In the Most Obvious Headline of the Year, eMarketer tells us that “Poor Content Makes Viral Marketing Fizzle.”

Viral Marketing going to the dogs

Jupiter Research reports that only 15% of viral campaigns get passed along. The reason viral marketing rates are so low? Poor Content. (What a surprise)

I do many planning campaigns throughout the year, and we’ve heard more than our share of lame pitches. We have companies tell us that they want to do a viral campaign, but have no idea how or why it should happen. The worst thing is when companies tell me, “I have this (fill in the blank) I just built and I need you to make it go viral”.

Make it go viral. Really? You know how viral works, right?

Can You Make Viral?
Viral marketing is a strange thing. While a viral campaign can be planned and launched, the best viral campaigns are usually accidental. In fact, viral movements are often sparked by pop-culture events rather than funded advertising campaigns. While it’s possible to engineer a viral campaign, companies need to work to carefully research their target audience. Trying to push standard advertising or site offerings into going viral generally results in backlash. Customers have to WANT to promote something, and not feel pushed into doing so.

The Dove campaign is a perfect illustration of this. By showing what goes into a model shoot, Dove was able to communicate a very revealing message about our perceptions of beauty. This message got people’s attention, and they forwarded it to friends by the thousands.

The Pitch
You can usually spot a poorly planned viral campaign in the pitch. Bloggers are usually the targets of viral campaigns, as they provide the perfect means to influence a niche audience. The pitch to a blogger is a draw for them to talk about your company or campaign. You can’t be lazy when pitching a blogger – you have to maker the blogger the center of your universe. Otherwise, you aren’t worth their time.

Some of the best viral campaigns are the ones that you will never hear about. They target a specific niche, they grow naturally, and they won’t make headlines. They are quietly successful, and very specific.

Do Your Research
One very smart business retained us to study their website and their “hook.” After a few group tests and user observation sessions, we were able to conclude that the website was not targeted to the intended audience. The intended audience disliked the site and some even found it offensive. Rather than pressing ahead, they used the research and decided to re-brand the website for a younger audience. They knew they had to change the message in order to meet the older audience they wanted.

This is one case where the expense of pre-campaign research probably saved the company more money than pushing through with a misdirected viral campaign. Campaigns go viral because they resonate with people, not because they appeal to marketing execs or creative directors. The consumers are the ultimate judges of content.

Most viral campaigns are well-planned for execution, but fail miserably on follow-up or Word-of-mouth tracking. There is not a thorough knowledge of how to track the buzz on or off a target site. Without metrics for the campaign established from the planning stage, there is no definition of success. However, even with some metrics established, there is no clear benchmarking data, formal measurement, or standardized methodology.

Mostly, what we have to rely on is the word of the marketer, who proclaims the campaign a smashing success, but has little data to back up the claim.

What’s it take?
For viral to be successful, it has to give up control to the user. It has to be a message, an application, a widget, a video; anything; but is has to resonate with a social participant at some level. Viral marketing is only as successful as you are willing to take the steps necessary to know your audience and speak their language.

Related Posts:
Are You Creating a Customer Experience?
Social Traffic: Useless Gossip or Powerful Word of Mouth
The Three C’s of Marketing: Revisited – Content, Context, Community