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Is viral marketing still relevant in today’s web?


I was talking to a friend recently who co-owns a digital agency specialising in viral applications. He was updating me on recent client wins all of which involved creating ‘viral’ games. It’s an area that clients still want to talk about and more importantly, are still prepared to invest in.

Yet how many of these supposedly viral campaigns actually reach huge numbers of consumers? And equally, how many drive any response beyond just watching/playing and then forwarding on?

I know that some do and have worked on one that achieved superb numbers (but that was several years ago) as well as many that were intended as ‘virals’ but for whatever reason didn’t catch on with consumers. In the last 12 months or so the only viral stuff I get is via the posts on Chinwag which are posted by the agencies creating the content. I’ve not seen any of this stuff from friends or colleagues. Yet two or three years ago you’d struggle to avoid links or videos popping into your inbox. So what’s changed?

There are probably several factors and these include:

YouTube. YouTube has changed the way we watch video online. If you want to fritter way some time then this is one of the sites where people go. Increasingly the popular content is music, film or TV related. Big brands get views of their TV ads and there’s always gag content of some sort. It also means that it’s more difficult to seed video content this way as there’s a lot of competition and if you get a link, plenty to distract you.

Social networks. Have sites like Facebook also contributed to the way in which we digest content? How many of us view all of the videos, links, quizzes that our mates post onto these sites? I suspect more of us are interested in the photos and videos of our friends than of more-of-the-same video clips.

Creativity. Basically, if you’re selling viral to a brand how do you get cut through? With no shortage of bad taste on You Tube or plenty of gaming sites, it’s increasingly difficult to create content that really gets passed around huge numbers of people. It’s also a lot harder to convince clients that edgy, funny or controversial content is right for their brand. Agencies also need to avoid the lazy, repetitive use of illustration and creative styles. If you can’t make money without re-skinning some core code then don’t bother…

ROI. The other issue with virals is that calculating genuine return on investment is difficult. Take games. There’s certainly a massive audience for games, and many sites featuring hundreds of Flash games. But how relevant are these audiences to many of the brands funding the content? One of viral marketing’s weaknesses is wastage – that many of the people who interact with the this kind of content are not your target audiences.

I suspect that the viral specialists need to re-think how they sell this content. The actual games, quizzes, etc do have a place in the digital marketing mix and are great for certain audiences. But rather than focus on the potential popularity (and by the way surely the audience determine what’s viral and not the producers?) focus on content, brand engagement and the benefits that these can bring.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 13/03/2009 9:38 am

    Yep – great points we have done a few of these games to support main stream activity. The numbers of users is huge but we struggle to convert them into any sales action at the end. Great for awareness though..

  2. 28/05/2009 11:03 am

    I believe viral is even more relevent these days than ever before. Yes its not new but it does allow brands to break boundaries.

    The way people share content and communicate these days these days has changed. When was the last time a friend ever actually “emailed” anything to you? People use social platforms and blogs as a way of sharing and distributing content. The biggest problem these days is saturation (this is especially true with videos). It is very easy for Joe Bloggs at home to pick up their handy-cam and create a video to upload on YouTube. This is simply not the case with games, which require much more time to create.

    Does this mean that viral games are not effective? I think not. I believe the term viral should be used very loosely as it is very hard to make anything truly viral these days, instead these games should be termed as adver-games as that is exactly what they are. The viral element occurs when sites begin to share content between one another. If two sites share content you have the potential to reach thousands of users.

    Games expand much further than a banner ad can and with much less media spend. They encourage people to interact with a brand and thus raise brand awareness. They have the direct capability to capture data and encourage users to click through to the client’s site. Due to their nature they only really work for brands with a national or international target audience. Yes you will get some wastage but then isn’t this true for all forms of advertising? There are many types of seeding methods we can utilise and we can place games on targeted sites to get targeted traffic, just like you would with a Banner Ad.

    The advantage of a game over a video is the fact that a game can provide the client with far more transparent figures. Rather than just say hey we have a game that has been played by x amount of people, we can separate this into demographics and provide geographical locations right down to how users have interacted with the game.

    The key to a successful adver-game is to make sure you get their key messages into the game, either subliminally or direct. If you’re not, then there is no point. You can’t build space invaders and then place the Coca Cola logo on there and say that’s and adver-game. Its completely missing the point. If you’re promoting a product, then get the product in there.

    We have had some very successful campaigns which have reached a large audience and achieved their target aim (and have testimonials to back this up). Adver-Gaming is still growing and clients are increasingly seeing that the ROI of this type of advertising can be far greater than their other methods.

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