Leader: Viral marketing has to combat mistrust

With the creation this week of the Viral and Buzz Marketing Association, the discipline of so-called consumer-to-consumer communications would appear to have come of age. The body, a collection of PR firms, ad and new-media agencies and sales promotion companies, includes two UK PR consultancies: Frank Public Relations and the new-media division of Cake.

Set aside for now the apparent paradox of those at the cutting edge of marketing communications electing to promote their work by creating a trade association, the oldest trick in the new business book. There are three real issues facing the VBMA.

The first is establishing the validity of viral marketing as a craft in a media environment of almost total transparency, in which any attempt to create a self-perpetuating atmosphere of excitement about a product or a company is considered intrinsically suspect. There is a PR job to be done here, but it needs to be handled delicately, for the media outlets sceptical of buzz marketing on moral grounds are likely to respond with hostility to any obvious charm offensive.

The second challenge is to educate the client community in the meaning and potential of word-of-mouth communications. 'Viral' has come to be synonymous with humorous and/or lewd mpegs, rather than with the effect these have. This confusion between the form campaigns take and the impact they achieve is blatant - and avoidable. Asking your consultants for a viral campaign is fine, but if this manifests itself as a tabloid media relations drive, don't be surprised.

Finally, the task of putting in place meaningful protocols for measuring the success of such campaigns is pressing. As difficult as that appears to be, forging systems that move beyond traditional pre and post-campaign awareness ratings to measure the effect of any calls to action is essential if the sector is to demonstrate the value it clearly creates. The combined resources of the VBMA's member companies should be brought to bear on these key issues.

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