Born, not made – can you control a viral campaign?

11 August 2015

“I want it to go viral” is the trite phrase that is being thrown in the faces of creative agencies worldwide.  A word once solely associated with diseases and other ailments, going ‘viral’ is the bug every company has caught. So the question is, what makes a campaign go viral and can it be controlled? ­­­­­­­Viral campaigns are a result of the emergence of social media and our desire to be constantly on the pulse. As with any virus, while the hype might die down after a week or so, a truly successful ad will resonate in the minds of its audience.  Essentially, going viral is the harmonious marriage of an original idea and a great execution, with timing being the celebrant that unites the two.

Things go viral when they have some social importance or are shocking in some way.  A champion of the viral campaign is skincare brand Dove. Their “Campaign for Real Beauty” entails video after video of seemingly ordinary women who are surprised by their own ‘real’ beauty. One example is the ‘Dove Real Beauty Sketches’ video, garnering a massive 55 million views. At the heart of their success is a strong emotional response; alongside something that glossy magazine adverts so often neglect when depicting women – authenticity.

A large part of a viral campaign is creating an engaging ad, and understanding the demographic to which you are targeting it. One example is Internet Explorer’s ‘Child of the ‘90s’ campaign, which attempts to evoke a feeling of nostalgia in its audience – children and teens of the 90’s. What perhaps missed the mark was the innate truth that most of today’s ‘Gen Y’ would rather chop off a toe than engage with the myriad of crashes and incompatibility issues that is Internet Explorer, and therein lies the problem.  Knowing your audience is an essential part of the viral campaign and those that don’t will find themselves left with a great ad and no one to watch it.

Still, the most successful viral campaigns are generally those that don’t feel like one. This is true of ads that were going viral before viral existed, in particular, Sony’s Bravia ‘Balls’ advert (2005) – one of the most successful long format commercials of all time. Yet, it’s greatness can’t be attributed to the CGI-free balls bouncing through suburbia – or even the stellar soundtrack – but the fact that you don’t know what the ad is about until the last three seconds. It was the sheer simplicity of thousands of coloured balls rolling through the street that made this ad go viral before the ‘share’ button was even invented.  Anther example of simplicity meeting success is Cadbury’s drum-playing gorilla that graced our screens to the twang of Phil Collins’, “In the Air Tonight”.  Also a practically brand-less ad, Cadbury toed the line between simple and plain bizarre and saw it pay off.

Skip to the modern day, and the ever-increasing capacity for sharing, liking, and viewing on social media, sees large corporations such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Nike and Apple, specialising in creating campaigns that will be seen and shared by thousands. So, are they to be respected, or perhaps feared? The pressure that comes with the creation and distribution of a viral campaign is enormous, and often so is the budget.  However, in order to capitalise on the viral frenzy that is sweeping our browsers, agencies need to do two things. The first is to gain a greater understanding of their market, and the second is to understand what their consumer will care about, before they do.  Yet caution needs to be exercised here – if it walks like a viral ad, and talks like a viral ad it probably is one, and the viewer will be pressing the close button faster than you can say ‘YouTube’.  Although the success of a viral campaign depends largely on a great idea meeting great timing, there are certain elements of going viral that can be faked or contrived. This is largely where public relations come into play and ideally someone who can spread the campaign across a wide audience. This is often achieved by paying celebrities or other influential people to share links to hoards of adoring followers.

Yet more than ever, the opportunity is there. The number of platforms for customer engagement is growing exponentially, with social media powerhouses Facebook and Google targeting advertising and searches.  In addition to this are the growing blogging and micro-blogging platforms Tumblr, Buzzfeed and lately, Brown Cardigan, making a mark on the advertising world. While this engagement is often fleeting, the audience is huge, and often willing to discuss, contribute or share content they find intriguing. It then stands that perhaps agencies creating TV advertisements wanting to go viral are barking up the wrong tree (in the hope that money is growing up there). In the digital age, viral success is about sharing online content, and the sooner creative producers realise that, the more money they will see in their bank accounts.

Unfortunately, the conception of a viral campaign can’t be bottled and taught to every aspiring creative with a MacBook. We can however, design good campaigns and cross all our fingers and toes that it’s shared enough to become viral. But the simple truth is that if every campaign were to go viral, nothing would be and though ‘going viral’ can be controlled or contrived, the most successful campaigns – like all great things in life – can’t be bought.