Stop talking about ‘viral’ as if it were the new thing. It isn’t.

The concept of ‘viral’ has been around since the dawn of time, but it seems only within the last year or two that it’s being treated as an end in itself. And how do you create one anyway?

Knowledge is viral. When the first flint was turned into a weapon, I’m sure that the knowledge spread through the ape-tribe virally – everyone wanted a piece of the action because it meant that they could get more food. When a little sparrow realised that it could peck through a milk bottle top to get at the cream, suddenly they were all at it.

Of course, viral knowledge transfer isn’t just about food these days. It’s about sharing funny stuff, silly stuff, awesome stuff or the stuff that makes you wonder what the creative was on at the time. It’s about hitching the horses to the bandwagon, and getting other people to jump on. Thanks to the internet, a campaign can go ‘viral’ in the time it would once have taken a company to talk to the first handful of early adopters.

Although viral is being courted as the latest thing – with companies and agencies all trying to deliver the next big buzz – it really isn’t. Word of mouth campaigns from pre-internet days are perfect examples, whether they started in broadcast, print or from a town meeting. The rise of the Tamigotchi is another. Religion could be said to be a third.

So viral isn’t new. There are an increasing number of briefs floating about demanding a viral concept to be delivered. OK maybe they’ll say an internet viral, or an experiential viral. But they’re still chasing the same thing – exponential audience engagement.

There are two principle risks to this:

1) Does the viral fit within strategy or are you going after audience share for the sake of it?

2) Are you creating what you think that people will like and want to share, or are you trying to make the best possible work within a strategic and tactical context?

I was part of a discussion recently about how to create a viral. On one side of the argument, it was all about audience identification, seeding and world-wide metrics. On the other, it was about producing great tactical work based on a firm strategy, seeding and metrics be damned.

My take on this is that virals should be founded on great work, work which you create and feel proud of and work which will achieve a defined goal – not work that you think that the target will probably like according to the focus group (which will probably return a value of ‘Charlie Bit My Finger Again‘ anyway). And it must be remembered that people aren’t interested in sharing the shoddy (unless it’s so shoddy it’s brilliant).

I believe that the viral should also be based on a firm, fundamental strategy which puts it in a realistic context and defines the end transactional goals. Perhaps that strategy is just to raise brand awareness, perhaps it is to get people to buy something. Either way, the work is focussed on delivering that strategic aim; the work is a tactic and the viral aspect is something which develops because the work is good, not because it was always meant to be a ‘viral’.

I also think that you need to have gut instinct and pride in the project in order to turn it into a viral (as opposed to cynically creating something which you think people will share because you want a ‘viral’). You need to be so proud, in fact, that you want to tell your five closest buddies that you’re working on this awesome new project and get them so fired up that three of them tell their work colleagues that they’ve got this pal who is doing something really cool; and then those work colleagues tell their friends that they know this friend of a friend who’s doing something that is going to be the next big thing, and that they’re in line for a first glimpse of it because they’re in the ‘inner circle’ (even though they’re not, but the six degrees of separation really can be marvellous things).

And thus we’re back to old-fashioned, pre-internet, so-simple-even-the-bees-do-it, word of mouth advertising, without a Facebook post or Tweet in sight – all created because you’ve shared a piece of knowledge which others have shared on because it makes them look good in the eyes of their peers. The viral is born…

Image from Will-Lion’s photostream on Flickr (under Creative Commons Licence)


2 thoughts on “Stop talking about ‘viral’ as if it were the new thing. It isn’t.

  1. Pingback: Marketing Monday – 5 Must Read Stories (Daily Strategic Bulletin For 06 Feb 2012) |

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