough. 'Virals need offline buzz too,' Cymbler said. 'Viral is not a new delivery method, but PR agencies will be missing a trick if they don't become involved with getting virals noticed and talked about by the right people.'
If one lesson was learnt from the summit, it was courtesy of Gavin Lucas, contributor to communication arts magazine Creative
Review: 'There is a mountain of viral shit for every molehill of gold.
PR agencies are experts in knowing what makes news, and what they should be doing is looking out for funny content they know has viral potential. The recent clip of Boris Johnson rugby-tackling an opponent in the England-Germany "stars match" made me laugh out loud. It would be great if, say, BUPA's PR team sanctioned it for a viral with the strapline: "When shit happens...".'
Power to the people
Last month Nivea, the Beiersdorf-owned skincare brand, ditched traditional marketing for what it calls a 'viral PR' approach – to launch its Sunkissed Skin moisturiser. Four teams featuring two ordinary members of the public were picked from nationwide auditions. Their only brief was to simply 'talk up' the product in any way they saw fit. None had any PR experience – they all gave up their job for a month – and they each had just 200 cases of samples to play with.
Integrated marketing agency Space, which co-ordinated the activity, has offered a £10,000 prize to the team that gets the most blog/TV/radio and print coverage by the end of next week. Nivea senior press officer Luci McQuitty says: 'Consumers are more and more savvy. We're calling this "reality marketing and PR", where we are getting people talking about the product in a new way. From what we're seeing already, the public are really behind it.' Already, the teams have organised celebrity parties, infiltrated blogs and have even produced their own viral games.