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Rebranding viral: give gifts, not viruses

It’s sad but true: everyone wants a viral video. The good news is that you can make your campaign different, in a good way—because most people are approaching viral as something that it’s not.

Henry Jenkins makes an insightful analogy about ‘viral’ Web 2.0 content: in real life, viruses are transmitted involuntarily, regardless of whether hosts intend to pass them on or not. Also, they can’t be stopped; and future subjects are helpless to their powers. The sharing of content, though, relies on a series of active decisions on behalf of those reading it. So, an important distinction: the channeling of content is intentional, and therefore not really ‘viral’.

Marketing and advertising depend heavily on content. The very notion of setting out to produce a ‘viral’ marketing campaign with ‘viral’ content, in light of the above analogy, is clearly a bit misguided.

For readers/consumers to make the decision to pass a piece of content along to their friends online, the content needs to provide a significant and compelling motivation to do so. And nothing is so compelling in the gift pseudo gift economy of the internet as something that appeals to them personally. Something free, something that is personally valuable to them and how they perceive themselves as a member of their online communities.

So, the closest thing to viral that a marketing agency can actually produce is content that resembles a gift. Shift the focus from the goal of what most people conceive of as viral—ie the exponential passing of content from person to person—to the idea of giving the viewer something they value, and that they would like to identify with and share.

“…the closest thing to viral that a marketing agency can actually produce is content that resembles a gift.”

Let’s take a look at some examples:

I Like Turtles

That’s right, this is not an advertisement. Viewers aren’t looking for an advertisement (although they aren’t averse to the idea of an ad, necessarily). This clip resembles all of the bizarre and eccentric non-commercial videos that go ballistic on the web—we’re talking the ‘chk, boom’ girl, chocolate rain, dramatic look hamster, etc. When a viewer shares this video with one of their friends, they’re seeking a rapport based upon the humor in the video (in this instance, a small child dressed as a zombie, answering the reporter with a delightfully erroneous catch-phrase.) They’re also identifying themselves with the message of the video, which doesn’t mean much in this particular instance, but consider the next one…


A 12 minute Schweppes ad? With almost no dialogue? Online!? The narrative here follows a young office worker through the near-mute beginnings of a romance. It’s engaging and well-produced, with subtle product placement throughout. What is the viewer given? A charming, entertaining, and compelling love story. The advertiser, of course, gets to position their brand three times in 12 minutes, to an emotionally engaged and highly receptive audience. The web user who shares this with a friend doesn’t mind that it’s an ad—the story is so poignant, and so well produced, that the importance of the sharing overtakes that of the message (ie DRINK SCHWEPPES, BE HAPPY) without harming or disrupting it at all. Pretty powerful stuff, isn’t it? But it doesn’t always work to the marketer’s advantage…

United breaks guitars

Once again, not an actual advertisement, but a piece of content that works like one. The story is as follows: Dave Carroll flies with United Airlines; they damage his Taylor acoustic, and refuse to compensate him; he writes a song about it, and shoots a semi-professional video to accompany the song; it becomes a hit on YouTube, much to the chagrin of the offending airline. The viewer is given a hilarious and quite lovely bit of country music, and some advice about which airlines (not) to choose if they intend on having their luggage arrive in one piece. The ‘Dave Carroll agency’ achieves closure with the luggage quandary. Not quite a ‘win, win’ situation, but it demonstrates the power of the gift approach to viral.

There are many more where these came from. What’s the one thing they share? They’re all gifts, not viruses. #



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