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Viral marketing goes mainstream

It seems as if everywhere you turn these days social networking, UGC, and viral marketing are the hot topics – and for a good reason. Tapping into word of mouth and community is a great way to generate positive buzz for your product or brand quickly. But, as with life, all things are not created equal and viral marketing is becoming saturated, and expensive, while user generated content continues to grow more sophisticated and mainstream.

… companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for video campaigns crafted to grab the attention of the Internet’s discerning and ad-saturated audience. “In some respects viral marketing is a victim of its own success,” says Stefan Tornquist, research director at MarketingSherpa, a Rhode Island marketing research firm. “There is so much evocative content being produced by amateurs for free, and then there is competition among brands devoting more resources to viral marketing campaigns.”

Today, Robinson’s London company, The Viral Factory, charges $250,000 to $500,000 to create ads he guarantees will reach an audience equal to or greater than the one that saw his original $10,000 clip. “You can’t do what we did back then,” Robinson says. “Today, we could never go to a client and say, when they ask how we are going to distribute it, ‘Well, I have five mates.’”

Not only do advertisers need to spend more to make the ads, but increasingly, they’re having to pay for placement on sites. YouTube, the largest video site, shows about 100 million videos daily. It sells several visible spots, though it won’t disclose advertising fees. “Over the coming months you will see various forms of advertising on the site that (are) mutually beneficial to both the users and the advertisers,” says Julie Supan, YouTube’s senior marketing director.

As the saturation point is reached with traditional “viral” campaigns, advertisers will need to spend more and more to reach the tipping point where the idea reaches critical mass & influences consumer perceptions. Consumers, especially key influencers, are increasingly attuned to what is contrived by the brand vs. what is a unique idea worth spreading. It then becomes more difficult to capture their attention and build valuable word of mouth. Instead, “viral” campaigns are now being treated as another mass media campaign in order to gain as many impressions, or eyeballs, as possible. It is hard to imagine that the definition of viral is being honoured when media is saturated with the campaign, or the only measurement appears to be pure reach. Outside of entertainment value, many of these campaigns fail to implement even the most basic actionable items (i.e. schedule a test drive; email newsletter; product sampling, download a free song, etc.).

Also (in terms of the expenditures to generate a limited/ short-term buzz and awareness) the websites that have capitalized on UGC, such as YouTube, will continue charging brands for placement, upping the campaign costs again.

The idea that campaigns cannot go viral by “telling 5 mates” [okay, that may be a wee bit low ;)] is ludicrous considering the successes when a) UGC ignites with a highly influential network, or b) a concept or idea resonates on an emotional level or fulfills a distinct need, and is tailored to a specific niche audience of influencers who will spread the word to their network (see Malcom Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point“, or Seth Godin’s “Unleashing the Ideavirus” for indepth discussion on how ideas spread in society).

A prime example of tapping into the power of community organically is Cassie Ventura & MySpace:

“Me & U” is No. 3 on The Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and No. 2 on Hot 100 Airplay chart. Its viral growth, which started before Ventura signed with Atlantic-based Bad Boy Records earlier this year, can be attributed to vigorous online marketing (MySpace, specifically) and word-of-mouth.

“The song grew pretty organically,” Ventura says. “Radio stations added it before I even got signed, and clubs were playing it three and four times a night,” she says. “It was already established by the time labels started noticing me.”

…Since posting the song on her MySpace page in November, Ventura has generated more than 6.5 million profile views.

Which leads to a bold move into the social networking/ UGC arena by MTV, with their new channel MTV Flux.

MTV Networks will on Monday make its biggest move into the “social networking” area, dominated by websites such as MySpace and Bebo, by unveiling plans for a television channel devoted to content created by its users.

MTV Flux will allow people to exchange messages and video clips by computer and mobile phone, much like existing social networking sites, but will allow users to choose which music videos are displayed on the channel, and display their own videos and messages alongside.

This is a terrific way for MTV to recapture their audience from YouTube & MySpace, or enhance and augment what consumers are already doing on social networking sites. It empowers consumers, while providing brands with another channel to tap into. I see great potential for this channel to go beyond traditional videos/ UGC and look forward to the launch in the Fall.

Brands and agencies must pay attention to the saturation & commercialization of “viral” campaigns (in whatever form they take) and look at additional ways of adding value within the product or service, target a niche of influencers appropriate to your goals, and involving the community (not just your early adopters) in developing your positioning. Without targeting & strategy the campaign loses its effectiveness to influence perceptions except on a mass (or diluted) scale. If that is the end goal of a campaign, the stickiness factor is lost.

It is however, just a bit disconcerting to realize that we are still taking innovative mediums and trying to turn them into TV. Hmmm.

[Photo credit: BrianScott on Flickr]

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The 1% (or maybe 2%) rule

From Jaffe Juice via COTC, about the sliver audience, the evangelists, the influencers, the connectors, whatever you want to call them, that account for 98-99% of your buzz and hype.

Non-profits have known this for years as they deal first hand with the power of a small subset who cares passionately, to motivate their immediate community and beyond into action. Amnesty letter writing campaigns come to mind first and foremost.

Wikipedia example:

  • 50% of all Wikipedia edits are done by 0.7% of users
  • 1.8% of users have written more than 72% of all articles

And the key take-away:

  • marketers focus on the mass – the 99%.

Well, traditionally they have been anyway…. We’ve always only had a sliver in Interactive to make due with targeting since nobody was forking over the same types of budget as mass. ;)

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