From Furbies to Flashmobs: An Overview of Viral

July 17th, 2014 by

Neil Cumins explains what viral marketing is and questions where it’s going in the future…

Trying to follow trends in online marketing can feel a bit like sharing the house with a teenager. Language constantly morphs into new and ever-more incomprehensible terminology, and something that was recently at the cutting-edge of cool can quickly become more hip replacement than hip and happening. From flash mobs to crowdsourcing, each digital media phenomenon has risen over the parapet of public consciousness with varying degrees of endurance.

Rather like judging someone’s age by the first news story they remember, it’s possible to gauge some people’s IT literacy by asking them when they first heard the term “going viral”. For many, it was Fenton the dog and his assault on the nation’s red deer. For others it was Tourism Queensland’s “best job in the world” campaign, where one lucky applicant got paid a six-figure salary to tour the Great Barrier Reef and blog about it. The distinction between these two viral phenomena is that the former was apropos of nothing, whereas the latter was a deliberate attempt to generate a groundswell of interest in Australian tourism. This is viral marketing in action.

A viral marketing campaign is essentially a technique where brand awareness or sales are rapidly bolstered by creating memorable digital content for public sharing and redistribution. The target audience for any viral campaign is an 18 to 25 year old with a strong social media presence, which is why most viral campaigns rely on either humour or surrealism to encourage the sharing and forwarding of links or content.

Identifying the origins of viral marketing is difficult – it’s possible to argue that toy-based phenomena like Furbies and Teletubbies relied heavily on word-of-mouth promotion among their target markets. Companies were supporting advertising campaigns with interactive online videos as early as 2004, and we recently had a well-known car manufacturer allowing people to vote using Twitter during a TV advert to decide how the ad’s storyline developed in the next break.

The evolution of viral marketing has seen it become ever-more responsive and interactive, and some of the best campaigns now have an endearing simplicity to them. Sometimes all you need to ensure viral success is an attractive man talking rather surreally about how awesome he is or a slot on the Jimmy Fallon show. The chief benefit to companies of such minimalist marketing is that most of the publicity is user-generated – and in many cases so is the actual content. Not only is this very cheap, but few things enhance a product’s desirability like popularity among a person’s peer group. A successful viral is quite literally worth a thousand adverts in terms of brand awareness and status.

We’ve now reached the stage of Viral Summits being held in America, where marketing gurus debate viral marketing trends and techniques for the future. It’s safe to conclude that viral campaigns have reached the maturity stage of their life cycle – a more pertinent question is whether they are already in decline. Considering the fact that one of YouTube’s most watched and forwarded-on videos of all time involves a small child biting his brother’s finger for no apparent reason, it’s probably safe to assume that a well-judged viral marketing campaign can still engage a global audience.

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