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October 5, 2005
Advertisers and Clients Have Woken Up to Viral, but Old Ideas Won't Stand Up in This New Discipline

This article assumes a certain amount of knowledge about viral. If you're a newcomer to the field, I refer you to Debbie Scoppechio's excellent guest column of 08/31/2005. With this article, I intend to go further in looking at what viral can achieve, what it entails and where it stands as part of a wider shift in advertising trends that we are seeing today.

'Oh, you mean like spam?' is the question I am most commonly asked when I explain to my friends what The Viral Factory does. Confusion on this point is forgivable; the two disciplines are ostensibly quite similar. The difference however, is critical and is symptomatic of seismic changes in the industry. Spam is essentially old thinking applied to a new medium. It’s the online equivalent of direct marketing; the audience passively receiving (or ignoring) messages which the advertiser broadcasts. In this respect, viral is its antithesis and below I hope to outline why.

The fragmentation of traditional audiences is a hot topic. It is not necessary to rehash the arguments here; needless-to-say advertisers are finding their audience harder to reach. Entertainment spans a much broader spectrum than ever before, including the internet, mobile phones and an ever increasing number of TV channels. Add to this new technologies that give people the ability to filter out advertising messages, and (shock horror!) the fact that this is something they actually seem inclined to do!

As advertisers, I think that we are naturally quite confused by this; why would the audience be voluntarily ignoring what we have so painstakingly crafted for them? We all talk about 'noise' in the public sphere, but that expression surely doesn’t apply to our brand/ad/campaign. Our immediate impulse is to react negatively, when actually this is something we should be embracing.

I have never loved advertising. Ever. I'm from the No Logo generation of consumers who has grown up in an environment saturated with advertising messages at every turn. If you take the analogy of a slap in the face, then my face has been slapped so many times I don't even notice it any more. When I do, the only effect likely to be produced is irritation. I have never liked advertising and that's why I'm proud to be working in an industry that is changing it.

On the way to work this morning I walked past a premium billboard that had been 'ad busted'. It featured a popular English rapper and the slogan 'I am what I am', alongside which, someone had added '...crap!' in a perfect imitation of the typeface. I laughed. As I was laughing, I noticed two other people in the street laughing with me.

I think that this sort of sabotaging behaviour is indicative of a desire on the part of the consumer to take more control of what they are being told. Where they are not able to do this, they are more and more able to simply ignore us. Brand communication must become more of a two way relationship; the brands that excel in the 21st century will be those which can find new ways of talking to their audience, and learning to let them to talk back.

Viral is at the vanguard of this movement. It is not about getting under the radar. We don't want to fool consumers into paying attention to messages to which they would otherwise be averse. Successful viral integrates the brand into the conversations people are already having; talking with them rather than at them. To achieve it, we as advertisers need to step back slightly from our traditional role as brand enforcers and allow the audience a measure of participation. This sounds easy but it can be a difficult pill to swallow. As in any zero sum relationship, an increase of power on one side implies a decrease on the other, and in viral the audience is king. If we cannot voluntarily suspend our pretensions, they will have no hesitation stripping us of them.

The potential for success, however, is unprecedented. With the advent of mobile phones and the internet, people's ability to communicate with one another has mushroomed. There are now a billion email accounts spanning boarders and cultures across the world, and a greatly increased global broadband capacity. Viral is able to tap this resource because it perfectly encapsulates the power shift from producer to consumer.

Let's go back to the billboard I saw this morning. We'll assume that ten million people saw that campaign (in its unmolested state). Ten million people who received another eyeball lashing, most likely the hundredth they'd had that day. The difference with viral is that those ten million people would have actively participated in the campaign, involving it in their online conversations with peers and effectively changing 'time spent with brand' to 'branded quality time'.

People expect me to say that viral is the future. I believe that it is, but arguably not in the form we are seeing today. Viral will evolve from the thirty second gag-spot, and it's our job to shape how it evolves. What will certainly remain is the viral mechanism, and the ethos that the most successful campaigns will continue to be those which genuinely appeal to the audience. This is no bad thing for the industry. Essentially, it makes our jobs that bit harder, certainly more nerve wracking, but also more rewarding in the process.

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If you catch a good virus, blame Matt Smith. He's the co-founder of The Viral Factory, London, which has been responsible for some of the most talked about viral Web campaigns in recent years. Viral messaging isn't merely the wave of the future -- it's spreading right now, thanks to Matt.
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