net.wars: Viral marketing is dead (tell all your friends)

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 25 July 2003

Wendy has been looking at people who had their "Warhol Moment" courtesy of the Internet. She wonders if she can start trading in futures of the souls of advertising executives on the strength of what she found ...

Wendy M Grossman

Consider the following unlikely stars: the dancing baby; Mahir, the Hampster Dance, the phone booth in the Mojave desert, and the dear departed Cambridge University Computer Lab coffeepot. All of them have one thing in common: they were accidental stars. People found out about them, and emailed their friends and the friends emailed their friends, and eventually they broke through into the major media. The dancing baby did a few turns on the TV show /Ally McBeal/ and the Mojave desert phone booth was the subject of a documentary film, while the Hampster Dance had a brief stint at number one on the charts. Mahir hit the pinnacle: he was parodied on Letterman.

And then there's the more recent giggle that I had forwarded to me several times by folks in a state of high excitement: the Google "Weapons of Mass Destruction" link. The first email advisory I got said, "Do this quickly before they take it down". To experience it fully, type "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (with the quotes) into Google; alternatively, just go here to see the result you're supposed to get at the top of the list. That's the one people got excited about. Cute, isn't it?

What advertising person wouldn't sell his soul to create an intentional campaign to create this sort of success? At one of the weekly seminars run by the Interactive Advertising Bureau last Friday, ad people gathered to talk about just how to make viral campaigns work.

Until very recently, the received wisdom about advertising on the Internet was that it didn't work. It was common to read the lament that no one clicks on banner ads any more (if they ever did other than by mistake or as a novelty). Pop-up windows, animations, and Flash were (and are) invasive and annoying. Companies that, like Yahoo!, depended heavily on advertising revenues, retrenched and started trying to develop e-commerce and other new sources of income. But earlier this year, the IAB released figures showing that online advertising was doing better. The fastest-growing category? Paid search -- those little links at the side of your Google hits..

The IAB and I are pretty much natural enemies. I am so not a fan of advertising on the Net that I run a lethal combination of Mozilla and The Proxomitron. I like environments like The WELL, where everything is text-based and there is no advertising at all. I'm mean to junk emailers. I read only newsgroups that have little or no spam. And so on. But the truth is that if I want to continue getting paid as a writer, advertising is ultimately a major source of my income. So, while I don't have to approve of it, it might make sense for me to pay attention to how it works. The IAB likes to do things like bring in bigger and more invasive ad formats and campaign to save the cookie. However, the IAB's chairman, the unstoppably enthusiastic Danny Meadowes-Klue (whom I first came across when he was managing ad sales for the Electronic Telegraph) points out that a lot of what they do is educate companies how to be responsible with, for example, marketing email.

But these guys are putting a lot of thought and creativity into how to use the Net. They know we hate them. They know the only reason people forward stuff to each other is because we believe we discovered it ourselves. They know that to succeed virally, things have to be shocking, funny, extreme, or really, really clever. They know "viral marketing" is really just "word of mouth" reinvented. But they want it because they think it's the only way to infiltrate advertising into what has until now been an ad-free zone: the work place. They also know we're incredibly resistant to anything that comes from a company

And yet ... Which? ran a little online game where people competed for £1,000 by guessing how long a washing machine with four webcams pointed at it and a Belisha beacon above it to indicate its state of health would run continuously. The goal, according to the company that came up with the campaign: 20,000 new email leads, and show those cynical 22- to 35-year-olds that Which? was net-savvy and cool, as well as research-oriented. Players voted on what items would be put into the washing machine. As time went on, the items became more washing machine-hostile (which is the kind of shoot-'em-up Net.folk love anyway). What killed it, appropriately enough, was Ulrika Jonsson's autobiography. The pulp clogged all the filters, and the machine died a horrible death by asphyxiation on Day 16.

I'd have gone for that. If I'd known about it at the time, I'd have emailed a friend the URL. I'd have voted to put crockery in the machine and see if it suffered. Apparently other people thought so, too, because the campaign met its goals.

And you know that Google link? That, too, was really an ad - for a book for sale on Amazon.com. So there. They got us that time.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).