Go viral if you dare

Written by Rakesh Raman | Updated: Apr 16 2008, 04:13am hrs
Surfers pain, marketers pride! Viral fever is causing much misery in cyberspace. Marketers, you see, believe that nothing beats viral marketing, especially online viral videos. You can reach out to millions of global consumers by spending just some chump change. More and more companies around the world are taking to the idea.

Viral videos are small ad-like movie clips created by vendors and uploaded on free video-sharing sites like YouTube, ViralVideos, MTVs Spike and a host of others. The videos could be for anythingto sell MacBook Air via a parody or to propagate Obamas views on race and politics. And yeah, it could even be the latest mango chutney being churned out in the neighbourhood. This viral infection is also spread via mobile phone-based video sharing by consumers who create or receive such clips on their handsets.

The term is derived from a computer virus, which infects electronic gadgets. In business, however, as proposed by Seth Godin in a famous book on the subject, viral marketing is what conventional word-of-mouth used to beonly, this is electronic. Its word-of-mouse.

The assumption is that consumers are ever ready to share, at the click of a button, something interesting theyve come across with at least five others. To turn this to ones commercial advantage, specialists are busy creating viral promotional video clips. With YouTube around, spreading it is as easy as a mouse click.

Some of the biggest brands have been snared by the bug. Take BMW, for instance. It made a series of short 10-minute films under The Hire to subtly promote its cars. Featuring a hired driver played by Hollywood star Clive Owen, they became so popular online that viewers couldnt resist sharing the links with others. One of these films, Star, with Owen and Madonna, has been seen some 122,000 times since it hit YouTube early last year.

Moviemakers, too, are trying to leverage viral marketing. For example, Saw IV, a thriller released late last year and hosted on YouTube, maintained its No 1 rank continuously for several days (and till April 2, 2008, had scored 1,248,861 views) on ViralVideos rankings.

Marketers such as Reebok, Intel and Microsoft are using viral videos, too. The primary advantage of viral videos is that they are pulled ads. Unlike pushed TV commercials, these are non-intrusive, and it is immediately clear whether consumers are willing to watch these ads. However, there is no established correlation yet between the number of viral video viewers and a brands equity or sales. Its also likely that people watch viral videos only for their low-cost entertainment value. Most of those who liked the BMW videos would never be able to afford those cars, even if they remember the brand fondly.

The Indian scene, as usual, is dismal. Marketers are not too excited by viral campaigns because out of nearly 45 million Internet users here, less than 10% have true broadband connectivity, a prerequisite to receive viral video clips. Global targeting remains rare.

Overseas, viral advertising has been the stuff of hot experimentation even before the Apple 1984 remake in YouTube featuring Clinton. Since then, the sense of shakeup in the online ad world has been sharper and more severe. It has become hard for marketers to ignore this mode of brand propagation. Also, at a time when TV ads trigger urges to hit the remote, pop-up ads online are being blocked by surfer-friendly websites, and mobile phone intrusions are a major irritation for consumers, viral video advertising can usher in a new wave of ad campaigns that swirl around Web 2.0 opportunities. Campaigns that are endorsed by and spread around by consumers themselves have always been the most powerful. So keep surfing the viral waves.

The writer is a technology market analyst. These are his personal views