When the Medium Isn’t the Message


At my company, we often get asked to create viral advertising. My response is usually, “What you really want is good content. After all, the only reason people share content is because it’s good, right?””Good” is a subjective term and is different for everyone. But when one person sends a video to another, she assumes the other person will have the same definition of “good” and will find the video good as well.

Nevertheless, agencies all over the country are faced with these “gimme a viral” marching orders every day. The problem is too many of them are delivering, and we’re potentially saturating the marketplace with attempts, desensitizing audiences to what we are actually trying to get them to notice — the message.

I see an unsettling trend that I hope we can recognize: in a quest to go viral, we’re blinded by delight.

Have you seen this viral video from Ray-Ban?

What about this one from Sprite?

While I’m not knocking these videos in particular (after all, the Ray-Ban video has millions of views on YouTube), I wonder whether they actually strengthen brand association.

Many studies tout that they do in fact help foster brand awareness, appeal, or both. A 2006 Burst Media study stated that 56 percent of viewers recalled ads in the content. That’s not a convincing number, though. If you’ve ever conducted a brand awareness study, you know people will say they saw ads when they didn’t and say they didn’t see an ad when they did and just didn’t notice it. Plus, “viral videos” is just too big of a bucket. The videos range from brilliant to poor, and any attempt to lump them into one category in terms of effectiveness is futile.

As more advertisers add viral initiatives to their interactive marketing checklists, I suggest removing it. Viral shouldn’t be a checkbox, but a quality that virtually all advertising (and the technologies that go with it) should satisfy. TV spots go viral. Amateur footage goes viral. Professionally created amateur-looking footage goes viral. But if a video with 5 million views goes viral with poor brand association metrics, did it actually make an impact?

Advertisers and agencies test TV spots routinely to gauge effectiveness. Odds are, the same isn’t being done for viral videos. The primary reason is probably that they have significantly lower budgets associated with them. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of over-testing advertising; I still think a great marketer’s hunch will typically beat a full focus group’s scoring. But maybe we advertisers and the industry as a whole should analyze the effect this new kind of content has sooner, rather than later.

On your next viral campaign you develop for a client or ask your agency for, remember why you’re doing it. Remember why one person would want to share a piece of content with another. And as an advertiser, remember the effect you want the video to have on people. Don’t fall in love with the number of views on YouTube; after all, they may not even be real.

The real measure of success is the way it changes how audiences feel about your brand.

Good advertising (created to be viral or not) does that. And good advertising will go viral if you but facilitate it.

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