If you’re in your 30s or older, you probably remember when “viral marketing” was a brand new buzzword, and something that every company was working to master. You probably also find that it doesn’t sound cool anymore, even if you can’t identify the exact moment when it started to seem like the marker of a hokey gimmick.
“Going viral” was once a feather in a marketing company’s cap, but now it’s more likely to be seen as a natural phenomenon. Sometimes virality might still result from highly effective marketing, but it’s more of a happy coincidence than a carefully designed outcome. You can still try to implement a viral marketing campaign, and some people do it quite successfully. But if it ever becomes obvious that that’s what you’re doing, you’ll be at risk of a becoming the butt of many jokes, or even just the object of cynical condemnation.
This makes the entire concept of viral marketing a sort of double-edged sword in the current landscape. On one hand, consumers are highly clued into it, and ready to reject the intended message if they feel they’re trying to be manipulated. For some companies, that inherent risk makes viral marketing seem like too much of a liability. But if you can evade or overcome those consumers’ cynicism, you can get people to focus on your campaign at great length, and potentially to even expend their own time and energy on helping it to reach other eyeballs.
Even then, however, there’s an open question about whether the brand message will actually land among the intended audience. Part of the risk of viral marketing is that you can start a phenomenon while also divorcing it from the product you were originally trying to sell. It’s not always clear when this has happened, especially since viral marketing often relies on guerrilla tactics that mask the source of the campaign until the date of some big reveal.
When you achieve early success with a viral marketing campaign, you’re rolling the dice on whether people are going to be primed to receive the brand message on that date, or too familiar with the campaign to really care. In all likelihood, there will be a mixture of both types, and it may even take a lot of careful analysis to figure out whether you ended up attracting more people than you repelled.
You can probably get a sense of this effect right now by asking a few friends about the “Utah monolith” and its offshoots. You probably heard about the original, mysterious appearance of a metal monolith in the Utah desert several weeks ago. You may or may not have noticed that in the time since that object went viral on social media, other monoliths have appeared in California, Pennsylvania, England, France, and Australia, at a minimum.
If you did, you’ve probably formed an opinion about whether this global phenomenon is intriguing or just annoying. Your friends have probably done the same. And some of them have probably already floated the idea that it’s a viral marketing campaign. To be clear, it’s not at all clear yet that that’s what’s going on. But as we mentioned above, that’s the essence of some such campaigns. There may be a big reveal coming, and you may already be able to tell which of your friends will give the message a fair hearing as opposed to booing at an overreaching attempt to capture the whole world’s attention.
From there, the question becomes: which of your friends would you most want to reach with a viral marketing campaign. If the person who’s closely following monolith news is also the person you’d want knowing about the monolith brand, then you might have a rare viral marketing success story on your hands. But even if that’s the case, it’s a tall order to try to replicate that success with a different campaign and a different product.
Viral marketing still has its place, but unless you’ve got something really unique to offer, you’re probably better off leaving your own viral aspirations in the realm of serendipity.