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Two-and-a-half years ago, when I was writing regularly for the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium blog, I received word that Xerox was launching a new online video series. In the title, their press release touted, "Xerox Launches Its First Ever Viral As Part Of new Multimillion Pound Marketing Campaign." It has regularly become my starting point for talking about how distorted the concept of "viral marketing" has become.
To be fair, the Xerox video series was innovative in its goal of creating a fun way to engage with a B2B audience. However, bragging about the "viral" success of a video a company is launching at its outset, and doing so in a press release above all else, was an illustration of the overenthusiastic adoption of the phrase, "We want something to go viral."
In 2009, I'd like to say we've all been inoculated from taking the viral metaphor to its extreme, but I've found the strain quite resistant in marketing circles. The "V word" is still cropping up with colleagues, clients, prospects and at industry events all too often. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that a Jupiter Research report last year found that only 15% of advertising labeled "viral" is actually successful.
The problem is, in part, with metrics and exactly what marketers have in mind when they use the term "viral." When the term first came in vogue in the mid-1990s, the example used was fairly straightforward. Those who had a Hotmail account sent one another messages. At the bottom of each email was a marketing message from Hotmail, encouraging recipients to sign up for a free email account with them. The metaphor worked well; each email acted as a carrier for a "tagalong" marketing message unintended by the author.
The viral metaphor has been stretched, however, to try and explain any situation in which a video becomes popular and widely spread by an audience. And those situations just aren't analogous with a biological phenomenon like the spread of a virus. When I receive or stumble on a news story, I make a whole host of decisions about whether I am going to share it with others:
- Do I want to look at it?
- If I decide to, is it worth sharing with others?
- If it is worth sharing with others, what combination of people I know would I want to share it with, depending on the content?
- What is the context I am going to share it under?
The final question is, for marketers, the most important one of all to consider. Even if the spreader (the infected one in the viral metaphor) doesn't choose to add any commentary whatsoever to a video, podcast or news story she or he passes along, it still means something quite different coming from an intermediary. I read a story differently when I know someone has forwarded it to me, looking not only for the meaning the author intended but also why my colleague sent it my way, thinking about what they are trying to say through the story and what I should do to respond. In short, we don't become infected with a message and then uncontrollably pass it along to everyone we come into contact with; we all make a variety of conscious decisions any time we receive or send content that's being spread.
What does this mean for marketers and for audiences? I strongly believe that language matters. How marketers conceive of a campaign shapes how success is measured and content is developed. The Convergence Culture Consortium has worked for the past couple of years on fleshing out the idea of "spreadable media" as an alternative model for understanding how content is shared, proposing that videos should be thought of not as a means of infecting audiences but rather as material that audiences can spread for their own purposes. And I am working with our teams at Peppercom to turn those philosophies into strategies and tactics that hopefully make for more dynamic and effective corporate communication for brands and audiences alike. The first step is getting industry practitioners to think carefully about the brand's goals, the audience's goals, and how we are framing the way content and word-of-mouth spreads, especially in a digital age.
Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and I are currently working on a book to encapsulate what "spreadable media" means (a project this post has drawn heavily from). Our work explores how "spreadable media" gives us a new way to rethink not only viral marketing but also the "broadcast mentality" that mass media brands have and the focus on "stickiness" as the metric for success in media and marketing. For more on the concept, see this series Henry and Joshua wrote with the Consortium's Xiaochang Li and Ana Domb Krauskopf, and feel free to join our upcoming free Webinar on the topic on Nov. 6.
In many cases, the greatest marketing successes are not those that spread "virally" among a massive audience but instead those that have content that really resonates with a key audience and acts as cultural material for their own conversations. And, in those cases where a piece of content does become an Internet-wide sensation, it is always driven by allowing people to express themselves through your message rather than having something inherent within the video or story that people are somehow forced to send along.
In partnership with the ARF
Sam Ford is a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium and Director of Customer Insights for Peppercom, a PR agency, in their Manhattan office. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He holds a Master of Science degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT (2007) and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Kentucky University (2005), where he majored in English (writing), news/editorial journalism, mass communication, and communication studies, with a minor in film studies. Ford has taught courses on professional journalism, pro wrestling, and soap operas at MIT and WKU and has published work on these and other areas of U.S. popular culture and television. His work focuses on media audiences and immersive story worlds. Ford has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled "From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn" in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom's Pepper Digital. Follow him on Twitter @sam_ford.