Why It's Time to Rethink Viral Marketing

Just Because It's Popular Doesn't Mean It Has To Fizzle. Just Ask Burger King.

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Craig Daitch
Craig Daitch
I tend to suffer from a strange affliction -- I call it RES (Random Epiphany Syndrome). Case in point? The other day while rushing across Manhattan from one meeting to the next, I stopped in my tracks while briskly passing a man eating a Tendercrisp Sandwich in front of the Burger King on 7th Avenue.

Temporarily forgetting my meeting schedule amidst the incessant honking of taxi cabs that surrounded me, my mind raced to almost seven years prior, to simpler times when a man in a chicken suit left millions of people spellbound while surfing online.

Reading numerous--really, too many--"best practice" documents on viral content over the years, I've seen the statement "nothing lasts forever" more than a few times. This warning of "earned media wear-out" is typically displayed in parabolic chart form, where the X axis is based on some measurement of time and the Y axis is based on a form of engagement or views. Attention goes up and then sharply declines after a few weeks of buzz.

This is the wrong way to think.

Okay maybe not wrong, but you need to take much more into consideration before, during, and after your viral campaign in order to avoid the parabola effect. The goal of a viral campaign is that it doesn't perform well in the next 10 minutes; rather, that it have some long-term impact. For example, instead of simply uploading a video on YouTube, think about how your audience will find your content -- are you using the right keywords to provide stronger ties to your brand and your viral marketing effort through SEO? And once your content is discovered, how are you encouraging your audience to remain engaged? Also, is there a clear path of distribution?

The list is exhausting yet necessary if you have any chance at sparking sustainable viral content.

So what does this have to do with chicken sandwiches and my spontaneous thought the other day? Well, I was simply curious to know if the benefits of an almost seven-year-old viral project still proved valuable to Burger King.

This could be challenging. When the Subservient Chicken campaign launched, The co-developers of the campaign, the Barbarian Group were 15 people. The term "viral marketing" wasn't yet mainstream and to really make you feel old, the campaign launched a year prior to Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim going live with YouTube.

Yet even without the benefits of video aggregation platforms, Facebook and Twitter, the Subservient Chicken saw 15 million hits the first five days. The average time spent on the site was an amazing 5 minutes and 44 seconds. The campaign over the years has accrued more than 450 million hits, making it the Godfather of the "Will It Blends", "Old Spice Guys" and "Tipp-Ex" amongst many others that have captivated audiences.

Back to my original thought: Impressive as its statistics were years ago, does the campaign still provide a benefit to Burger King and how?

Well, impressive SEO results for one! Burger King is #4 on Google when searching the word "chicken" -- only below Wikipedia, recipes, and KFC. They're above Popeyes. Chick-fil-A, Church's, and Bojangles, which aren't even on the first page. Going 15 pages in and you won't even find McDonald's, Wendy's , Arby's , or Roy Rogers at all.

What's more, the Subservient Chicken content continues to be discovered through social-media channels such as Twitter, where sentiment is positive and frequency of mention is high.

The fa├žade that is all too easily emulated and completely misunderstood is the "life curve" of a viral campaign. While some companies guarantee viral success, their definition of reaching goals need to be rethought and re-taught. Campaigns via viral marketing are designed to be provocative, yet how does that provocation impact your overall brand marketing strategy? If you start thinking "logistical versus parabolic" then you'll be in great shape. The assumption that all viral contain is good only for the short term amplified brand lift has to continue to be disproved. By embracing sustainability when it comes to your viral campaigns -- thinking through integration strategies, your landing pages, and your content, you too can have your cake, er, chicken sandwich and eat it too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Craig Daitch currently leads the Activation team at Converseon as its senior vice president, manages his own pop culture social bookmarking site, Hipstr, and tweets regularly at @cdny.
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