If you must use a viral site, at least make it brand-consistent

The only thing more tiring than hearing marketing reporters carp on the inanity of most "viral" campaigns is marketers' insistence on doing them. So, no one wins.

The only thing more tiring than hearing marketing reporters carp on the inanity of most "viral" campaigns is marketers' insistence on doing them. So, no one wins.

Believe me, I'd much rather talk about the positives in marketing than point out the idiotic approaches that masquerade as "edgy." The latest viral campaign to come across my desk, forwarded by a friend, is Office Max's gift of 20 wacky Web sites, including the self-explanatory "Reindeer Arm Wrestling," "Conspiracy Carols," and "Elf Yourself," a Web site that allows you choose the look and dialogue of a video elf.

These microsites strike me as terribly boring, but the point here isn't whether I, or anyone else, appreciate the aesthetics of the thing. The real question, in my opinion, is whether they do a good job in advancing the goals of the organization.

Swinging by Technorati on December 8, I noticed 403 links to Elfyourself.com. Not dreadful, but nowhere near great. But searching for the Web site along with the word "Office Max" netted a mere eight hits.

And why should that be a surprise? People treat viral sites like children treat holiday presents. As soon as they shred the wrapping to find a toy of interest, they immediately forget who had given it to them. Five minutes later, they lose interest and jettison that toy for the next, only eventually acknowledging who furnished the gift when drawing a stern rebuke from a parent for his or her behavior.

Because there is no inherent connection between Office Max, which, sorry, will always be a stodgy office equipment supplier, and the singing of "Conspiracy Carols," it cannot be a surprise that no one mentions Office Max. Maybe that's a good thing considering (tres edgy!) the "Conspiracy" site doesn't preclude users from employing racist or defamatory language.

It doesn't take a starched shirt to openly question the ROI on such a marketing push. Be irreverent if you want, but keep it consistent with your brand. Maybe you should emulate the Office-style send-up that companies as diverse as Burger King, Fed Ex, and others have embraced for their marketing.

Rather than assemble an assortment of wacky Web sites that have no tether to office life or office supplies, why not have a guide to using your office equipment for non-work means? You get your edgy slant (imagine cocktail mixers made out of sturdy shipping envelopes), and people might just remember who paid for the content.

After receiving the Office Max link from a friend, whose colleague was likely somehow involved in the campaign, I asked if it was OK to write something up for PRWeek. He assured me I could, thinking I was asking whether he cared if I bad-mouthed the company. His reply was as follows: "Sure - I don't own Office Depot."

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