Viral Marketing: What Works, What Doesn't and Why


Fletcher Martin VP PR & Social Media Strategy and author of SpeakMediaBlog Jennifer Jones has written a contributing article on the topic of viral marketing in which she takes a look at four viral marketing campaigns and tells us what's right and what's wrong with them.

These days one cannot go two clicks without reading about viral marketing. Some say it's the greatest notion since the four P's (product, pricing, promotion and placement). Others say it's an over-hyped waste of time that will burn itself out.

The bottom line is viral marketing can only be as good or bad as the campaign around it. Many would-be viral marketers seem to think calling something viral automatically makes it so. They fail to understand that viral marketing requires strategic planning at the start and ongoing promotion throughout the campaign. With this in mind, I have compiled a short list of what I feel are some of the best and worst viral marketing campaigns so far this year.

Viral Video With a Soft Touch: Stride Chewing Gum's Dancing Video
One of the greatest challenges with viral videos is deciding when and how to incorporate the brand. If the brand name is too present, your overt marketing will upset the viewer. If you don't include it enough, you risk being called out for deceptive practices.

Stride Chewing Gum seems to have cracked the formula when they subtly sponsored an Internet star named Matt Harding. Harding first found online success in 2005 with footage featuring his silly dance performed in random settings around the world. The video, dubbed "Internet art" by bloggers, was viewed by millions of fans. Stride Gum, a newly-formed entity at that time, needed something to build brand awareness. They contacted Harding and offered to underwrite his future travels, resulting in two more videos; one released in 2006 and the other in July 2008.

What They Did Right:
Stride recognized the appeal of Harding's video was the simplicity of global joy, and thus kept their branding to a bare minimum. In the first sponsored video in 2006, which featured Harding dancing in 42 cities, the Stride logo appeared only twice in the top right of the screen - and never longer than ten seconds - throughout the nearly four minute video. The 2008 dancing video featured Harding joyously jigging in 69 locations across the globe. This time people of all ages and nationalities joined him in his global glee. The only evidence of Stride's involvement was their logo after the end credits.

Stride knew Harding already had a following. They knew bloggers and media would discuss how their financial support allowed Harding to create two new videos, something he would not have been able to afford without them. As such, they knew not to over-hype their involvement, but rather to let their generosity speak for itself.

Did It Work?
The 2006 video saw more than 10 million views and delivered major spikes in web site traffic for, a site that included background on Harding. Stride also saw a reported 8 percent increase in sales with global praise for their hands-off branding approach.

The 2008 video has seen more than four million views in the first two weeks of its release, and the numbers are still growing.

Prior to its relationship with Harding, Stride didn't even register on IRI's list of 20 top-selling brands. Today, Stride is the 5th best-selling brand in the sugarless gum category, up from 6th place in 2007, indicating that a soft touch can make viral pop.

Social Media Without The Social Part: GM Canada's Catch the Vibe
Scavenger hunts around automotive brands are nothing new. Volvo had great success with a global treasure hunt tied-to the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Budget's 16-city hunt sent consumers scurrying across North America. While the concept is a natural fit for carmakers, it still requires the right approach; something GM Canada learned with their three-city scavenger hunt to promote the 09 Pontiac Vibe. The campaign has become a cautionary tale of applying old school strategy to new media.

"Catch the Vibe" consisted of two-person teams, each driving a new Vibe across three major Canadian cities. The hunt was to be fueled by Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr; plus e-mails, online ads, video clips, blogs, wikis, and text messages. The company mapped out locations throughout the target cities and painstakingly arranged fun tasks for participants.

What They Did Wrong:
Unlike Volvo and Budget, GM Canada/Pontiac excluded consumers from actively participating in the hunt. Each team was made up of journalists, 96 in total, who searched for clues and completed challenges.

Points were awarded to teams who recruited people to cheer for them on the site. The idea being that the reporters would write about their experiences and post pictures on Flickr inciting readers to sign up in support their favorite team. Not only was the target audience excluded from participating in the hunt, there was also no incentive for consumers to register online as no prizes were awarded them. (In comparison, Budget offered a total of $160,000 in prizes for their campaign and Volvo gave consumers the chance to win one of 70 cars hidden in remote locations).

The purpose of an automotive scavenger hunt is to engage the buyer with the brand. GM Canada had the right idea. The target market for the Vibe is the 25-35 year old, a demographic that actively participates in viral/social marketing. However, social media is about participation. GM Canada approached this medium like they would old-school journalism, where people are content to read the exploits of others instead of becoming a part of the story themselves.

In addition, most of the reporters who did participate cover the automotive beat and would have written about the new Vibe - scavenger hunt or not. Unfortunately, this campaign left them with little to say about the car and its features. As Chris Chase of Candian Driver said, "I didn't get to drive the Vibe at all (not even around the block), so I haven't a clue how it handles or feels. But, I had a good amount of time in the passenger seat -- which is fairly comfortable."

Did It Work?
Only 2,000 people registered online to support the teams and the media coverage was limited to the participating journalists who rarely mentioned the Vibe or its features.

Viral That Engages: Warner Bros.' The Dark Knight
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard about the viral marketing campaign supporting the latest Batman installment, The Dark Knight. This is viral that sets the bar for all others to come, particularly for those marketers building-to a product launch as the campaign began more than a year before the film's release.

Incorporating the movie's plot of political intrigue, this campaign featured online and offline faux politics, including rabbit holes (sites that lead the visitor deep into a myriad of cross-linked web sites with "Easter egg" surprises); real-world political rallies across the United States - one of which was broken up by some very confused police, resulting in national headlines; faux news coverage to support the faux politics; Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) including text and phone-based scavenger hunts that sent thousands of fans racing online and offline around the world; faux kidnappings at Comicon; texts and voicemails from the movie's characters offering new clues for the ARGs and the film's plot points; and footage made available for fan-generated videos.

What They Did Right
Warner Bros. and 42 Entertainment recognized that Batman fans want to "play" super hero and villain along with the characters they love. They also understood that social media and viral marketing is about participating with the brand and building anticipation. Therefore, they kept fans and media fully engaged for more than a year, eagerly awaiting each new phase of the campaign.

The fans were made to feel special as they were given "secret" information involving the movie's plot. And, the more fans participated, the more they promoted the movie by their actions - whether by posting photos from the ARG on Flickr or spending hours editing together footage to support or denounce the movie's political candidates. The media simply followed the lead of the fans' growing excitement.

A google news search showing some coverage: search?hl=3Den&q=3Dthe%20dark%20knight%20viral%20campaign&um=3D1&ie=3DUTF-8&sa=3DN&tab=

Some rabbit holes:


This link has some great images from the faux political rallies: ttp://

This was one of the sites for the ARG: /steprightup/">

This is very cool — Flickr photos from the Dark Knight ARG / Scavenge=
r Hunt


Example of clues for the batman ARG: b7/2061017609/">

Fans off and running on the scavenger hunt: os/kellbailey/2452649868/"> a>

Fans deciphering clues in the scavenger hunt: otos/kellbailey/2451819221/">

Did It Work?
The non-stop media coverage came from all corners of the globe; rabbit holes and movie web sites saw millions of visitors; thousands of fans pieced together their own videos and posted them online, thereby promoting the film for the studio. The Dark Knight merchandise sold out in many U.S. cities that hosted faux political rallies. 21 days prior the film's opening, The Dark Knight pre-sold eight times more tickets than Spiderman 3 - a film that broke box office records and many theaters across the country are adding show times to meet the demand. As of this writing, The Dark Knight has not opened in theaters, but all reports indicate a record-breaking weekend.

Obscurity Can Confuse Consumers: Nokia's
Sometimes, a good campaign can be hurt by bad timing and too much obscurity. Nokia recently launched a viral marketing campaign for a new product/service designed to take advantage of consumer curiosity.

They began with a site called which informed consumers of a story involving a movie clip made hundreds of years ago and that was so unnerving it was locked up behind four royal seals. The story said the seals would be broken at the end of a 101-hour countdown. When the countdown concluded, the same URL contained a sly "notice of termination" letter that appeared, at first glance, to be a genuine cease and desist order to the person who launched the site. But, the fine print indicated the person behind the site would stand trial accused of "intent to publish content driving people insane." Clearly, this was not a real charge and was the next step in the campaign.

What They Did Wrong
While the concept was clever and Nokia strategically built phases into the campaign to continue the story, there wasn't much media coverage, even in the blogosphere. What little coverage there was seemed to be confused by the notice of termination. Unfortunately, people did not read the fine print to catch the joke and instead dismissed the campaign entirely once the letter was placed online. While the note was designed to create anticipation and further the idea that whatever lies behind the seals is terribly strange, the delay in revealing the content and the vagueness of the notice created the opposite effect; people lost interest.

Another problem was timing. The 101 hour countdown took place over the U.S. holiday Independence Day, a time when millions of people were on the beach instead of online. Therefore, a great portion of the target audience never even saw the initial site and subsequent phases.

Of course, the U.S. is only one country and viral is a global method. Still, marketers often forget that viral campaigns require a little push on social media bookmarks, aggregates, boards and micro-blogs. Nokia did little to alert the word-of-mouse world about this site. It seems they fell for the "build it and they will come" myth, which is the failing of many a good campaign.

Did It Work?
At the time of this writing, the fake termination letter was still in place and very little media coverage or social media conversations could be found online. The people who did cover the campaign were largely critical or confused.

Viral marketing will continue to evolve with technology. Every day there are new tools and tactics to be explored. But, at its root, it is still a strategic means of creating buzz and the time-tested rules of any campaign apply. Plan the timetable for launch and keep feeding the machine with new content or it will die. Know your market. Take the time to understand what will interest them and what will turn them off. Engage them. Allow them to participate in the campaign and to be a part of it. Give them a reason to tell the next person and the one after that. Then, sit back and watch as your customers do the selling for you.


Jennifer A. Jones is a strategic PR/MARCOM media relations expert with fifteen years experience on both the agency and corporate sides. Working across practices with consumer products, Internet, B2B and entertainment clients, her key focus is in brand development and creative strategy that combines traditional public relations with new media and viral/social media tactics. Her client roster has included Fortune 500s as well as emerging start-ups. Jones authors SpeakMediaBlog, which covers hot topics in PR, marketing and social media strategy and is a graduate of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA.

by Steve Hall    Jul-21-08   Click to Comment   
Topic: Opinion, Viral, Word of Mouth   

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