Viral Ads

May 5, 2006

The thirst for active engagements and creative expressions is not limited to the gaming communities, it also extends throughout the global web communities. However, things might not turn out in the intended manner for the corporations engaging the online audiences. They need to keep track of the online communities in case matters go out of hand.

I’ll use viral marketing campaigns to illustrate this point. Viral campaigns are marketing techniques that seek to exploit pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness, through viral processes similar to the spread of an epidemic. It is word-of-mouth delivered and enhanced online; It harnesses the network effect of the internet and can be very useful in reaching a large number of people rapidly. Viral marketing is a powerful tool as it attempts to harness the strongest of all consumer triggers–the personal recommendation.

A successful viral marketing campaign made The Blair Witch Project (probably) the most profitable movie in the history of cinema in terms of the ratio of production costs to box office proceeds. The estimated production cost of the film was about USD $25,000, and the movie grossed over $248 million worldwide. On Web sites and in chat rooms, the film's promoters hinted that the fictional tale was really a documentary and let the bug run wild. The mystery, hype and anticipation snowballed to attract the attention of worldwide audiences.

Viral campaigns have evolved to include active audience participation. An innovative viral marketing campaign-cum-contest went out of hand for General Motors (GM) in America. People can enter a contest by building a video commercial for the Chevy Tahoe Sports Utility Vehicle. They do so by dragging and dropping a pre-selection of image clips and audio tracks, and adding their own superimposed text.

The online participatory audience transformed this campaign into a nightmare for GM! They use the tools provided on the Chevy Apprentice website and came up with a series of parodies and spoofs, pushing different agendas such as global warming, anti-SUV and even political messages. These quickly became viral videos zipping around the internet. Some was even posted on the contest site before being taken down. However, it was reported that to GM’s credit, they did not pull out every ad that has a negative tone. (Check out more examples here)

This whole episode reflects how user-created content can easily go beyond the control of corporations, and be used for unintended purposes. And here's the irony – the online participatory audiences appropriate the tools provided by the big corporations, only to use it against them. For marketers, the good old days of passive consumerism is gone, radically transformed by new media technologies and cultural trends. In the past, consumers usually have two choices in response to marketers – “take it or leave it”. Now, it's more like “take it, use it, and abuse it!” By “abuse”, I don’t necessary mean it in a negative manner. Personally, as someone who cares about the environment, I am very impressed and supportive of this Chevy backlash, not to mention entertained. Rock on!

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