digital, industry, virals

The Dark Side of Viral Marketing

On 16th November, Jack In The Box kicked off what became India’s (and possibly the world’s) biggest viral campaign of 2011. By the time we took our foot off the gas, #kolaveri had covered most of the globe. The original video had gotten (at the time of writing this) over 25 million hits and spawned a whole bunch of cover versions. Dhanush was on billboards and news channels, and organising flash mobs at Churchgate Station. Amitabh Bachchan was tweeting about it. And Jack In The Box was getting a whole lot of phone calls and news coverage.

Kolaveri was a case study in viral marketing. It showed the world how great seeding and promotion could get a great piece of content to the right people, in the least time and the least cost. It showed the faith our client had in us – and the power of social recommendation.

Then, two weeks later, we got a phone call that made us painfully aware of the other side of social media marketing. The jugaad side. The dark side. The one that we’ve all been aware of, but chosen to ignore.

The Jedi Knights of social media do it the hard way. We identify the best channels to place the content, and seed it over and over again, each time giving the audience a new way to engage with it. We painstakingly identify influencers and engage with them. If we’re crowdsourcing, we slave over getting entries in. We slave over curating them and putting together the final piece of content. We track, religiously. We optimise. We celebrate every thousandth like and every hundred-thousandth video view. We celebrate the people who make the content viral.
The Sith Lords, of course, are another story.
We’ve heard of the agencies – and clients –  that pay money to buy likes on Facebook. The ones that pay people to create fake Facebook profiles and sit around all day clicking the Like button on all their Pages, creating an artificial spike in their Facebook Insights.
We know about the agencies – and clients – that ‘crowdsource’ videos and other content. The crowd is made up of agency employees and their friends. Of course, the film has been produced by the agency, scripted and staged to the last detail. And then passed off as videos done by fans in the real world.
The phone call we received the other day was one such request.
Why was I so pissed off?
Frankly speaking, we owe the client a lot for Kolaveri. They could’ve easily insisted we buy likes, we create ‘crowdsourced’ videos. They didn’t. They trusted us to do our jobs and supported us in any way they could. The results are out there for the world to see.
Contrast this to a client who refused to acknowledge that we know what we are doing. Who refused to trust our judgement of content. Who asked us to fake something that could’ve been done better and for real. All this after Kolaveri.
Why fake an orgasm when someone is willing to work hard to give you a real one?
It all comes back down to two things.
One: The Measurement Curse. Clients are desperate for the numbers that will make their bosses happy and their bonuses fatter. Agencies are desperate for the numbers that will help them retain the business. It’s a dirty business, really. As long as clients are going to be rewarding employees and agencies on the basis of quantitative measures – likes, comments, % virality, % engagement – this shit will continue to go down.
Two: The ‘Know-It-All’ Curse (I haven’t blogged about that yet). Clients who don’t understand audiences believe they are brighter and more creative than the agency they hire. They don’t spend a tenth as much time as we do tracking trends. Or understanding what makes a campaign viral. Or learning about the platforms we use. Yet, they mysteriously always know better than we do.
I’m under no illusions that this rant will change things. But I just have one more thing to say to the Sith Lords of viral marketing.
Agencies can fool the client. Clients can fool their bosses. Agencies and clients can both fool themselves. 
But ultimately, you can’t fool the audience.
creative, digital, virals

The Truth About Internet Virals

 truth hurts, doesn't it?

A few short years ago, a small digital agency called Webchutney stunned (and entertained) India with a series of short, animated viral videos.

And in doing so, they screwed us all.

When we watched Pankaj Udaas, Thakur Ka Inteqam, Dilwale Dulhaniya Kaise Le Jaayenge, etc., we all wanted to do the same sort of stuff.

Webchutney had made us all – advertisers and agencies – believe that:

  1. Viral means viral film.
  2. Viral film means animated viral film.
  3. Animated viral film means Bollywood spoof – Sholay, DDLJ, Ghajini, what have you.

Dreams were coming true all around. Copywriters got TVC scripts that were rejected for being too insane animated and turned them into spoofy virals. Clients were happy to shell out Rs. 500,000 for a viral that would run forever (complementing a Rs. 5,000,000 TVC that would run for a month).

But then every viral started to look the same.

ICICI Prudential Life Insurance. Reliance. ADAG. OK Tata Bye Bye. The list was endless.

Naturally, effectiveness began to drop. I’ve stopped forwarding most of these animated virals. As have many friends and colleagues.

They’re simply not cool any more.

But clients don’t get it. And agencies are at fault for continuing to propagate a dying fad.

Clients today believe virals should be cheap and spoofy. So when we develop ideas that require great production, and therefore cost more, it’s a really tough sell.

When clients ask for virals, they mean films. Whereas the true meaning of a viral is something that is passed along from user to user. It could be an engagement idea. A micro-site. An e-mailer. A joke.

Somewhere I feel we’ve failed to realise the potential of Internet virals. As we continued to churn out clone after clone, we were just left behind.

Western agencies realise the true nature of Internet virals. They don’t treat them as callously as we do. Even when they’re thinking of viral films, they think of ideas for great films – not ideas for animated movie spoofs. They produce them beautifully. They seed them actively. They realise and tap into the human desire to share something memorable.

Here are some of 2009’s top virals, as collated by Mashable.

To reinforce the facts, here’s how our virals fare against those listed above:

Viral Date Posted Hits (as of 15th April 2010)
Pankaj Udaas 30th August 2008 15,964
Thakur Ka Inteqam 14th August 2007 462,335
Dilwale Dulhaniya Kaise Le Jaayenge? 21st May 2008 4,389
ICICI Prudential 10th October 2008 2,410
Reliance Sawaal 13th May 2008 3,032
ADAG 31st January 2008 118,559
OK Tata Bye Bye 24th January 2009 14,088
Inspired Bicycles 19th April 2009 16,801,063
Schweppes – Signs 29th January 2009 4,391,312
Boone Oakley 28th May 2009 912,524
VW Piano Stairs 7th October 2009 11,661,969
Samsung Omnia HD 7th April 2009 1,242,421
MSI Computers 10th August 2009 2,936,493

Numbers don’t lie. Even when you take into account Internet penetration, the difference in proportions (and the time taken to go viral) is staggering.

Webchutney moved on long ago. It’s time the rest of us – clients and agencies – follow suit.