Photo Credit: Pablo Garcia Saldaña via Unsplash

Ladies and gentlebeings of the jury, I come to you with a confession. I must bare my soul and throw myself on the tender mercies of Saint Don of Draper and Our Lady of Perpetual Brand Awareness. May they have mercy on this beknighted wretch of a correspondent.

I don’t (if you’ll forgive the dreadful phrase) “buy into” the concept of viral marketing campaigns. I find them gimmicky, trite, and often far too reliant on low-brow, sophomoric humour, if such a word can be used to describe the effluvia with which we are repeatedly inundated. More important than all that however, is the fact that in many cases, viral marketing campaigns overshadow the product or brand being featured.

Please don’t misunderstand me my long suffering reader. I have watched and enjoyed viral campaigns in the past. One notable example is the “I Believe in Harvey Dent” and “Harvey Dent for Gotham District Attorney” video ads that festooned the interwebz in promotion of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight. Clever use of characters from the film fed the media buzz, while also adding slightly more depth to certain plot points.

Another obvious example is the now famous Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign. It should be noted that while the campaign worked in the beginning, much of the viral momentum it gained later was more about Isaiah Mustafa’s hilarious portrayal of “Old Spice Guy” than it was about the product itself.

These campaigns were well made, entertaining, and seemed (at least superficially) to achieve their purpose. The problem is, I believe these are anomalies and FAR from the norm.

Whenever I bring this up in discussion, I am usually reminded by someone that, “XYZ company did a viral campaign and it got a bajillion views on the various social media networks.” They say it as if “views” or “clicks” are the most important metric here.

It is true that views, shares and clicks are important measurements when running any sort of marketing campaign in the online space. However, I believe the most important metric for any brand is whether or not the consumer, having clicked, viewed or shared the ad actually responds to a call to action and makes a purchase. In other words, do these viral campaigns actually translate into conversions?

I’m not sure that they do.

I’ve often heard people say that the goal of viral marketing is brand awareness, the logic being that in the future, when the consumer is ready to purchase, they will somehow remember the brand because of the funny cat video the person shared six months prior. It’s an interesting argument, and to be fair, brand awareness is a very powerful tool for marketers, but I think it’s pretty shaky ground on which to build a marketing platform.

What often ends up happening with these viral videos is that people remember the video, ad, etc., but not the brand or product to which it is referring. This is particularly prevalent in ads that have little or nothing to do with the product. (These ads are source of particular vexation for me, but that will have to be another tale, for another time.)

My dearest reader, you’ve been patient with me up to this point, so allow me to leave you with a final (though admittedly unscientific) example.

Some time ago I was speaking to a group of friends when the subject of advertising came up. I asked the group if they remembered a video ad in which a large red button was placed in a town square somewhere in Europe with a sign that said, “Push to Add Drama.” When, eventually, some brave soul did so, a series of incredible events, from car chases to gun fights suddenly exploded around him, leaving the person shocked and amazed. My friends remembered this readily, each one excitedly giving detailed accounts of the various elements of the ad. Several of them had seen the ad multiple times, and all had shared it with multiple friends.

So these people had been throughly entertained (even to the point of multiple viewings), and had shared the video with their friends, who had presumably done the same. By the normal metrics used for viral videos, this was a definite win. Intrigued, I then asked what brand the ad represented. After a short period of thought, the group responded with utter silence.

“There she is! There she is!” as the dashing Ricardo Montalban said in 1982’s The Wrath of Khan. Indeed dear reader, there indeed she is… the problem with viral marketing. While in certain circumstances it can work (films seem to be particularly well suited for this), all too often the campaign itself is the only thing people remember.

Most, if not all businesses have a fervent wish to be talked about by consumers. (Positively one would hope.) This often leads to increased sales, which leads to greater profit margins, which allow companies to make better products and services. Everybody wins. However with viral marketing, a business runs the real risk that the only thing consumers will be talking about is the ad itself, not the product or service it represents.

Memorable, but all the wrong reasons.

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