Walking the Viral Tightrope

by | Aug 7, 2006 | Marketing

Alltel has given us a great case study in viral marketing with their recently-flopped “People Against My Circle” campaign. After almost a week, the campaign has failed to generate any significant buzz or publicity, despite its apparently large cost.

The campaign claims to follow the progress of a frivolous class-action lawsuit against Alltel. Here are some of the key sites assembled as part of this effort:

Despite the obvious effort and cost of this campaign, it appears to be falling completely flat. The “jury room” discussion board is empty after five days, apart from a number of posts from false accounts intended to simulate activity; and apart from a handful of advertising/marketing sites (like the one you’re reading), bloggers have generally been completely uninterested in the campaign.

There’s no buzz. Few blog posts. No e-mails flying back and forth. The intended outburst of publicity intended by this viral campaign simply hasn’t happened.

It’s difficult to manage a viral campaign, and it appears that the agency behind this effort lacked the experience and insight to pull it off.

Behind the Failure

Here are some of the most obvious mistakes they made:

  • Over-the-top content: Within seconds of reading, it’s obvious that this whole thing is an elaborate advertisement. When you beat people over the head with this fact, you remove any of the mental engagement that makes viral campaigns take off in the first place.
  • Weak humor: If the content were genuinely funny, or at least interesting, the over-the-top content mentioned above might be forgiven. Unfortunately, the content is full of obvious and poorly-executed jokes, making it almost painful to read.
  • Inexperience with blogging: There’s almost nothing in this campaign that would appeal to bloggers, who are the primary carriers of contemporary viral campaigns. It’s as if the agency’s knowledge of blogs came from Ad Age or BusinessWeek, rather than from actual participation in the online community. “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t apply on the web. There have to be compelling reasons for people to link to something and discuss it, and this compaign doesn’t offer any such reasons.
  • Cardboard characters: The key characters in this campaign are frustratingly two-dimensional, which makes it unlikely that readers will care about them. If you don’t care about the participants, why would care about the campaign as a whole?
  • Fear: Alltel isn’t a particularly progressive organization, so one gets the impression throughout this campaign that they were very cautious not to deceive, not to offend, not to confuse. Everything is made very plain, including direct links from their home page. While they’ve succeeded in covering their behinds, they’ve also sucked the life out of the campaign by making it little different than any other traditional advertising company. There’s no sense of it being different, edgy, fresh, or dangerous. It’s plain vanilla, and vanilla never was viral.

Where’s John Grisham when you need him?

With this type of viral campaign, based around fictional circumstances, it’s important to realize that what is being done is much more akin to creative writing than it is to advertising. The concepts causing viral campaigns like this one to fail are often issues that are well-known by fiction writers.

Consider how the following elements might have significantly improved the Alltel campaign:

  • Three-dimensional characters
  • Engaging plotline
  • Foreshadowing
  • Conflict and tension
  • Willing suspension of disbelief
  • Action, not explanation (“Show, don’t tell”)

Unfortunately, this kind of complex storytelling runs contrary to the ideals of traditional advertising, such as appealing to the lowest common denominator, developing obvious punchlines, and trying to get the whole point across in a matter of seconds.

It’s easy to see why ad agencies have so much trouble with viral campaigns.

Walking the Tightrope

This isn’t to say, of course, that one can simply jump into a campaign of complete deception and expect that to work out any better. Many agencies have tried the other extreme, resorting to flat-out lying in order to promote their product. These campaigns often backfire, sometimes significantly damaging the reputation of the company they’re trying to promote.

In order to succeed with a viral campaign, you have to find that sweet spot where readers will have a hunch that they’re participating in a publicity stunt (so that they don’t feel stupid once the truth is revealed), but where they will also be so drawn in by the fictional situation that they’ll temporarily set aside their suspicions and become an active participant in the story.

The skills and characteristics needed to pull this off have been well-documented in the creative writing industry, whereas the traditional advertising community is based on almost completely antithetical ideals.

Viral campaigns can be tricky, but if done well, they can still be a rewarding experience for both the participant and the company being promoted.

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