Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Nobody Wants a Virus

One of the most amazing bits of snake oil salesmanship in the Social Media world is the sure-to-rock-your-bottom-line guaranteed "Viral" Video.

Let's look at the nature of viruses and virality for a moment.

When you get a virus, it's no laughing matter. It's a bad thing. You're not pleased when your computer gets a virus, either. In both cases, the virus is not going to help you - it kills critical functions, uses up resources and in general is something you very much want to get rid of as fast as possible.

Virality, in marketing, is meant as a shorthand for "compelling enough to be shared." It makes sense that everyone uses the term, but think about it for one moment and you'll see the problem. People don't want a virus...and they want to get rid of one if they do have it. In effect, they want to share the misery, so they don't suffer alone.

I know what you're saying right now - that a "viral" video is not malware - it's just something that people find entertaining or informative and want to share with friends.

That's true, but let's look more deeply at some very viral concepts and what they *really* consist of.

If you are old enough, you might remember the "Where's the Beef?" campaign Wendy's ran on TV in 1984. In the ads, an old lady, played with sufficient crotchetiness by Clara Peller, looks at a competitor's hamburger and grates, "Where's the Beef?" This was a much parodied, much lambasted and oft-repeated phrase. Hundreds of rip-offs appeared in every media possible at the time. It was as viral as a video clip could be in 1984. It now lives on YouTube, as all viral videos should. If you've never seen it, take a look.

And far more recently the truly "viral" video, The Sleeping Technician, in which a Comcast technician falls asleep at a client's house waiting for Comcast to pick up the phone.

What do these two "viral" videos have in common?

They are annoying.

Viral videos use humor, it is true, but it is very often the humor of outrage, of disgust, of shock. We do not just find "viral" videos funny, we find them outrageous.

Remember Budweiser's Wassup campaign? Remember how FAST you grew sick of it, long before the wave of parody and 'clever' pass-along jokes faded away?

Or the outraged laughter that you heard when people viewed Phillipine prisoners performing Michael Jackson's Thriller?

These were strange, funny in a irritating way and, like each winter's flu, you were sick to death of them long before the epidemic peaked.

"Viral" videos share a key trait with their organic namesakes - people get sick and tired of them as fast as they get them. They suffer from Next Big Thingese. You can tell because with at least one of the above mentions, I bet you rolled your eyes.

Now, think of your business - how do you feel at the thought of someone rolling their eyes at your expensive media campaign? Not so good? Well - that's what a "Viral" video will get you.

I'm not dissing video as a media, please don't think I am. It's incredibly powerful - especially for generations like mine and younger, who grew up playing with, learning from and being entertained by a screen of some kind.

But, if any company promises you virality, take a step back and ask them what they mean by that. Ask them to be specific. What are they going to do to encourage that video being shared, what will it gain you, how is it going to be good for you? What part of that virus will be beneficial to your system?

"Sharing" can be encouraged, promoted and even rewarded, but "virality" is not something you should seek.

Because, nobody wants a virus.

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