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Justin Kirby, DMC
"The message should be used as a means to an end, rather than just an end in itself."

In den Zeiten der New Economy war "Viral Marketing" eines der beliebtesten Buzzwords. Der Hype ist längst vorbei, aber der Begriff ist geblieben. Allen Unkenrufen zum Trotz ist Virales Marketing dabei sich als Instrument im Marketingmix zu etablieren. Justin Kirby, Denker und Lenker von DMC, eine der führenden Viral Marketing Agenturen weltweit, hat mehr virale Kampagnen auf den Weg gebracht als jeder andere. In jüngster Zeit startete er Aktionen für Virgin Mobile, Mazda und XBOX.

vm-people: Mr. Kirby, what's your personal understanding of the term "Viral" in the business context?

Kirby: I think I might bore your readers if I explained my personal understanding of the terrm viral in the business context, as I've been known to go on at some length on the subject!!! However, I think the following definition from Dr. Ralph F. Wilson's "The Six Simple Principles of Viral Marketing" is pretty good:

"Viral marketing describes any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message's exposure and influence. Like viruses, such strategies take advantage of rapid multiplication to explode the message to thousands, to millions."

vm-people: Over the last two years Viral Marketing has been embraced by many clients and their agencies. Which factors played a role in the development and diffusion of Viral Marketing as a communication tool?

Kirby: Economic pressures over the past three years have forced advertisers to look for ways to get 'the biggest bang for the lowest buck' and be more accountable for all marcoms activities. In the online marketing arena, add falling banner ad click-through rates to the equation and it's no surprise that many advertisers have turned to other techniques, such as email marketing and search engine optimisation/marketing.

The same period saw a few high-profile marketing 'accidents' like the Budweiser 'Whassup' and John West Salmon 'Bear' ad campaigns which managed to 'escape' onto the web. They generated a vast amount of free brand exposure online as they were passed virally from peer-to-peer via email, and made other big brands want to replicate their success.

This led to a more formal use of online viral marketing as a bona fide technique - initially, simply as a standalone marketing tactic with the focus on the viral material as an end in itself. People began to realise that such tactical use was very hit and miss, and relied totally on the viral material alone striking a chord with online users. The other result of this use of viral marketing was that it increased the amount of poor-to-middling viral material on the web, making it more difficult for campaigns to stand out from the crowd. This has now led to companies at the forefront of the online viral arena realising that the 'viral agent' or creative content carrying the message for a campaign should be used as a means to an end, rather than just an end in itself.

vm-people: What makes your company DMC different from more traditional advertising agencies? Can you describe how you work for clients?

Kirby: We are not an advertising agency. We specialise in the planning, seeding (distribution) and tracking of online viral and buzz marketing campaigns via an editorial approach, dealing predominantly with specialist online viral and entertainment routes. We do not provide the creative and production services of traditional marketing techniques (advertising, design, direct marketing, etc.) that agencies provide via a traditional media and/or new media advertising approach.

To give traditional marketing people a more recognisable point of reference for comfort's sake(!), you could say our approach is akin to a sort of quantifiable cross between public relations and online media planning and buying. As such, we tend to work closely with the client's creative partners in order to help ensure that the viral material is able to elicit the greatest uptake, improving the chances of it going viral. We also coordinate closely with the client's media and PR partners, to help leverage influence and spend with any existing media activity, and to generate additional PR and buzz for the brand and the campaign.

We sometimes also manage the viral material creative development and production aspects of a project on behalf of a client. So the way we work with clients varies widely depending on the client and the campaign. However, the services we provide are very specialised and cover only online viral and buzz marketing, nothing 'traditional'.

vm-people: Viral clips are one format amongst others like e.g. Flash games. Why does DMC specialise in viral clips?

Kirby: Actually we don't just work on viral marketing campaigns that use video, we can also work on campaigns that use other viral agents, such as images and Flash games. However, because we specialise in the planning, seeding and tracking aspects of online buzz and viral marketing campaigns, part of our expertise lies in advising clients about which viral mechanisms will work best within the context of their project's objectives and budgets – rather than simply suggesting a route based on production capabilities and/or creative prejudices.

So saying, there is a fair bit of research - from the likes of the Lycos Viral Chart and others - about which kinds of material are the most popular with online users. Their findings support the results from the many campaigns we've run. You may be surprised to hear that Flash-type games are the least popular viral mechanism, probably because there are so many of them out there and far too many are simply mediocre at best. So we often recommend using digital video clips as a way to stand out from the crowd -and also because their spread can be tracked more easily than other online viral mechanisms, making their use highly accountable.

vm-people: What makes a viral clip different from a conventional TV ad? What are the critical factors in producing a Viral Video?

Kirby: Interestingly, some of best known examples of successful viral marketing have been ads that have been shown on TV like the Budweiser Whassup, John West Salmon and Microsoft Xbox campaigns. But simply sticking TV ads on the web is no guarantee of viral success, although releasing them online before they appear on other media can help.

It's important to realise that viewers proactively experience viral material online. It's not passive activity like watching ads on TV or cinema. With viral material users choose to download, view and pass it on, thereby giving the material peer-to-peer endorsement (the ultimate way of engaging your audience).  So the material needs to be compelling enough for users to want to forward it to their peers, as well as simply enjoy watching it i.e. it has to be more entertainment-based that advertising-based, and it has to turn recipients into senders.

There are many factors that can increase pass-on including unforeseeable ones - e.g. a recent campaign for the Splinter Cell computer game had an unexpected extra boost of topical interest because the Iraq War just happened to start straight after the campaign was launched. It's worth bearing in mind with viral material that "This is a really cool video, it reminds me of my life to date?" is quite a different user comment from "This is a really cool product, you should buy it." In our experience, commercially backed viral material should take the form of 'advertainment' rather than overt advertising if it is to appeal to viral audiences – the more 'tainment' than 'ad', the better.

vm-people: Can you describe what a Viral Video can do and what it can't do?

Kirby: Strategically, the main purpose of carrying out an online video-based viral marketing campaign is to raise brand awareness, not to generate targeted sales response (which is more suited to the use of Search Engine Optimisation/Marketing or Email marketing).

Depending on its size and file format, the actual video clip as a viral agent can be easily downloaded from seed sites and passed between users via email, as well as being shared on peer-to-peer file transfer networks like Kazaa (which can't be done with streamed video). Also, depending on its file format, video clips can be tracked so the originators can quantify how much brand awareness a campaign is generating - much more precisely than can be done offline.

vm-people: At the very beginning of a campaign the Viral has to be sent out to a handful of influential people. How does DMC identify these influentials? And how are they motivated to spread the message?

Kirby: Clever seeding is the key to kickstarting a viral campaign and certain sites are much more influential than others in terms of generating viral spread. One of the things our tracking technology enables us to do is see how far video clips get spread as they're passed peer-to-peer as email attachments. This has allowed us to assess which places can generate the most viral spread on the web, identifying which seed routes (weblogs, sites, forums,etc) have the most influence.

However, getting viral material onto the best-performing places is only the start because, regardless of how influential the seed routes may be, the success of your campaign is ultimately in the hands of the end users – they decide whether to subsequently pass on the material or not. So the motivation to pass on the material after the seeding stage has more to do with the viral content, no matter how well-planned the seeding strategy and buzz generation has been, both in terms of where the material has been initially released and how well it has been 'editorially' advocated in those places. That's why it's important that advertisers also work with content creators who haven't just created viral material but actually understand the viral culture and can help convey marketing messages, rather than just create material for its own sake.

vm-people: One typical feature that Viral Marketing is known for, is that it is a low-budget strategy. Do you agree with this notion?

Kirby: In the end, what makes a viral campaign work is a good idea not the production values of the execution, so it's true that viral campaigns don't need to have TV-type advertising budgets to work - which is good news for those companies that can't afford to carry out TV advertising.

It's also true that viral campaigns need little in the way of media spent, if anything after the initial seeding stage, so viral marketing can be a very cost effective way to reach vast numbers. This is not the same as saying that you can get a well-planned viral campaign with excellent creative that will stand out from the crowd and reach millions on a low budget.

vm-people: What is most often being criticised in Viral Marketing is the lack of measurability of a campaign's success. Which tools does DMC use to measure the effect of a campaign?

Kirby: It's relatively straightforward to quantify certain aspects of a viral marketing campaign, or any other online marketing campaign if you have access to sites' server logs. So measuring how many people download a file, or view a video stream, or even visit the campaign landing page or microsite, is all quite basic. Even tracking inbound traffic from referrers, such as seed routes, to a destination web page is all part of standard web site measurement and analysis software.

What's more complicated and much more interesting in terms of viral campaign accountability is measuring how far the viral material has spread as it subsequently gets passed from peer-to-peer via email as an attachment. Our tracking technology enables us to do this with video-based campaigns. Although our tracking doesn't quantify the *entire* number of people exposed to a viral campaign - (because people can view material offline, and material can be repurposed thereby losing its tracking capabilities) – it does provide a precise, quantified measure of exposure and an indication of the peer-to-peer endorsement that the campaign has had. We also use a whole range of more standard web search and analyis tools to generate qualitative data about the subsequent buzz that has been created as a result of a viral campaign - helping clients to make better-informed decisions about ongoing brand strategy.

vm-people: When does Viral Marketing perform best? As a stand-alone tool or as part of an integrated strategy?

Kirby: Arguably all communications need to be integrated, but integration is one of those marketing terms like viral which mean different things to different people. Perhaps it's easier to explain where we see viral campaigns fitting into the overall marcoms mix.

I think it's fair to say that no business can afford to maintain constant mainstream media brand awareness. There are two most common purposes and benefits of online viral marketing from a strategic point of view:

1. To maintain or boost a cost-effective level of brand awareness during Above The Line (ATL) media spend 'downtime', usually by releasing web-only viral material that retains the brand and campaign themes.

2. To kickstart new marcoms activity, which often means releasing a web-first viral edit of a mainstream ad before it hits TV, in order to create a buzz and exploit the exclusivity factor - even before cinema release which used to be seen as the pre-launch buzz-generation activity.

vm-people: Viral Marketing is widely perceived as an online communication tool. Does Viral Marketing work in the real world too?

Kirby: Viral marketing is often also referred to as "word of mouse" because it is simply the online equivalent of word of mouth, which has been working well in the real world for thousands of years. The important difference as far as the online world is concerned, is the speed at which messages can to be communicated to huge numbers across great distances.

It would, however, be a mistake to look at the Internet in isolation because those people that spread messages online also live and communicate in the real world, which is why it is important that the viral mechanic in any online campaign is used to convey a message rather than become the message itself - creating a buzz that can get out of the Intenet and into the real world.

vm-people: Since the classic Hotmail case Viral Marketing has steadily evolved. How will the strategy be perceived in 2005?

Kirby: The maturing use of the online viral technique has already helped shift agency and brand perceptions about the web. Online activity is no longer simply another 'must do' for any marketing programme, which is significant enough, but the web is now being seen as the medium where a campaign should be launched to create a buzz BEFORE it hits TV, print - or even cinema which used to be the release medium for pre-launch buzz generation.

More and more businesses are also realising that integrating a strategic use of online viral marketing into their overall marcoms mix can significantly extend brand-building activity. A few farsighted brands are already including viral planning in their overall campaign planning process as a matter of course, developing viral themes up front in order to maximise online brand extension. This kind of usage can only grow over the coming years. In business terms, viral campaigns rely on material being forwarded peer-to-peer, engaging potential customers and compelling them to interact with a campaign and/or brand. However there is a plethora of online material masquerading as 'viral', which is mediocre and simply adds to the clutter online - making it more difficult for business-related viral campaigns to stand out from the crowd. Online users are also less likely to pass on material that is overtly commercial.

Perhaps it's not surprising then, as the viral marketing technique evolves, that the term 'advertainment' is starting to be used more and more to describe viral campaign material i.e. material that may include a subtle brand connection somewhere (almost 'sponsor' style), but which has the ultimate, overt aim of entertaining users rather than selling to them. The ability for viral marketing with advertainment content to engage users looks set make the viral technique an ever-more-important part of the strategic marcoms mix as advertisers adopt new ways to reconnect with customers who are switching off from traditional 'interruptive' advertising.

Justin Kirby, DMC

Interview: © vm-people 2003


„Headrush“ oder wie eine kleine Werbeagentur aus London auf einen Schlag weltweit bekannt wurde.


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