What it takes for an ad to go virali


iMedia Connection

Getting an ad to go viral is no easy feat. Here are some pointers on what it takes to get your ad picked up by the masses.

It’s frustrating when techies the world over spread the news of the arrival of a marginally improved Apple iPhone, while you sit in your office wondering why they can’t do the same thing and spread the word for your client’s new brand of breakfast cereal.

What’s more, often your client expects you to sprinkle viral fairy dust on ad campaigns, such that people will be so enamored with the ads that they’ll email them to one another, put them on their Facebook pages and click “Send to a Friend” buttons over and over. But, as you’re painfully aware, there’s no such thing as viral fairy dust. And that’s a shame, because you wish you could get some.

It’s sometimes difficult to explain a campaign that didn’t “go viral.” Client-side marketing professionals sometimes have an inflated sense of how often their brand occupies the thoughts of Joe Consumer. You might find yourself countering with the “if the ads were good, they would have gone viral” argument.

The first step to assessing the viral effect is understanding the economics of online value exchange. The most successful viral campaigns owe their success to the extension of value in one form or another. Sometimes, the best way to (subjectively) assess viral potential is to take a step back and ask, “What value, beyond informational value, does this [ad, video, widget, etc.] extend to the end user?” If the answer is “not much,” don’t expect it to spread beyond your rabid brand enthusiasts.

Many viral success stories are the result of extending humor value. Here’s the critical piece to understand: Humor in an ad needs to be comparable to that in other content you might find online. In other words, a funny commercial is still a commercial. If you’re hoping humor value will spur a significant viral effect, the content better be funny. It’s not just competing with other commercials. It’s competing with the Segway faceplants on College Humor and the drunk college kids playing with power tools on Break. Creatively, the people who make these funny videos don’t have the constraints of being pressed for time, being governed by a series of brand guidelines, needing to pay talent or restricting themselves to “clean” gags. What makes an agency think they can make something even comparably funny operating under those restraints? There’s a reason why viral commercials tend to be “leaked” versions of things the brand would never let see the light of day.

Utility value is more easily summoned when under deadline pressure. A widget that gives viewers the ability to put celebrity headlines on their website, for instance, represents a great extension of utility value:

Give people something of value and they’ll often not mind that your brand is tagging along for the ride.

Getting back to Apple, though, the brand of viral kung fu the company practices is high-level stuff. Some bloggers and industry pundits have boiled it down to “they just have great products.” I think it’s more complicated than that.

Someone high up at Apple understands the value exchange that occurs when a brand fan is among the first to find out about a new Apple product. The value exchange is an extension by Apple of insider status in the form of early information. This incentivizes the insider to tell everybody and their grandmother that they were among the first to see the new iPhone. Since Apple is such a badge brand, both in terms of technology and style, knowing about products first garners bragging rights for those in the know. Careful manipulation of that value is what gets new Apple releases to the top of every social media site, on geek blog sites and, inevitably, into the mainstream media for free.


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