Catch on to viral design

Craig Grannell delves into the world of viral marketing and finds out how to design campaigns that sell themselves and appeal to increasingly weary consumers.

Marketing has changed little in recent decades. Increasing subtlety and diversionary tactics - rather than a 'Here's the product, so go and buy it!' mentality - have merely shifted some marketing from hard sell to soft sell. Luckily, new technology brings new ideas, and one - viral marketing - is growing rapidly.

Viral marketing is a technique that uses existing social networks to enhance brand awareness, using a target market to 'sell' goods to others in the same demographic. This can be done via word-of-mouth, email, online networks or a combination of media, and the way the message spreads is akin to viruses, hence the name.

"Instead of using billboards to direct someone to a video, a viral approach is to produce the video and then let the market discover and get excited about it on its own," explains Lateral's Simon Crab. Other crucial differences from more traditional marketing exist: virals tend to be irreverent, oblique or contrary to expectations in order to attract attention and become a talking point that encourages people to forward them on. Additionally, the spread of virals is beyond the control of the brand - once something's out in the open, it can then rapidly continue to spread from user to user.

Some of the earliest forms of viral marketing are considered to have been seen during the 1990s. One of the most famous examples is Hotmail, which appended advertising to outgoing emails, potentially attracting those receiving the emails to its service - a device that's now almost taken for granted.

As viral ideas gradually became more commonplace, the ante was upped, which has resulted in some stunning and memorable virals in recent years, such as Sony's impressive Bravia LCD TV adverts, one of which shows thousands of coloured balls bouncing down a road in San Francisco. The product itself takes a back seat, but the pure visual impact of the advert ensured word-of-mouth, and the video rapidly spread online. It was even more apparent the advert had gone viral when homages appeared online, including a Battlefield 2 war game spoof, which replaced balls with soldiers, and Tango's effort - flinging loads of fruit down a Welsh street.

Spreading the message
Of course, something as simple as Hotmail's viral would struggle to get noticed in today's world of increasing advertising noise, and strong design is now considered a must. "People's design sensibility is stronger than it used to be, and the advertising industry must realise that if it's not to fall back into the past," claims ATTIK's Simon Needham. "Once we allowed art directors to do the design, but my opinion is that you need a fantastic idea and a fantastic designer to produce it. Without a great design, you've less chance of a viral being picked up."

Innovation is also key. "Graphic design has moved on from the simple need to lay out and arrange text and images," says Digital Outlook's Phil Robertson. "The boom in stencil art is a direct result of this; because of the desire to create more distinct visuals to communicate the brand's message, we're seeing iconic graphic design leading the message." To some extent this is true of much print-based marketing, but especially so for virals, where output often comprises just imagery and a URL, relying on the 'coolness factor' and instant impact of the imagery to sell the brand.

But strong graphic design isn't enough to grab the interest of a jaded, marketing-savvy audience. "Design more than ever must be integrated with communication strategies and technology to achieve success," says Crab. "Visual stimuli alone are not enough - communication must be focused and targeted to cut through the noise and reach the right audience."

Crab believes anyone creating graphic design for viral work must understand the 'communication process' they're designing for and the possibilities of evolving technologies. For example, designers must convince clients to embrace social networking opportunities, and sometimes do the unthinkable and just let go. Digital viral marketing only works if it can spread, and to do so, restrictions must be eliminated. Output needs to be in a usable, popular format, free from DRM and 'light' enough to rapidly email or download.

Advertising unplugged
With viral marketing recalling a DIY ethic, designers must also be wary of overproducing. "The best works have been user-generated mash-ups of current brand content," claims Crab, referring to homemade videos that use well-known brands and existing content. Typically, they've an imaginative spark lacking in overly considered professional output.

"There's no need for big budgets - just good ideas will do," Crab continues, arguing that slickly produced virals tend to be quickly spotted by viral-baiting consumers. Although the Bravia ad seems to contradict that opinion, it can perhaps be considered an exception - a spectacle so awe-inspiring that its professional edge worked in its favour. However, when campaigns try too hard, or simply bolt 'viral' on to an existing effort, they lack authenticity and fail to generate the interest required for them to spread.

Crab suggests companies would do well to check out user mash-ups for insight into creating more down-to-earth concepts and take advantage of them. In his opinion, the best and worst example of viral marketing is the 'Mentos and Diet Coke geyser'. "Diet Coke drinkers discovered if they put Mentos in the bottle, it would erupt into bubbly madness," he says. "YouTube was inundated by videos of this, culminating in a grand Diet Coke/Mentos symphony that spread worldwide. But Coca-Cola didn't capitalise on the interest until the craze had evaporated." A quicker reaction could have turned a fun internet video into a viral marketing phenomenon.

It's all in the timing
Along with knowing when to get on board, companies should be aware of when to call it a day. A good example is Apple's iPod adverts, which initially wowed. Working seamlessly across media, silhouette figures dance on colourful backgrounds, white iPods and headphones contrasting against both. Much imitated and sometimes satirised, the campaign took on board common aspects of successful virals: it was simple, but visually arresting and pleasingly different. It didn't try to sell at you, it merely offered tantalising glimpses, encouraging the user to look for more information. Now it's old hat - each advert is more of the same. Virals need to excite and offer something new.

For anyone not yet tuned-in to the phenomenon, most of our contributors reckon it's just a matter of time. Viral marketing is here to stay, not least due to marketing budgets being squeezed, forcing companies to consider the most cost-effective ways of getting messages out there. However, there's only so far you can go when cutting costs, so virals shouldn't be considered a quick-fix, low-cost option - they require other budgetary factors to be taken into account.

"Sacrifice production or distribution, and non-traditional tactics fall flat on their face," claims Norm Shearer of Cactus. "One of our projects involved putting anti-smoking headlines on lighters for a state health client. But we had to budget for the street team to hand lighters out at bars and clubs."

Shearer also warns designers to remember the fundamental consideration when working on viral campaigns: they need goodwill to spread. "You must draw the line if the consumer may feel tricked or annoyed," he says. "Advertising shouldn't be an interruption, because that gets associated with the brand."