23 October 2012

Going viral still isn't a strategy

What does the Singapore telco SingTel, UK sanitation pad brand Bodyform, and the US presidential race meme #bindersfullofwomen have in common? Other than that all three were news items that streamed across my Facebook page last week?

Yes, there's a good reason why I'm leading a blog post with the "What do X have in common with Y" cliché. Honest!

For the past decade, the public relations and branding professions have been grappling with an existential crisis: the hyperconnected world has made it impossible to control brands and messages.

But on the marketing side of things, people are claiming a stronger-than-ever grip on the minds of audiences. At least, judging by the booming demand for social/viral marketing campaigns.

Just how do marketers claim to be able to deliver viral marketing results? Let's count the ways: Infographics. Controversy. Authencity and human connection. Analytics. Oh, and correct grammar.

It’s funny how the bread and butter of marketing can get so hyped up it becomes the formula for a disproportionately successful campaign.

But the purpose of this blog is not to complain about the state of the industry. (There’s no lack of clients who’s willing to suspend belief, so it’s a conspiracy of the willing, I guess?) I just want to make some observations of some stuff that went viral last week.

Case study 1: #bindersfullofwomen, the stereotype viral

If you’ve checked in on your Twitter and Facebook streams this past week, you’ve probably seen the #bindersfullofwomen meme. If you haven’t, this is what happened.

In the US Presidential debate last Tuesday night, candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were asked how they intended to address gender inequalities in the job market. When Romney’s turn to answer came, he talked about how, when he was governor of Massachusetts, he’d gone to women’s groups to help him identify qualified women to fill cabinet positions. In response to his reaching out, the women’s groups brought him “whole binders full of women.”

BOOM! And a meme was born.

Here in Singapore, we’re no strangers to such phenomena. If you’re a resident here, you’d remember #KateSpade, #KeeChiew and, from the pre-Twitter and Facebook days, the Hairdo. I think it’s safe to conclude that this stuff is universal.

It’s interesting how most political memes emerge from platforms specifically created for speakers to connect with their audiences, or to draw attention to important public issues. (In the case of Ms Tin Pei Ling, it was a case of online bullying gone viral–but later on this.) Unfortunately, their words ended up trivialising the very things they were drawing attention to, giving life to sticky, troublesome memes.

Case study 2: SingTel, the anti-viral

Earlier this week, a single post on SingTel's Facebook wall achieved viral status. I found this viral remarkable for one unique detail: a singular lack of everything marketers consider essential for a viral.

That's the post in its entirety. As you can see, there's nothing clever about the post—no snark, no wordplay, no humour. There's no visual, much less an elaborate infographic about how low service standards have fallen.

Yet, this simple, plain Facebook entry went viral. (More details in Yahoo! News' initial report, published when the Facebook post reached 250 comments.)

This Facebook post didn’t go viral because of strategy. Sure, the author intended his post to be read. But it’s unlikely he planned for 14,000 Facebook Likes. The complaint wasn’t even a particularly vicious one–it’s just a straightforward complaint about the poor quality of service by a local telco, written in perfectly colloquial (i.e. imperfect) English.

Case study 3: Bodyform, the timely viral

Contrast SingTel with our 3rd case study, also a complaint-gone-viral, on the Facebook page of Bodyform, a UK sanitation pad brand:

The story from Adweek:

A man named Richard Neill posted a rant on Bodyform's Facebook wall, humorously calling out the brand for false advertising—saying his girlfriend doesn't have happy periods like those depicted in the ads, but instead becomes "the little girl from the exorcist with added venom and extra 360 degree head spin." The post has gotten more than 84,000 likes.

What followed was this: Bodyform created and post a video in which a fake CEO confessed to the brand’s “pathological lying ways”. She admitted that real women who have periods don’t smile and laugh while "the blood course from our uteri like a crimson landslide."

Observation #1: The content itself has little to do with a viral effect

Reflexively, most of us (including me) reach for explanations by first examining the viral or meme’s content. We notice the meme’s absurd nature when the original context is removed; we see a phrase that’s short enough to be compressed into a Twitter hash tag. Oh yes, there they are—ingredients for viral marketing.

These are all fine and good for case studies. But how many of us have created a successful viral campaign from scratch?

For example, memes—the fastest spreading form of viral content—emerge precisely as a way for the audience to take control of the message away from the originators. What’s the point of designing content when the only way it can take off is for the design to be co-opted and abused by an online mob? (Yes, I am talking about crowdsourcing and user-generated content.)

All right, let’s not talk about memes. Let’s just talk about viral content—content that gets spread around with its message intact. Marketers love to focus on showy examples like infographics, social games, videos, Gifs, etc.

If we look at the universe of what actually appears on our Facebook and Twitter streams, it’s plain to see that almost anything and everything can achieve viral status—plain text status updates, clichéd quotes, kitschy wallpapers. Originality and creativity have little to do with it—I keep seeing the same jokes and inspirational quotes from 2 or 3 years ago. (I also wonder why people laugh at movie theatre commercials they’ve seen a hundred times before. But I digress.)

Negative feedback spread especially fast–and intact. This is something marketers tend to forget (cos they don’t usually have to deal with it), but customer service and PR people only know too well: complaints don’t need any adornment to get passed on.

(Now, about Tin Pei Ling's case: that picture of her holding up the branded bag was already a few years old when it went viral during the 2011 elections run-up. Though hardly current, the picture fitted the public's negative perception of her. That picture, along with other artifacts on her Facebook account, was circulated on online forums as fodder for ridicule.)

When creating a campaign, marketers face the real challenge of not knowing if our content and message will shared. Worse: when it does take off, the campaign may well backfire on us.

It amazes me sometimes how the industry gets by with marketing plans with only contingency plans for low CTRs and social indicators, and no plans to deal with social crises.

Observation #2: It’s much easier to ride on an existing viral trend than to start one

Not every video featuring a fat man singing in a foreign language can become an international hit. It's near impossible to create a hashtag trend, even when you pay Twitter to promote your hashtag.

Edit (23 Oct 2012, 1300 SGT): Obama's just thrown a meme onto Romney, and it's sticks: #horsesandbayonets. Apparently he prepared his comments beforehand, and it had a hashtag campaign embedded. Sneaky. See observation #4.

In contrast, it's virtually effortless to spot a trend and follow the gravy train. (Though it's not without its risks.)

We don't have control over what goes viral. The social network does. But we can join one. Just look at the number of Gangnam Style parodies.

Observation #3: Everybody's an influencer

There’s this idea that some individuals on social networks are more influential than others. I don’t think it’s true—not always, anyway. For brands in the mass-market environment, every person is an influencer.

This isn't rocket science. If a piece of content goes viral happen because they come from an influential tastemaker, does it follow that every single item shared by these become viral? No, it doesn’t. Only items that have interest beyond the core group of fans get passed on.

A viral is what happens when content continues to be passed on by people beyond the original audience. It’s not something that occurs in a community (i.e. people separated by one or two degrees of separation, or fans), but a network of people weakly connected people.

Just because Lady Gaga endorses product X on Twitter doesn’t mean that her fans will follow. It simply means that she has many fans, and her public endorsement reaches that many people.

It’s the same with politicians. Politicians are well covered by the media and they are full of sound bites, but not everything they say becomes viral (thank god). Yet they take up a good share of the memes and virals we see online, simply because of their larger public exposure.

Don’t confuse broadcasting with becoming viral. It’s a different mechanism.

Observation #4: Viral trends are sparked by the zeitgeist

Tinder makes it possible for fires to spark at any time, but you can always choose the moment to strike a match. In Bodyform’s case, the ad agency tapped into the zeitgeist of the market-aware consumer, people who’s in on the conceits of branding. It’s the same zeitgeist underlying the meme of women who laugh while eating salad.

All viral content is a matter of timing–content gets shared while they are topical. The implication, of course, is that viral marketing requires brands to execute quickly. This typically requires having a creative agency on retainer, or a nimble inhouse marketing team. It requires the brand (or the brand’s retainer) to be constantly plugged into trends and social analytics, to spot opportunities for a viral campaign.

You don't even need new original content. You can probably rehash old content when the time is right. Again, Tin Pei Ling's case is instructive.

But if you have no content, and you have to start a lengthy procurement process before you start a campaign, you should only stick to predictable marketing targets, rather than shoot for a viral outcome.

Since I mentioned analytics, I should mention a common mistake by businesses: investing heavily in analytics software or services without considering if their marketing processes or policies allow them to respond in a timely fashion. If the marketing department has little flexibility or responsiveness, they shouldn’t invest in social analytics, and they shouldn’t plan a viral marketing campaign.

Observation #5: Take the long-term view

Despite the change-is-the-only-constant and everything-is-accelerated environment that we operate in, the fastest moving of all marketing tactics-- viral marketing–doesn't occur overnight. Virals happen in the context of long-term factors—branding, trends, product and service quality and public relations.

It was impossible for SingTel to predict when and which specific complaint on its Facebook would spark off a viral. But the fact that one would eventually happen should be no surprise, even without analytics. Service on the SingTel mobile 3G network has been rough for many months now. And SingTel just made a hugely unpopular decision to drastically lower its data cap–ironically, a measure intended to fix the very problem of overtaxed networks. The viral was a spike in customer discontent that's months in the making.

In the case of #bindersfullofwomen, there really isn’t much to talk about. The Presidential Campaign is designed as a year-long process for the public to get familiar with the candidates and their platforms. Campaign teams are assembled for the specific purpose of seeding conversations and responding to objections. There’s a huge machinery of people and analytics on both candidates’ teams, anticipating and responding to issues. And still Romney got #bindersfullofwomen.

Observation #6: Viral marketing is doable. But it takes more than just planning

Despite all I’ve said against viral marketing, I’m not saying we shouldn’t shoot far. We just need to be realistic with marketing objectives.

It’s not realistic to expect any specific piece of content we create or acquire to be eagerly shared by everyone. No marketer or agency can guarantee that.

And if we offered prizes to motivate sharing, it’ll only go as far as the prize budget. This is considered “viral marketing” only in an hyperbolic sense. A viral is, by definition, something that's willingly passed on by audiences, without incentive–that's how a campaign goes beyond the projected ROI. If it matches expectations, a campaign should be considered successful–but it’s not really viral marketing.

In case of Bodyform, it may well be that the original post was a plant. But let’s assume that it’s not. Bodyform’s video response was successful because they were on top of their social media listening, and they were able to execute quickly, in Facebook time, in video even. Bodyform obviously had a close working relationship with their advertising and creative agencies.

Would SingTel have been able to do a spin on the Facebook complaint like Bodyform? Yes, if the customer had considered the SingTel Facebook page a friendly enough space to post a funny barb. Yes, if SingTel’s marketing team (inhouse or retainer) was creative, and had leeway to execute quickly. Yes, if company didn’t always take itself seriously. Yes, if the Singapore public gives local brands the permission not to take themselves seriously.

That’s a lot of what-ifs.