Monday, May 5, 2008

Where's the Beef? Jumpstarting Your Next Viral Marketing Campaign

I grew up in a viral era.

I was born the same year the advertising jingle “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company” was reworked into a top ten pop song. Years later, my room was decorated with posters of Spuds MacKenzie – the Bull Terrier made famous in Bud Light television commercials – and Max Headroom, spokesperson for New Coke. Max fared quite a bit better than the ill-fated product he hocked as he scored a lead role on an NBC television series that lasted a few years.

My viral upbringing is best captured in a simple question: Where’s the Beef? Originally featured in an advertising campaign for fast food chain Wendy’s, this catchphrase transitioned to pop culture when Walter Mondale used it in a debate during the 1984 presidential election to challenge the substance of rival Gary Hart’s views.

Pre-Internet it took a healthy dose of big budget advertising for content to truly go viral. The gulf between individuals was just too great for something to spread beyond a relatively close knit social group.

It sure is different today. Research firm eMarketer reports that nearly 9 out of 10 adults share content with friends and family by Email. Moreover, new media channels such Web-based video sites, blogs and social networks empower individuals to connect with a great number of people, more quickly.

Corporate marketing executives recognize there is gold in viral. For a relatively insignificant amount of budget, they can build brand and positively influence sales, profitability and valuation.

Consider the recent viral success experienced by Chinese PC-marker Lenovo. For a few thousand dollars, their corporate communications team created a video of Lenovo employees playfully comparing their ThinkPad X300 ultramobile PC with the much hyped MacAir from Apple. After being passed around the Web and profiled in a number of trade media and industry blogs (, the video will be professionally redone by Lenovo as part of the company’s next TV ad campaign.

So, what’s the secret to developing content that spreads to the masses via the Web? I’ll argue no one truly knows. It’s kind of like the characteristics of cool. It depends upon who you ask.

I do have a couple of suggestions that could help your company create the next viral wonder:

1. First and foremost, viral is about entertaining and engaging content that presents information in an unexpected way. Embrace humor as long as it is in good taste. Don’t shy away from poking fun at yourself.

For instance, at an AeA conference I attended key note speaker Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research in Motion (maker of the Blackberry), shared a video from their creative department that “mistakenly” referred to his company’s product as a Crackberry.

2. Start the viral spark by posting the content on as many user-generated sites as possible. Encourage your employees, partners and customers to do the same.

3. Embrace controversy. There will be those who find fault with your viral content and, in rare instances, consider if offensive. As long as your intentions are honorable, stand behind your content and encourage differing opinions. It will actually help spread the word.

4. Keep your chin up. Viral content is a lot like professional baseball. Succeed three out of ten times and you’ll be in the Hall of Fame. The reality is that most of the content you produce won’t catch on beyond a niche target group. And that’s OK. Luck and timing may be on your side next time around.


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