Viral campaigns go mainstream

In the last month, via the web, upwards of 16 million people saw the BBC interview the wrong person; Marmite released a breastfeeding clip that more than a million people said they loved; and Pot Noodle released a 60-second version of its latest campaign to an online audience before it broke on TV.

Just last week, even ITV1’s This Morning dedicated a segment to ‘virals’ and the infectious nature of sending amusing content on to another person. How do these pieces of content become ‘viral’? Where do they start and how do they reach millions and end up on Philip Schofield’s computer?

The process of distributing branded content online is called seeding. What seeding does is place content on the most popular and influential humour, entertainment, viral, news and lifestyle sites visited by early adopters.

Early adopters run their own website, blog, newsletter, forum or simply influence their friends and colleagues by being the person who most often sends attachments and links around the office. A well-planned seeding campaign is capable of reaching tens of millions of people –  credibly – online.

How seeding works
Seeding is affordable, measurable and has been successful over the past year in travel, sports, electronics, charity, gaming, beverages, banking, publishing and even for politicians. Even the over-65s are contributing.

Although countless websites host great content online, no more than 100 can be identified as major players in terms of traffic and influence. Known by clients and media buyers as the Viral Network, these people are the starting point for any successful seeding.

Sites such as Kontraband, Punchbaby, Viral Gods, Viral Chart, Rock to Fakie, Bore Me, Lycos (Viral Chart) and TTR2 feature campaigns as they break. Early adopters are quickly downloading or forwarding on the latest 30-second slice of humour and entertainment, reaching millions. is one such viral channel and one of the first, founded by Cake in 1999. Each Friday, an anonymous Cake staff member (who Eatmail members know as ‘enigmatic editor Emily’) sends out a newsletter to a membership of 15,000 opinion-formers working in marketing, fashion, new media, music, film and advertising. Every Friday, these people receive viral videos (often exclusive), links or simply funny material. One in three pieces of content is now brand funded. Popbitch and Holy Moly run a similar newsletter for opinion-formers, aimed at the music industry and celebrity world.

A seeding campaign can operate without a viral clip, but it is crucial to have a hook and some collateral. For every brand, interest and subject, an audience congregates online around that topic. Newsgroups have been active since 1981, and one billion messages later they’re being overtaken by RSS feeds for news and content syndication.
Identifying the target audiences requires a commitment to understand how to connect with online influencers: a brand name typed in to Google quickly identifies where people are discussing it; a phrase identifies potentially relevant sites; selecting ‘groups’ on Google shows who’s saying what.

One click and you find a ringleader; another and you see how many messages were contributed on the subject; one more click and you can be talking or emailing: approached honestly and with a credible message, a conversation starts. This can rapidly lead to the gatekeeper endorsing your brand message and publishing it across their cyber network. Five clicks later, 100,000 could be actively engaging with the brand.

Measuring the effect
But proving that 100,000 people have consumed that message is crucial for any marketing initiative to be effective. Technology and the digital trail of messages actually allows campaigns to provide more measurement than traditional comms channels (see box).

Viral marketing agencies can provide qualitative and quantitative data, including real-time reports on views/
downloads, visitors, visits to website and duration.

If a seeding campaign involves a microsite, web-trends analysis can reveal details of country of origin – and now, even city. Investigating site referrals reveals sites currently linking to you and those performing best with the seeded content. We now know, once again within a few clicks, who, what, where, how, for how long and who with.

But the ultimate measurement for any marcoms professional must be to attribute sales as a direct result of that communication. Digital communication is making this a reality much more effectively than traditional direct marketing. Mobile content and ‘vouchering’ is completing successful trials in the UK, Spain and the Nordic countries.

Mobile vouchers enable shoppers’ phones to be scanned with a bar-coding device (such as Epos system) and a discount applied on purchase.

Orange Wednesdays saw the public happy to redeem a cinema ticket via their phone each week. And when the World Cup kicks off next week, we will see a flurry of branded virals related to the tournament.

Clients are already expecting their PR agency to be as active online as in traditional media. Digital communication is now at the core of how we now share  information and entertainment. UK marketing spend in 2005 stood at £1.4bn, with around 10 per cent of budgets allocated to online marketing. The fact this figure is growing means an exciting future for viral and seeding campaigns that deliver brand awareness, traffic and sales.

Jez Jowett is head of digital at brand entertainment agency Cake

Tools to track brands’ online campaigns
David Quainton was at last week’s Amec conference on ‘How evaluation fits into the new media climate’. Six sites were mentioned that PROs can use – for free – to track the success of a campaign online.

Alexa – provides information on web traffic from your site to other sites. Doesn’t collect information from Firefox and Opera browsers. Provides traffic ranking.
Blogpulse – plots the ‘buzz’ around specific search terms over two, three or six months.
Google Trends – shows the most popular searched terms since 2004 and compares searches over different terms.
Icerocket – specialises in weblogs. Can compare ‘blog buzz’ between search terms and number of blogs linking to your site.
Sphere – allows a toolbar-based search on whichever site you are visiting.
Technorati – the most popular weblog search engine, allows popularity tracking over time

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