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Why viral marketing fails

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Ensuring one’s marketing message evokes enough sentiment for it to be passed on and on is a gigantic challenge.

Hotmail owes its success to viral marketing. Sabeer Bhatia, creator of Hotmail.
Hotmail owes its success to viral marketing. Sabeer Bhatia, creator of Hotmail.

Sunil George Kuruvilla

It was supposed to be the advertising agency’s nightmare. After all, who would need an advertising agency when the consumer himself passes the advertising message voluntarily to others? It was supposed to be the next Big Bang. Instead, most ofthe campaigns often end in a whimper.

Yes, I am talking about viral marketing. First, the basics. Viral marketing uses social networks to create and spread brand awareness. An analogy can be drawn with pathological and computer viruses in the way the viral message passes from one consumer to another. Outside the context of Internet, viral marketing has been referred to as ‘word-of-mouth’, ‘buzz creation’, ‘network marketing’ et al. Twisting Shakespeare’s words, what is in a name? That which we call a virus by any other name would be as nasty. Well, as we will see, there is a lot in a name.

A good illustration of viral marketing is the practice of Hotmail to append its own advertisement to every outgoing mail. What it means for Hotmail is that every recipient of a mail would also find an invitation to join Hotmail. Let’s say one of your friends sends a mail to you from his Hotmail account. You got mail. You read the mail and notice a tiny message at it bottom. The message says, “Get your private, free e-mail at http://www.hotmail.com’. You click on it. You open the free account. Voila! You got virus! Now, you send a mail to your aunt in New Jersey. She sends a mail to her son in Boston, who in turn sends a mail to his newfound girlfriend in Paris, so on and so forth. This is exactly how Hotmail became the largest mail service provider in the world. What started as a flu is an epidemic now.

The emergence of clicktivism as an online version of activism is also a case in point. Through the clicktivism method, users are encouraged to donate, write a letter, forward a mail or sign a petition, online. Forwarded mails are increasingly taking the place of actual black flag marches. In the Indian context, the presence of clicktivism was apparent during the recent anti-reservation strike and when strong e-mail ‘appeals’ reached a lot of people.

So, how can a technique that worked so well for Hotmail and clicktivists fail? Here are the reasons:

The name

Shakespeare was wrong. The name ‘viral marketing’ is crippling. It has such a negative denotation that cannot be washed away even by a dip in the Ganges. Many experts, obviously enamoured by this innovative marketing tool, have tried to give it a shroud of respectability by using other terms. Alas, they have failed. The term ‘viral marketing’ has proved to be as dogged as the technique itself. Talk about the doctor tasting his own medicine.

Spam? No thank you, Ma’am.

Those of us who have received innumerable mails explicating about ways to increase our assets will be wary of anything we receive from outside our social network. We are more likely to reach for the Delete button than the Forward button. Spam is the equivalent of an itch on your back that you can’t reach. Spam causes many a spasm of anger, and unsolicited messages are Spam. Period.

The times, the people

Generation X (anyone born between 1961 and 1981) dominates the consumer landscape today and they are savvier to marketing than any other generation before them. They are also characterised by their cynicism, scepticism and mistrust in traditional values. So, if ever they get the idea that somebody is using them as vehicles for marketing, then we may all sing ‘God save the marketer’. As Lincoln put it, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

The how of it

Viral marketing seems simple enough. Indeed, in the Hotmail case, all it takes is a click on the link. However, it doesn’t always work that way. For one, not every company is in the business of a free e-mail service. How does an FMCG company or a retailer ensure that the consumer spreads its advertising message ‘voluntarily’? This is the crux of the issue: how do you make a receiver of an email press the Forward button? The answer is simple.

People will forward content that they feel strongly about. So that’s easy. We just identify a strong issue. What then? The problem from a branding perspective is how does one ensure that the ‘strong issue’ is in sync with your own brand identity. Surely, not many companies can afford to take up issues espousing political ideologies.

The ‘E’ word

I left it towards the end quite deliberately. Ok, ethics is slightly slippery. Yet, there is a certain hideousness to the act of spreading one’s advertising message through an unsuspecting customer. So, what if the customer is not king? What if the customer is a donkey? He is still the king of donkeys. And many times, ‘voluntary’ is not always voluntary. This is because the consumer doesn’t suspect that he has fallen victim to the plans of a dexterous marketer.

The latest evidence of a viral marketing campaign gone wrong is Sony’s attempt to use Youtube to market its Playstation consoles. Sony created a fictitious character called Peter and tried to pass him off as a hip-hop maven.

Needless to say, the plan flopped as discerning users soon discovered the scam. In the end, Sony had to make a public apology. That must have hurt.

Is that it? Is it time to say goodbye to the virus? Far from it. Like a true, blue virus, we can always expect it to take a mutant form that is more resistant to the vagaries of marketing. Watch this space.

(The writer is Assistant Manager (Corporate Communications), Global Trade Finance Ltd.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 2, 2007)
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