Beginning to Understand Viral Advertising for SMBs

“Going viral” has become something of “The Holy Grail” of advertising since the advent of the Social Web and now even more so with the Mobile Social Web. In fact, agencies and brand advertisers rank “sharing via social networks” as a top metric for evaluating online success (Adap.TV 2012). Through my research and consultation with many brands, I have learned quite a bit about viral advertising some of which I will share in the second of this two-part blog discussion (Insert link).

Perhaps most important, though, is that small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) particularly tend to hold misconceptions regarding what viral advertising means and no real idea of how to integrate viral into their marketing strategy.  This is unfortunate because when appropriate viral advertising is most useful for SMBs which tend to have smaller budgets as viral generates free impressions. So, before moving on to factors that affect viral, I would like to first clear up some misconceptions and give some insight as to how to assess the appropriateness of a viral strategy for your brand.

What is “Viral Advertising?”

Let’s start with a proper definition so that we are on the same page. Viral advertising is unpaid, peer-to-peer, online communication of branded content for the purpose of influencing pass-along to online contacts. First, note that the advertising content being shared is originally produced by the brand.  Consumers may add their own captions and comments along the way, but the brand retains control of the base message content.  If the consumers create the message, it then becomes user-generated advertising which can also be powerful for SMBs but is a conversation for another post.

Another big point that seems to be a large source of the confusion surrounding viral advertising is that the term “viral” is ambiguous and a bit of a misnomer in and of itself. First, various entities have set different marks for what actually constitutes “viral.” A Feed Company survey showed that top executives have split opinions as to whether 1 million, 500,000, and 250,000 views constitutes virality. Advertising Age’s Viral Video Chart produced by Visible Measures set one million as the mark to hit. I tend to agree with who argues the question should be based on brand objectives.  We will explore this point more below.

The term “viral advertising” is also a misnomer. Remember that we noted that the definition of viral advertising stipulates the advertising being shared must be brand-generated as opposed to user-generated. Yet, the user-generated iPhone spoof commercial  has almost 3.5 million hits which would be considered as “gone viral” by the common vernacular. Obviously, then viral advertising is a flawed term which is why I suggest the terms shared brand advertising (SBA) and user-generated advertising (UGA.)

Assessing the Appropriateness of Shared Brand Advertising for Your Brand

Now that we have cleared up what we refer to as “viral advertising” is, it should be apparent that “viral’ is not a strategy at all. “Going viral” is an outcome that can result from a properly designed shared brand advertising strategy.  What we are really talking about then is integrating a strategy for driving brand advertising sharing into your overall marketing plan. To do that, you start with the basics.

Tip 1: Clearly Define Your Marketing Objectives

The beginning of any strategy is setting goals as to what you need to accomplish in order to move your brand forward. Simply saying that you want to raise sales is not sufficient. What is the core problem you need to solve in order for that to happen? More specifically, where is your client in the consumer-decision making process and what needs to happen to push them closer to purchase or repeat purchase (see Consumer Decision-making Process figure).

consumer decision process

For example, BlendTec’s “Will It Blend?” campaign is an iconic small business viral campaign.  BlendTec knew that they have an elite product that no one knew about.  Their objective became awareness.  Their first video cost $50 to make.  The campaign generated 700 million views and a 500% increase in sales in one year. Key here is that the company figured out their problem and then aligned their SBA efforts with that problem.

This brings up an important point.  The reason you define your marketing goals first is because everything that you do afterwards must be directly designed to accomplish those goals. A shared brand advertising strategy is just another tool that use can use alongside traditional media, your website, search advertising, etc. to meet those objectives. So, ask yourself (1) why you are considering a SBA strategy and (2) how it flows with the rest of your marketing mix to accomplish your objectives.  If you answers to those questions are not satisfactory, go back to the drawing board.

Tip 2:  Create Continuous Social Value for Your Consumers

Once your have decided that a SBA strategy is appropriate for your objectives and fits within your greater marketing plan, you must then ask yourself how you are going to create social value for your consumers.

Remember that at the root of any viral campaign is content being shared within online social networks.  Facebook is particularly dominant in terms of driving sharing for online video campaigns. People share content for a variety of reasons which I will get into in the next post.  In general, though, content is shared because it holds social value for both the person sharing it and his/her network of friends. So, the brand must design content that (1) is in line with the marketing objectives laid out and (2) has social value for the target consumer group.

This means that it is imperative that the brand fully understands its consumer base and actively works to build and maintain a relationship with those consumers.  Consumer-brand relationships are built on satisfaction with brand interactions which leads to trust. An initial and surface understanding of the brand’s consumer base can be established through research.  Continuous interaction, however, is the only route to long term success. The brand must be committed to providing content that the consumer values regularly and consistently. This means that shared brand advertising is a long term strategy, not a short term approach. But there is good news! If brands do the work, it pays off!

An obvious question is: Hey, what about growing my business? If I am spending all of this time nurturing a relationship with existing customers, how does that help me get new ones? A key concept in SBA is the similarity principle which notes that as humans we naturally gravitate to people similar to us.  What this means is that, if brands identify their appropriate target market and continuously build a relationship with that audience, then that audience will recruit others within that audience for the brand through sharing valued brand content.  This is because their online networks are comprised of people like them due to our basic human propensity for finding people similar to us.

It all starts with understanding your target audience enough the design content that works toward your marketing objective and creates social value in some way for that target audience. From there, it is simply continuing to provide valuable content on a regular basis.  Old Spice’s “Old Spice Guy” campaign is an excellent example of this. Wieden-Kennedy’s research showed that women would be the driving force behind growth in the male body wash market and that they wanted the men to smell “like a real man.” Using that insight, they introduced The Old Spice Guy integrating their traditional and online strategies. The first video was a huge success, but they began to feed the beast creating over 180 videos to continue the conversation.  The result was a 27% sales increase to put them #1 in the market. Today, there is still a brand community that talks about BODYWASH!

Tip 3: Set a Realistic Scope

Before wrapping up I would like to return to’s notion that each brand should define “viral” based upon its own objectives.  This is absolutely correct particularly for SMBs. Parameters for what is successful should be adjusted on a campaign by campaign basis. If your brand is a regional business, then millions of views may not be realistic or even helpful. What does it matter if Tijuana Flats in Tampa puts out a commercial that gets 1 million views because people finds it funny if 900,000 of them are people who live elsewhere and will never eat at Tijuana Flats. Your focus should be making sure that whatever amount of impressions you generate gets you closer to your marketing objectives. So, when setting goals, understand the scope of your target and refer back to your defined marketing objectives.

In conclusion, when considering a shared brand advertising approach, stick to the basics recognizing that social media is just another tool that should operate in line with your overall marketing plan. First, set your marketing objectives and pinpoint exacting what SBA should be doing to help accomplish them.  Next, diagnose how you will employ such a strategy within the framework of your 360-degree campaign to create continuous social value for your target audience.  Finally, set goals consistent with the scope of your marketing plan. If these things can be done satisfactorily, then a shared brand strategy may be an appropriate part of your marketing plan.  If not, such a strategy may not be a good fit for your particular brand.


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