With so many media channels saturated by stunts and gimmicks, the secret to a successful viral campaign is to offer real value for the people you're trying to attract. If the idea behind your scheme is a hit, the message will spread by itself. And when the network effect kicks in, the initial investment will be returned to the product, service or brand you are promoting many times over.
When Wieden+Kennedy were called in by LAIKA Entertainment House to market the movie Coraline, interactivity was at the core of its strategy. The movers and shakers behind the film - Phil Knight, Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman - wanted the campaign to stay true to Coraline's handmade, stop-motion aesthetic, so the team at W+K started by investigating who the film would appeal to. They picked out 50 bloggers - from fans of stop motion to knitters and comic collectors - who would particularly relate to the film's ethos. Each was sent a unique handmade box that included tactile goodies such as authentic film props, costume elements, stills from the set and more.
The bloggers bubbled over with excitement, and documented the opening of their boxes on their sites. Thirteen different passwords were distributed with the boxes for them and their readers, which unlocked making-of videos at the Coraline website. By seeding the 50 bloggers with something unique and of value, the communities they speak to could also share in the experience. Soon readers of all the advocate blogs were trading the passwords to see all the segments of video, driving traffic to the website.
The film generated its own community, props changed hands on eBay and a buzz grew for the film. When a bogus prop was put up for auction, the community slammed down the culprit. "Because people worked together, we had a self-policing community of people who identified a fraudulent element of our campaign that was posted on eBay, and they called it out," says Marcelino Alvarez, interactive producer at W+K.
Even the website's casual visitors were influenced by this community, and could interact by creating their own flowers, or making portraits with buttons over the eyes (a recurring theme throughout the film). These images could be emailed, downloaded or posted to Facebook, Flickr or MySpace, bringing the social networking universe under Coraline's spell. Getting people to participate in this way strengthened their connection to the movie. Meanwhile, commentary about some of the film's themes was extended through the Bobinsky blog, hosted by a character from the Coraline universe. This kept the story alive for fans well beyond their first viewing of the movie.
This kind of interactivity, which sparks off individual reactions, is something to strive for both online and offline. Cole & Weber United's campaign to reposition Colt 45, the American malt liquor brand, involved various traditional media such as posters and packaging, as well as viral elements. To attract trendsetting male drinkers, the aesthetic focused on an urban style, and the idea that an evening starting off with Colt 45 will be a good one. Legendary party stories illustrated by graphic novelist Jim Mahfood were put online at www.talesofcolt45.com. These stories subsequently spread to other sites frequented by the desired consumers, like www.thrillist.com, www.heavy.com, and www.pandora.com.
At the same time, the site invited people to send in their own party stories that featured Colt 45. Sometimes these tales were used as inspiration for new parties organised by young men. "We extended this effort beyond the site by partnering with Vice magazine to create a competition for the best party-oriented story from readers," says Britt Peterson, partner at Cole & Weber United. "The best tales were illustrated by Vice's own underground comic-book artists and were compiled in a mini-mag series. This was placed inside a Colt 45-branded brown bag, poly-bagged with the magazine and distributed at parties in key markets."
What needs to be at the heart of the message is some kind of true quality about the product or brand that you're trying to sell. When Work Club tackled the digital marketing for Dido's 2008 album Safe Trip Home, its first endeavour was identifying that the music is about emotional insights, and mainly for women aged 25-35. A dozen shorts were commissioned by film-makers around the world to accompany the moods of the tracks on the album. A website was created to deliver the music and films, and to provide visitors with the chance to share their feelings about the experience. But as Work Club strategy partner Patrick Griffith observes, while the web does useful, quirky and funny very well, emotion is where it often falls down. "We wanted to create something that was genuinely moving," he said, "So we kept the interaction very simple. It's hard to juggle a glass of wine and manage a multimedia website. We knew that the audience were not too tech-savvy, so we focused on delivering the films in a very clean and high-quality way, without complicating the user journey with potentially irritating distractions. The audience weren't bloggers or big online contributors, so we asked for very little in response to the films: to choose a mood word, or perhaps write a sentence or two. The most technically innovative addition was the use of Facebook Connect, but again it leaned on a site that many of those women felt comfortable using."
Shaking up the conventional format like this was definitely at odds with the way music is usually marketed. The short films replaced the traditional pop promo, and the idea of focusing on the experience of listening to the music - rather than the experience of buying it - was a distinct departure from record company Sony BMG's usual approach. There was always a pull to return to airplay, billboards, online and radio PR. "As a result, the integrity of our idea was always under threat," says Griffith.
Whether it's through stop-motion banner ads for Coraline, using street art to define Colt 45's new image, or getting into what Dido's music means, the notion of integrity and authenticity is brought up repeatedly by designers creating online viral experiences. Illustrator Nathan Jurevicius feels that his artistic integrity is a critical part of the success of his Scarygirl character. Scarygirl has been on the scene since 2001 via online comic books, as well as vinyl figurines designed by Jurevicius. However, two months ago, working with Passion Pictures and Touch My Pixel, he launched the Scarygirl online game.
"My initial task was to set up the basic story arc, and to define the potential worlds Scarygirl would encounter on the way to her destination. It was also a requirement for the player to be offered choices somewhere in the story, so that even once you'd finished the entire game you would feel compelled to replay it, just to find out what extra levels or experiences you missed out on the first time around," says Jurevicius.
This is just one of many 'sticky' aspects of the game that keep players coming back for more. Another way of persistently engaging players came via the speech bubbles Jurevicius devised for the character, which enable players to interpret bits of the story themselves.
"The visual interaction between the characters was a throwback to the original weekly Scarygirl comic, where all dialogue was created in pictograms or simple expressions. This was partly to break down language barriers in multiple countries, but it was also a way for people to invent what they thought was happening in the story, creating a little mystery," he explains.
Whether it's making your target consumers feel clever or challenged, the emotion you evoke through the interaction is what gets people talking about your work. LA-based agency 72andSunny created a Nike campaign last summer that exploited the competitive tendencies of the audience. Nike Football used traditional media, such as the point-of-view TV ad that put the viewer on the pitch, competing with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fbregas. Online, young footballers were offered the chance to participate in Boot Camp, a training schedule with real coaches for players to improve their skills.
Smaller, viral projects spun off from the main campaign, including one encouraging English fans to support Spain during the European Championships when England didn't qualify. "The Torres film was an idea based on a simple insight about Liverpool FC and England that obviously connected with young footballers," says Glenn Cole, creative director and founder of 72andSunny.
One misconception about viral campaigns, which their creators are quick to debunk, is the notion that to be effective virals need a shocking, quirky or subversive element. Jeff Benjamin, vice president and creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, recently masterminded the Burger King Whopper Sacrifice campaign via Facebook. If you sacrificed 10 of your friends, Burger King would send you a coupon for a Whopper. When someone was sacrificed, their photo would appear in a flaming animation, tying in brilliantly with the flame-broiling every Whopper experiences, as well as Burger King's branding. Over 200,000 people sacrificed their friends, and the campaign made television news in the US.
Benjamin points out that Whopper Sacrifice didn't set out to be controversial; it was only tapping into the concerns many Facebook users had at the time. "There was already that culture of people acknowledging that they've got a lot of friends, and wanting to do something about it. We created the means for them to act on something that was already in their minds, and to do it in a really fun way. You can't just go and do anything that'll shock people. I think that there's this tendency to think that something that's viral is just random shock. The first and most important thing is making sure that it works with your brand," he says.