It is easy to catch a cold, not create one: Thoughts on viral marketing

Most viral marketing ideas go something like this:

a) We’ll create something really funny (outrageous, edgy), so people forward it around


b) We’ll add our logo and link to the bottom of every message our customers send from our product

Both of these end with:

…and we’ll sell lots/make lots of $$

Both of these techniques can be critical components of a viral campaign. But most often they become the focus — above the message or action you want taken — and that’s why 98% of viral marketing campaigns fail.

P&G has an example going viral, but missing the messaging/action point:

P&G’s ThermaCare Heat Wraps team created a campaign that went viral, because they listened to customers. (YAY!) They were looking for a way to promote their menstrual cramp relief line. In talking to women about menstrual cramps, the team learned that top issue from women is that they wanted men to get what having cramps felt like. The team had the idea that they could use this information to create something viral… something that hit the exposed nerve they had found. So, they created, MENWITHCRAMPS, a website devoted to the (fictitious) study of male menstrual cramps.

This campaign did hit “viral” status. Lots of talk, lots of website visits. But… people didn’t have any idea what it was selling. A typical quote:

“I am not quite sure what they are selling at, but I am buying it as soon as I can.”

Nice sentiment, but if you don’t know what you are buying, it is hard to buy, and you definitely can’t tell others to buy it. So, this team “sold” the site, but not the product. And most folks, thought it was funny and shared it, but wondered why someone had made the site, as they noted how professional it was. (Note: For awhile the site didn’t even link to the ThermaCare site, as it does now.)

Dove and Live Vault each have great examples of ads that became viral and got their message across:

Dove’s Evolution video hits both the emotion of how people feel, and goes to the core value of Dove’s message… real beauty. Even if it hadn’t gone viral, it would still be an awesome ad that got across their message, which has to be the foundation of your campaign.

Live Vault’s John Cleese video (requires registration) shows you can be funny and get across your message. They used Cleese as a doctor at the Back-Up Trauma Clinic. Every IT manager (their target) relates to this and it gets across the message of the pain that’s associated with “out-of-date, tape-based back-ups”.

So here’s my 3-step recipe for making something going for viral without wasting $$:

    1. Talk to prospective customers to find out:
      1. What is important to them about your product? E.g., ThermaCare’s [missing message] “relief”, Dove’s “real beauty”, Live Vault’s “easy, up-to-date recovery”
      2. Is there an emotional trigger for them around your product? E.g., ThermaCare’s “men understanding”, Dove’s “fake beauty”, Live Vault’s “out-of-date back-ups”)
    2. Make a campaign that you know nails what is important to prospective customers about your product.
    3. See if you can come up with a simple, unexpected, and concrete story around the emotional trigger. (For those of you that haven’t had a chance to read Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick, these qualifiers, including emotional, come from that book. This is the clearest set of qualifiers I’ve seen for viral yet.)

And if this doesn’t work, you can always attend the Viral Learning Center. (Thanks to the Church of the Customer blog for that one!)

So, what’s on my shirt? Well, I have an idea for small business marketing that may or may not be viral. It gets across a key message that many small businesses want to get across to their customers and it brings up a funny childhood emotion:

I know something you don’t know

See most small business owners start their business because they have an expertise that they want to share/live… something they are passionate about. I believe, if they created fewer logo shirts, and instead wore a shirt like this, they would be better marketers. This shirt would spark the conversations that they want to have… telling people about their passion.

I’ll tell you how it works! I’m going to be wearing this one at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival this weekend. Evan got me this trip as a Christmas gift (we are foodies), but we will also be talking to the chefs about working with us on culinary cruises for SureCruise.

Other shirts we’ll be wearing this weekend say:

Ask me about sea + food

Sea the world
Eat the world

Of course, I’ll also be sharing that Spreadshirt is what enabled me to get these targeted messages across simply, unexpectedly, concretely. See… I have several of the points going for viral on this idea! 🙂

22 thoughts on “It is easy to catch a cold, not create one: Thoughts on viral marketing

  1. Reading your post made me realize that viral marketing (when done right) makes up a disproportionate amount of the marketing/advertising messages that I see. I effectively block ads in my browser, I don’t listen to the radio, and more than 95% of the television I watch is really DVDs from Netflix — it isn’t overwhelmingly easy for commercial messages to reach me.

    But, I’ve seen the Dove Evolution video, and their new “pro-age” spot, too. Why? I suppose the simple answer is that I like stories, not ads — and these pieces have more punch than the typical “zoom zoom” car or miracle cleaning solution messages. I want stories, not obvious pitches. Stories get retold, pitches get forgotten.

    (I can hear a sing-song kid’s voice saying the “I know something you don’t know” now, it’s stuck in my head. I absolutely would ask someone wearing that t-shirt what they knew.)

  2. Michel says:

    The basic problem I perceive about viral marketing is that it is bound to be highly suspicious when it emanates from a corporate source. Because corporations usually do not offer content that is “hot” by consciously disregarding a taboo. This is not their job and it seems unnatural for them to do it. They try to sell something to me, further diminishing my small funds. I suspect $$ signs in their eyes. In Europe, there is still, and some say justifiedly so, a degree of skepticism of corporate marketing as such.

    I agree that the Dove video is an exception. To show up the way beauty is a function of illustrator really, appears bold for a company that has lived off this counterfeit beauty very well. The thing is, they “appear” to be rebellious, while I am prepared to bet they will go on utilizing people’s hankering after ideal symmetry. But, they may have triggered a debate, and they have tapped into people’s suspicions of all around artificality.

    For Spreadshirt, this could mean two things: exploring the taboo-breaker potential. How about pushing the casual aspect of t-shirts, positing them in a final armageddon against suit culture people with permanent back-aches. Or else, there is that edge of illegal or copyright problem t-shirts. Again, people with really outlandish tastes wearing approriate t-shirts like objectophiles. Creative Fringe People they could be termed, that find a home with a company that does not care about their ethics or looks, but democratically prints whatever sh.. is going on inside their heads as long as it is legal. Portrayal of these personalities with themselves describing their lifestyle and just a VERY brief cut of their t-shirt. This is Christian’s idea and it needs film students rather than ad agencies.

    Wow, I have written too much. I dont mind if you edit or delete this. 🙂 Grüsse aus Leipzig!

  3. Hi Jana!
    Well, I see that I am not the only blog-slacker! I thought I’d check in on you and see your latest thoughts- get blogging, sister!
    I thought you might like the push:o)
    I haven’t been doing anything with spreadshirt yet, as I have been focusing on my blog and etsy for the time being. Once I am up and running with that I will head over to spreadshirt and get my shop whipped into shape!
    Take care,

  4. Jana Eggers says:

    Hi, Melissa, Thanks for the prod. I posted today and will post again this week.

    Congrats on the design being used by Victoria’s Secret… that’s GREAT! As a hint for your Spreadshirt shop, this design is an example of one that would look great in flock or flex. Can’t wait to see what you do! Please tell me when you are done.


  5. Oh Jana, you are sweet! Thank you so much for visiting my site . I am new to blogging and having a website and selling online- the support is so helpful.
    That Victoria’s Secret print is such a simple one- I do much more ornate ones usually. I’ll be posting a gallery of my surface design soon on my website. I’ll let you know when I do so you can see what types of designs I’ll be more likely use on spreadshirt.
    I love flocking- I can’t wait to design for it specifically! And I definitely will let you know when I get my shop up and running! Thank you for your interest and encouragement!
    Take care,

  6. Jana Eggers says:

    Jenny, wow, I hadn’t thought about the idea that those that are wired to the Net would disproportionately see the viral messages. Viral was around before the Net, but it is so much easier to become viral on the Net. Very interesting thought. And the “I know something” shirt… been VERY popular as I’ve worn it. I always get comments and questions, and I’ve passed out many, many a business card because of it.

    Michel, I like your point about it being against their nature for corporate to be “hot”. The point on Dove is *so* great… appears natural, but *is* bold (they’ve lived off what we call beauty for years). They could not have done this ad (I believe) years earlier. It was the right time, but not too late either.

    Hey, on Spreadshirt, what about exploiting the idea of Formal Thursday, as the anti-suit? The idea would be “Won’t it be nice when we have to have a “suit” day in everyday business? Tshirts for everyone? Maybe not bold enough, eh? In any case, thanks for the fun thoughts!

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