Create a video clip and let the public forward it on – that’s what viral marketing is all about. Or is it? Piers Ford looks at the importance of targeted, clever content and its success within social media
They might not have been conceived as the ultimate vehicle for viral marketing, but there is no doubt that social networks have helped businesses of every kind to heighten the bar when it comes to raising interactive brand awareness activity.
And as James and Joanna, the stars of Cheapflights’ Enjoy Your Flight campaign, become ubiquitous across Kontraband and Facebook, it’s quite clear that online travel companies are in the vanguard when it comes to the creative exploitation of the ready-made social media platform.
Of course, James and Joanna are not real people, but cabin crew characters in an interactive fantasy designed to convey the message to a target 18-34 year-old audience that Cheapflights is their main ally when it comes to planning a dream holiday.
Apart from interactive video content that allows web surfers to switch from reality to dream mode, there are UK mobile phone numbers for users to leave voicemails for the characters, a registration mechanism in the form of a £2,000 holiday competition, and individual Facebook pages for James and Joanna.
This is state of the art as far as current viral marketing techniques are concerned. And it has got everybody talking: the ultimate sign of success in the cut-throat, pass-it-on battle for customer attention.
Not that Cheapflights is alone in pushing the boundaries. Old viral hands Virgin, STA Travel and British Airways (with a different kind of spoof stewardess, Pam Ann), and SilverJet with its own take on the classic BA 1980s commercials, have all contributed further to the mix, adding to the debate about what constitutes a successful viral campaign in 2008.
“Viral is an interesting word because essentially, it means anything you are willing to pass on to other people,” says Matt Gorzkowski, managing director at digital agency Play, which is retained by SilverJet to work on its viral campaigns.
“Successful viral campaigns should polarise people, not necessarily antagonistically, but like football teams. With travel, the idea of crossing cultural boundaries is so important, so the better a viral works cross-culturally, the further it will go. Then there is the tone and making it appropriate for the web – bite-sized, educational, feel-good.
“And finally, it’s better to send than receive, so you create this hierarchy if people value your opinion and you’ve sent the viral on to them. It’s self-selecting, because there are few things that absolutely everyone would want to see and you choose who you send it to. And it’s also this interesting combination of being exclusive, because the sender is selecting the audience, and ubiquitous because it’s generating all that word of mouth.”
But some experts in the advertising industry suggest that with all the focus on the brilliance of the execution, clients could be in danger of forgetting the basic question: ‘Why are we doing this?’
“The travel industry is still somewhat conservative and ultimately with virals, the question your target has to answer is, ‘Will I look good if I pass this on?’” says Ian Bates, creative director at direct marketing agency Entire, which recently developed a successful text-based response viral campaign for Tourism Ireland.
“I’ve always thought that to succeed, virals generally have to meet one of four criteria,” he says. “They’ve got to be subversive, there has to be a teasing, sexual link, there has to be a strikingly good offer or they’ve got to be funny.
“From a creative point of view, I love the Cheapflights campaign. It’s cheeky, full of surprises and it’s a nice piece of work. So is Finnair’s Early Jack campaign, which is also a clever piece of work and a lot of fun. But they are both long journeys. You end up interacting if you stay on long enough but Joe Public has to be convinced.”
In other words, the quality of the execution will never compensate for a missed target. Play’s Gorzkowski agrees that the relatively detailed viral content of the current batch of campaigns is not without risk. “You need to get the customer hooked early, and with some of these campaigns the chance to interact can be many minutes into a piece of video,” he says. “There needs to be value at the start, then the user will stick with it to see what else is going on, and if they like it, they will forward it. Instant gratification followed by an opportunity – that’s what matters.”
“Effectively, the client is putting something out there and saying, ‘Right, public, you do the marketing for us!’” says Entire’s Bates. “But you can never forget that however brilliant the agency thinks it is, for the customer it’s just one of the 15,000 things to look at in their day. You have to exist in their environment and know who you’re targeting.”
Which Cheapflights clearly does. Like STA Travel with Mostfun.tv, it has been happy to break the industry’s conservative mould in its quest for content that raises cross-border awareness.
“We looked beyond the banner initiatives with our online creative agency (GT),” says Joseph Sikorsky, Cheapflights UK marketing director. “Throughout 2007, I trialled various initiatives – a rich media campaign on AOL, Virgin Media brand campaign, a gaming campaign targeting women – all to complement our search marketing activity.
“We researched the market and decided to target 18-34 year-olds, which resulted in the development of enjoyyourflight.co.uk. We don’t disclose figures, but I can say that we’ve seen phenomenal growth in viewers since we launched, with spikes when we have seeded it on various sites. Monitoring this through Google Analytics and our own internal systems, we’ve also seen how enjoyyourflight has travelled virtually around the world.”
Sikorsky says the only paid-for presence has been on Kontraband. As new social network sites come up, the decision of whether or not to seed there is taken on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s all about getting to the right sites,” he adds. “We’re learning all the time. How do you work with the social networks? Are you there just to monitor response or do you want to engage with the customer? Do you need to build a widget or application into the campaign and provide the customer with something useful? Travel companies need to understand how to work within social networks.”
STA Travel marketing director Celia Pronto agrees. Social media are here to stay, she says. They play an important role in the lives of STA’s target audience.
“But there will be changes in the social networking space and it will be interesting to see what happens as Facebook hits critical mass, for example,” she says.
“For our market, we always have to be into the next thing so we’re watching to see the scale and leverage that AOL funding will give Facebook in the wake of its acquisition. It’s impossible to predict how social networks will evolve in the next 12-18 months, so we’re focusing on the scalability and profitability of our viral campaigns so we can take them with us into new environments as they emerge.”
Pronto says that there is scope to make the content generated by STA’s Mostfun.tv microsite “more viral” so that it could be leveraged on sites such as Facebook and MySpace. She concedes that measuring viral success is tricky and often depends on hard-to-quantify sources: target audience feedback, postings, blogs and forum comments on STA’s existing content and how it can be improved. “We have to be embedded in the spaces where our audience lives,” she continues.
“But relevance is the big thing. Where and how are they living their lives? Some brands naturally fit in the viral space, and if a viral is creative enough it can really take off. But others have to be careful that it doesn’t do more harm than good. Having said that, I think the BA campaign with Pam Ann is very funny. People think it’s a staid company but here it is pointing a finger at itself. It’s tongue-in-cheek in an appropriate way.”
Back at Entire, Bates suggests that the only way to avoid the fall-out from any seismic shifts in the way social networks are used is to stick to clear objectives for any viral campaign.
Sometimes the traditional, text-based route of e-zines and response generators will still be the best. The Tourism Ireland campaign invites the e-zine recipient to share a personalised experience of visiting towns in Ireland by forwarding an e-mail. It’s simple, straightforward, and it works.
“A good route would be for the travel industry to talk about viral rather than just going for the coolest thing,” he says.
“Without some kind of response, how can you know if you’ve succeeded? I don’t know how long the social media model will stick. People are already wondering why they signed up to Facebook, and it shows how we live in a faddy society, always looking for the next big thing and questioning the value of what we currently have. So much comes down to demographics and being clear about your targets.”
One criticism often levelled at virals is that they are simply rebranded traditional commercial campaigns rather than properly conceived and targeted projects.
Jim McNiven, managing director at digital marketing agency Kerb, which has worked on viral campaigns with EasyCruise, believes that every successful piece of digital engagement is a de-facto viral campaign, simply because it provokes a two-way conversation. Exponential momentum is crucial, he suggests.
“I see a lot of traditional agencies doing ‘viral’ campaigns when all they’ve done is misappropriated the word to describe a digital campaign,” he says. “They’ve made a bad TV ad and stuck it on the Internet. But they fail to understand that the Internet is a two-way medium. The only way something can be successful is to get people flocking to see it, rather than spending money spamming it everywhere.”
Kerb’s most recent campaign for EasyCruise took a game-based viral approach that was accessible and easy for customers to play during their lunch break – “There was no point appealing to the dedicated 15-year-old gamer who never leaves his bedroom,” says McNiven – and involved trying to dock the instantly identifiable orange boat in a series of ports around Europe.
“You are only ever one click away from finding out more and to begin with we also had a response mechanism – the chance to take part in an EasyCruise reality television show – so there was an extra trigger to get people through to the EasyCruise site.
“Most people book online, so that’s the power of viral marketing – you can’t do it with print or television. And to date, 17 million people have interacted with EasyCruise through the viral – all for just the cost of building the game. That is no mean feat!”