Mr. Smith, Viral Marketing (VM) is very vaguely defined. What is your definition of the strategy?
When we talk about "a Viral" we mean a file that has spread on the Internet through peer-to-peer networks on an exponential curve. Viral Marketing uses this dynamic to spread marketing messages through friend networks.
In the course of the last year VM has "tipped" in England. A lot of agencies have listed the tool in their portfolios. Which contexts played a part in the development and diffusion of VM as a marketing tool in your opinion?
Email is what has made VM possible. It is fast, has no boundaries, and allows information to spread like never before. VM in the sense of word-of-mouth marketing has existed since the beginnings of commerce. Email has increased its power and reach immeasurably.
Concurrently, resistance to traditional forms of bought media is increasing. Audiences are fragmenting and becoming more and more difficult to reach. VM offers a solution to this problem.
What makes The Viral Factory (TVF) different from traditional advertising agencies? Can you describe how you work for clients?
In order to create a viral that works, it is more important to service the creative work than the client. Agencies find this almost impossible.
TVF see virals as sponsored content. We come up with viral scripts, and attach brands to them rather than the other way round.
For instance, Gift was a script that we had written which we knew had huge viral potential. We approached MTV and convinced them that this viral was right for their brand. An agency would have tried to convince MTV they needed a viral and then worried about coming up with something that would work.
TVF specializes in Viral Marketing clips. What makes such clips different from a conventional TV ad?
A conventional ad exists in bought media space. The content can therefore focus on cramming in as much information as possible about the brand/product/service. Virals have to earn the media space by being compelling enough that viewers want to email them to their friends. This requires production and execution values at least as high as those for ads - for about 10% of the budget!
At TVF you call Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point "the bible". Which small factors does a Viral Marketer have to take into consideration in order to create an epidemic?
Here is a selection: Content, File size, File type (we always use mpeg), Cultural independence, Visual gags, Limited use of language, Universal situations
Your approach is to create viral "engines" to drive a campaign. What is your understanding of a viral "engine"?
We see content as the catalyst to drive a marketing message. If the content does not work, then the message will not move and the virus will die. The content is what drives awareness of the associated brand, and generates goodwill towards it. It also creates a buzz that can spill over into the offline world.
Malcolm Gladwell names three factors, which play a part in the proliferation of social epidemics. The first one is Stickiness.
What makes a marketing message sticky according to the research of TVF?
Different concepts work for different media. Virals have to be sticky by their very nature, just in order to be successful, so asking what makes virals sticky is like asking what makes virals successful. The answer is circular: they have to be good! Factors that work are no secret: humour, shock value, sex appeal are just a few.
At the very beginning of a planned epidemic, in Phase Zero, the Virus has to be sent out to a handful of people. Gladwell calls these people The Few. How does TVF identify these Few? Who do you pick as receivers for the first copies of a new clip?
We do 'seed' our clips - with sites such as www.punchbaby.com, and also with people who have come to our site and requested they be sent our latest releases. However, a crucial difference between the situation Gladwell describes and what we release is that the content is driving the virus, not a certain group of people. If we get it right, more people will send on the clip than not. The tipping point is reached very quickly.
Gladwell also points out The Power of Context as a crucial factor for an epidemic. What do you do at TVF to create the right context for a viral engine?
We target the content at the audience we want to reach. The context is therefore built into the content.
What is most often being criticised in Viral Marketing is the lack of measurability of a campaign's success. Do you agree with this objection?
This is true. It is particularly true at the moment because many marketing managers are nervous about committing budget to virals - and they need as much good data as possible to feel more secure about embarking on a viral project. Interestingly, as soon as they realise that all their friends have received the clip they stop worrying about data so much.
However - good data is obviously a key part of any successful campaign.
Which tools do you use to measure the effect of a campaign?
TVF have tried many different approaches and now use a combination of file tracking and quantitative and qualitative data modelling.
When does Viral Marketing perform best? As a stand-alone tool or as part of an integrated strategy?
It can work under both conditions. As a stand-alone tool it works well to raise awareness of a brand - for instance to launch a new product or website. As part of an integrated campaign it is very good at providing stories which PR companies can spin out to gain column inches in the press.
In both cases the reason for this effectiveness is the same: viral marketing creates a huge buzz.
Many marketing managers fear a loss of control when using viral techniques. Virals can be easily modified and mutate when they are passed along from user to user.
That is one reason why TVF focus on video virals. The five basic viral formats are text, images (jpegs etc), Flash (games/animations), audio and video. Text and images can be highly viral, cheap to make, and tiny in file size. However, both formats are very easy to modify and therefore difficult to control. Video is much harder to modify.
For the record - Flash is over-used and delivers less impact. Sound is less viral as many people, especially in offices, turn sound off.
Is there anything a Viral Marketer can do to get a Viral back under control?
Sometimes, losing control of a campaign can be beneficial. Budweiser 'lost control' of the Whassup campaign when half the world started to spoof it. However I doubt they minded very much.
The rule here is, don't release something that people will want to ruin and subvert. Doing that just means you got it wrong from the beginning.
Since the classic Hotmail case VM has steadily evolved. How will the strategy be perceived in 2005?
If I'm very rich in 2005, then I'll be glad I didn't answer that question. But here are a couple of hints: Wireless technology. Micropayments.