Father of Flash Mobs on the Future of Viral

Bill Wasik Ponders the Life (and Possible Death) of Word-of-Mouth Marketing in a Social-Media World

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As the provocateur behind the Great Flash Mob Craze of 2003, Bill Wasik knows first-hand how quickly stories (trivial or otherwise) can flare up in the wired world, get fanned by the media, and then quickly fizzle. Making way, of course, for another ephemeral story that seems urgent at the time.

That experience (and other experiments) informs "And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture," a survey of the rise of the "nanostory" in America and its impact on culture, art, politics and, of course, marketing.

"If there has been a single most important trend in marketing during the first decade of the 21st century, it has been corporate America's slavering over viral culture, its hunger to create and own just the sort of contagious explosions that flash mobs represented," Mr. Wasik writes, an observation that's on-target (if not groundbreaking) enough that it doesn't seem self-congratulatory.

Mr. Wasik, a senior editor at Harper's, dives into a variety of corporate efforts to tap into viral culture at a time when traditional advertising is losing its effectiveness. He attends a Ford Fusion-sponsored "flash concert" with Staind. As Bill Shiller he creates a MySpace page and friends only corporations. He tours the Viral Factory's New York office. He becomes a guerilla marketer, pitching Ziploc Zip 'n Steam bags for BzzAgent and Christian pop singer Cali for Ground Force Network.

Wasik on WOM

1. The lifespan of a nanostory is short, the competition for attention is fierce, and the "amateurs" have the skills of pros.

2. Not all brands are necessarily ready to go viral.

3. Be clear about what you want to accomplish with viral marketing. "Start a conversation?" Sell?

4. Don't assume you'll automatically be loved.

Suffice it to say, Mr. Wasik is a skeptic. While sitting at a Word of Mouth Marketing Association meeting, "I found something heartbreaking about most of these WOM campaigns, with their grandiose expectations of how deeply consumers want a 'relationship' with the companies that manufacture and sell them stuff."

He sees a role for viral ads in marketing "products with an inherently viral appeal--video games, rock bands, movies like 'The Blair Witch Project.'" But for brands dependent on "reliable, trust, reliability," not so much. "Viral advertising seemed like a Hail Mary pass to sell my generation and the ones after mine, and its basic premise seemed to be that adult products needed to be sold as if to adolescents."

What's missing from Mr. Wasik's discussion is a hard look (i.e., with numbers) at the relative efficacy of viral. The fact that marketers continue to invest in viral strategies during a recession doesn't automatically mean they're "working," but it does suggest they have some value.

Still, Mr. Wasik is worth listening to. His parting observation that the rise of social networking -- in which people market themselves -- raises future challenges for viral marketing bears some pondering: "In such a milieu, word-of-mouth marketing is destined to be both ubiquitous and useless, for when one has developed the media mind -- which is, at heart, a marketing mind -- one can never stop selling, but neither can one be entirely sold."

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James Arndorfer, a former Ad Age reporter, now works for MillerCoors.

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