When I worked in advertising, some of us were hardly left indifferent by this ad:
Then came the client requests. “We want a viral campaign,” or its fraternal twin, “Let’s go viral with this!”
In the advertising world, we struggled to comply, because while the kind folk at Ogilvy, who created the hugely successful Dove Evolution campaign, hoped that their ad would impact millions, the viral part of the equation was mostly an accident. The campaign was good, and that’s why people paid any attention to it. But there’s plenty of good stuff out there (I know; I send it all the time), and people don’t always respond to it. So really, it was a crapshoot, and it always is.
At the end of the day, it’s the people – we mere mortals – who decide what’s popular. And how that’s decided is based on an infinite number of variables that make it virtually impossible to predict how a campaign will fare. The other night, my sort of boss and I were at a fundraiser, and we talked about Twitter, Stumbleupon, Facebook and friends. All of them tools that can be used to spread the “virus” about a company or campaign. All of them left up to the user to exploit. My sort of boss said he liked how the Twitter people were honest about the fact that they don’t have a business model. I made the point that it’s probably smarter for them to think of a business model after someone uses Twitter in a clever way that nobody’s thought of, and subsequently makes tons of money from it. The viral potential of any site or its components hugely depends on what applications are available on a site, and how these allow people to express themselves (or simply take in information they’re interested in).
The fact is, even developers don’t fully realize the potential of their medium until a creative user does something that even the developers hadn’t factored into the experience. Take Myspace, the evolved Friendster and Facebook prototype. At this juncture, it’s become a hub for artists to gain support and market themselves, especially musicians. Yet when the music player was made available, the point was to share music you, the user, liked. By accident, musicians began to use the hub to promote themselves. Not a bad idea, once users thought of it. Then, it was only a matter of time (and not too much of it) before the Myspace guys were able to build a business model from it…and for ad agencies who create spots for iPod to select the next track for the next commercial.
Let’s use “25 Things” as another example, the chain letter that’s been widely circulated in the Facebook realm. What made this different from other similar chain letters where you answer questions that allow us to know more about you? In this particular format, users got to reveal the facts they wanted to reveal, and at the length of their choosing. No questions. Just answers. The fact that users had complete control over it made it hugely popular.
What can we glean from all this? Viral is unpredictable. But people are creatures of habit, and a conceited bunch at that. Give them the opportunity to talk in more detail about themselves, and with the least amount of effort, and you’ve got a winning formula.