How to make your campaign viral

19:40, Mar 13 2013

You didn’t have to watch that YouTube video where SPCA dogs drive a modified Mini to know these dogs exist. By last Christmas, everyone knew.

Fans linked to the video on Facebook and Twitter and, as if by magic, an attractive novelty had engulfed the world, drawing attention to a worthy cause and to (ahem) Mini Coopers.

The problem for organisations salivating with envy over publicity campaigns that have gone viral — from mutts that drive to Air New Zealand’s Nothing to Hide safety video — is selection bias makes it look so simple.

Despite easy access to potent social media platforms, the final product is merely the public-facing element of a carefully planned, multi-level and sometimes expensive campaign.

“The first myth or misunderstanding people have is they will do some viral stuff and it will be cheap because they can’t afford to do mainstream media,” says Steve Bayliss, group general manager of marketing for Foodstuffs.

“There’s probably a one in 10 million chance that you can do something that goes viral for bugger all money, if you consider the volume of content on YouTube and various other channels. That’s a lottery ticket chance and the odds are so close to nil it is not funny.”


That isn’t to say organisations can’t make something go viral on a limited budget. But Bayliss and other experts say it isn’t simply about posting quality content on YouTube, then counting the hits.

“Viral content is marketing, communications and advertising,” says Amy Robens, public relations director for Lassoo. Her company consults in all three areas. 

When Lassoo engages a client considering a viral campaign, Robens says they apply a process to decide if that’s the right approach.

“From a media strategy and PR point of view, we brainstorm to understand the objective of the company and if viral is the way to meet those objectives,” she says. “That’s where it starts. We don’t just go for a viral marketing campaign because it’s the in thing. It’s not something you can ‘DIY’ without going through a process.”

When Bayliss gives a presentation on social media, he always shows a photograph of a crowded pub, circa 1975.

“Social media at its heart and soul and core is just people telling other people what they think,” Bayliss says. “You can have the best seeding, social media and viral strategy, but if you’re not doing things worth talking about, people won’t talk about it. You have to be producing something that is so good that people will talk about it and advocate for you.”

In the supermarket business, for example, superior customer service can make people feel welcome enough to want to return. 

Bayliss sees this kind of soul searching as integral for any business, before it considers throwing resources at a viral campaign.

“There are a lot of things in the soul of any business which are just kind of the ‘hygiene factors’,” he says. “When you get those right — and so few people consistently get it right — it’s amazing how much people will start to talk about you and you will start to go viral at that ‘pub’ kind of level. Until you’ve done that, all the fancy social media strategy and hype, it’s interesting, but you’re going to come up short.”

If you asked Matt Dickinson if that viral campaign kicking around your head was worth a go, he would answer with a simple question. “Why?”

Dickinson, managing director for advertising agency True, also believes in building a broad range of “touchpoints”— from the web to social media, to solid customer databases — that all point to enhancing an organisation’s brand. 

“It’s about ensuring that every touchpoint, external and internal, meets that brand image,” he says. “How do we create that experience across all those touchpoints? You have to get that digital presence sorted first.”

Setting sail, flying high

Air New Zealand has been a pioneer in viral marketing, via social media and the rather unique touchpoint of safety instruction videos.

Bayliss and Dickinson are veterans of several of the airline’s campaigns that aimed to distinguish the brand from discount ticket competition and, beyond, to promote the brand to audiences overseas.

“They had particular reasons for wanting to go viral,” says Dickinson, who was with the ad agency 99, enlisted by Air New Zealand. “If you didn’t know who Air New Zealand was at the time of its big push — being something like the 37th known airline in the world — that was how they would get that awareness in overseas markets, without the money to spend on television campaigns.”

Organisations with money to spend can hire professional social media seeding services that target channels, such as blogs, in specific verticals, to create a buzz using avatars. In other words: synthesised virulence.

For Air New Zealand, campaign thrusts were timed to local markets, Dickinson says. 

Video content would be pushed through seeding channels at a time when it would be most likely for target audiences to be online. 

This still costs a lot of money, Dickinson says, but the principles scale according to the organisation’s size.

“If you’re a SME and you want to get your name out to 1000 people and that’s all you need to get the kind of conversion you want for your business, there is a focused campaign where the risk is low to your wallet and your resources,” Dickinson says.

Think global, act local

Leveraging social media for a scaled down viral campaign is part of a company’s best practices, says John Schofield, managing director of Catch!Media.

The main reason for this is to have a ready made audience of Twitter or Facebook fans that’s receptive to a campaign.

“Some New Zealand organisations are good at building their social media,” he says. “What we look for, I suppose, are ‘content marketers’ that create audiences and engage directly with them. And we look at the client’s existing owned media assets as the most cost-effective ways to start a viral campaign.”

Clients can build on those direct channels to customers — and beyond — by promoting a video on YouTube that “contextually targets links” by keywords which the client buys at auction, says Schofield. The higher someone bids for particular keywords, the better the chances of connecting to a receptive audience.

YouTube’s TrueView advertising serves video ads to target demographic audiences in particular geographies, charging the customer per view. As a backstop, organisations can pay for Google AdWords, which can serve up links based on web searches.

“But you need to think about what makes it shareable — if it’s humorous or has particular relevance that gives people a reason to share,” says Schofield.

“If they have brilliant content that’s shareable, and they already have things like big Facebook fan bases, a good-sized email database, YouTube subscribers and Twitter followers, all those are great ways to talk directly to their consumers and get viral.” 

Many share Schofield’s view that only quality content goes viral.

“The simple fact is a video goes viral because it’s exceptionally good,” says Bayliss. “It may look like it’s been shot cheaply, but it has to be crafted with more intensity, in many ways, than you’d put into a 30-second TVC.”

Five tips for viral marketing

1. Is your business worth talking about?

2. Are your social media channels populated by engaged followers?

3. How is your idea for a viral marketing campaign related to your brand?

4. What is the message and who is the audience?

5. Is your idea distinctive enough to justify the rescources a viral campaign demands?