Friday, February 22

Viral of Mouth or Word of Viral?

The Office Max Elf Yourself 2007 holiday site was a huge viral success. 5 times more traffic than 2006. Here's an overview on Mediapost.

Viral is a hit (rarely) or miss (mostly) approach. You can count the number of real viral successes on one hand. Burger King subservient chicken and Simpsonize Me, Mentos/Coke video (and the sequel), Snakes on a Plane Samuel Jackson voicemails, Jib Jab president music video.

For me, the original viral dates back to the Dancing Baby animation that ended up in everyone's email inbox and even on Allie McBeal. Or maybe the Exploding Whale video. Yeah, I'm old.

Case studies like Elf Yourself set the wrong expectation that every "viral" program will have the same results. Clients read it and want their viral "thing." So the account team wants a viral "thing." And the opportunity for the creative team to do something besides a 30 second TV spot that gets consumer tested to death is too alluring. So everyone ignores the fact that you can't plan on making something viral. It just goes viral if it is really unique and interesting and lucky.

Then you end up with a branded video on YouTube getting 5,000 views and a client asking what went wrong. And then you build a microsite to house that video, which gets limited visits. And then run some banners to drive traffic to that microsite to justify the production budget. At which point you start asking why you didn't just stick the video in broadband pre-roll advertising and tack a "Share This" button on it.

Even Elf Yourself was a rip off of countless other "put your face on a character and make it talk" executions. The Wedding Crashers movie did it 3 years ago. Oddcast does it every week. They just hit a chord during the holidays and got the buzz ball rolling.

Most don't realize that in 2006 Office Max actually launched 20 different "viral" microsites -- things like Reindeer Arm Wrestling, North Pole Dancing, Shake the Globe. Really to see which ones took off. Elf Yourself ended up being the one. Which allowed them to fine tune it and reuse it in 2007. You can see the full collection on the Toy website. There is also an article by their President that explains the program.

This is something that a lot of agencies and marketers don't push themselves to consider. Crossing your fingers and hoping that 1 execution (viral or not) will succeed is not the best approach. It was still a risk for Office Max, but they spread their bets (and budget) by testing out a wide variety of executions. They ended up allocating their entire media budget to produce the 20 sites, therefore had nothing driving traffic to it except word of mouth. So kudos to them for having the guts to do it. I'm sure they lost a lot of sleep over it in the early days.