Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How to go viral: Lose the TV envy and tell the truth

Once upon a time if you put together a nice little video (brim full of TV envy) of sufficient quality and (usually subversive) humour you'd get a nice little pass-on rate. I think of those old Ford Ka ads.

These were essentially broadcast. They relied on a different 'distribution model' (that'd be us then) than the 30-second slot, but that was all. And the marketing world slapped itself on the back. For we have invented pull... ish (at least in the sense that those who were amused by the ad would forward it to others who they thought would be amused, and along the way the sender would accrue some kudos for showing a side to his own sense of humour, and for being first (among his peers) with the gag.

And let's not discount that. It was a decent leap forward. But it was one with a one leg tied behind us. More a stuttering hop then.

They were a hop forward in another way too - they got closer to the true voice of the brand. Instead of a sanitised made-for-TV version of their voice, this one dared to speak something approximating the truth.

For example, a few years back one bike manufacturer showed an awesome video of one of its new bikes being thrashed through early morning city streets. It was great to watch - accompanied by banging music. But it was only for consumption within the exhibition it was being shown at (on a small screen on its own stand). It was kind of semi-public. I was the editor of at the time. We thought it was great and wanted to show it on our site. The manufacturer daren't share it officially.

But in the hyperlinked world of the web, the truth will out. We found a site showing the video and linked to it. It didn't last long (the site got taken down pretty rapidly and this was a world pre the ubiquity of Youtube.)... but the video was out. The voice was heard.
That video said what the people who worked for that manufacturer really thought about bikes and this bike in particular. And that was extremely refreshing. It carried the authentic voice of people passionate about two-wheels - about people who cared more about that truth than about PR, the risk of offending a handful, of being accused of inciting bad behaviour etc etc.

This is one of the things that good viral does. It does what is not allowed by the carefully constructed PR-riven world of brand 'management'. It subverts The Message, to reveal the true voice - the real conversation happening in an organisation. It closes the gap between those who craft and those who market.

Another example is rattling around the web right now. It isn't an 'advert' at all - but advertisers and marketing teams could learn an awful lot from it.

I'm thinking of this:

I've been sent a link to the clip above by two of my peers. That's pretty damn viral then. It's been viewed 1.9m times (as of Dec 19, 2007), it has hundreds (400+) comments on YouTube. It's been favourited 5000 times.

Outcome: When I saw it I thought... actually I'd rather like to a) buy an Eddie Izzard live DVD b) see Eddie Izzard doing live stand-up. And there may be nearly 2m more just like me.

But where's the hard sell? Where's the link to buy? Where's the professionally produced, slick high-production-values? Where's the TV envy? Where's the end credits with a url?

There are none of these. Is it more effective for it? It feels that way to me. It's made by a fan (there's even a helpful rumour doing the rounds that Eddie makes them himself - which would be great if it were true, because it would be an example of closing the gap between creator and marketing still further) - not a corporation aiming to make bucks out of Eddie.

Imagine the 'viral' ad that most agencies would have put together in a bid to achieve the same outcome? I don't think Lego or stop-motion would have been involved. Relevance over quality - comes up again and again...

So viral needs to tell the truth of a product/service... whatever, in the authentic voice of those who create it. Their passion should shape it. If Eddie didn't make this video a fan did - and that's as close as it gets to being part of 'Eddie Izzard Corp'.

The Izzard example illustrates another requirement of great viral. It's mashable. And that means you can create a personal outcome, as Chris Cunningham spoke about at Widgety Goodness. You get a version for yourself to co-create.

And since you create it, you will embrace it, it becomes relevant to you and your friends. And that relevance becomes more important than any amount of shine, spin (quality) you can put on it.

Trouble is, the Eddie case comes with some tough technical barriers to overcome... I have to save off the soundtrack, then go create my own video version, then upload to youtube et al, then share with my good buddies...

So here's an example that makes the point rather better, because it lowers the technical barriers very well (and rids itself of the TV envy in the process). I was pointed at this by David Armano at Logic + Emotion.

What we have here is a promo for Pampers in which you can make your kids the stars - and then who wouldn't want to share it with their nearest and dearest? And they'll have friends they'll want to share the idea with etc etc.

If given tools to create your own version of something you can create something which is relevant to you, and which you will embrace. And now that there's no space between us (thanks to the web) you can share your joy with your friends really fast.

So, here are the lessons I draw from these examples. If you spot more (or think I'm making assumptions that need challenging) please join the conversation by commenting.

1. Speak in an authentic voice (close the gap between creation and marketing)
2. Lose the TV envy (think relevance over quality)
3. Give people tools to make it their own (that which we create, we embrace)
4. Don't bother with urls, links or 'brand messages'. (We don't do spin) If people are interested they will search. Buy the keywords if you want to make it easier for them.

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?