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Viral is really just earned media

April 1, 2009

We’re interested in “viral”. Who isn’t? The notion that a brand can get the kind of traction in the digital space that ensures a positive impact to more and more people.

In essence, a viral idea will spread through current customers, to potential customers. And the cost is wonderful, you don’t have to pay for those 3 million views on YouTube.

When people ask me about viral, I tell them that viral isn’t about the tools. YouTube doesn’t guarantee viral. Nor does TubeMogul. And if the idea isn’t a video, then the places like Digg, StumbleUpon, and other social bookmarking sites that can spread an idea can be used, but guarantee nothing.

The only thing that can spread an idea is the idea itself.

And yes, it will happen. On his blog Mike Arauz wrote this (emphasis in original):

If I tell my Facebook friends about your brand, it’s not because I like your brand, but rather because I like my friends. I want to share something with them, in exchange for their attention and affection. And I want to say something to them about what we have in common or how I’m different.

People share things because it makes them look cool. This is no different from the days when people would first get e-mails and begin sending out jokes, and that thing about Bill Gates giving everyone $100. The first one is to entertain, to show off. The second one is to show people that the sender is in the know.

So here’s the idea: for most of my career, the creative briefs I’ve seen have been ‘paid media’ briefs. A brief for a TV spot, a print ad, or a whole campaign had the paid media listed right on the top. This is a TV spot, etc.

However, in these digital places where we don’t pay to run the stuff, we should talk about how and why we’ll earn a click. And there’s no better place to do than on the brief (meaning yes, we’ll brief for a ‘viral idea’, but we can stop calling it viral and start talking about earned media.

It should be “this spot will earn a click because it will be so unexpected, and out there, that people will have to share it.”

Or, “this list will earn a click because people in our target market love the topic, and they’ll argue over the top 5.”

I took about 30 seconds to give two examples of reasons why people will click. But working together, a team could probably come up with reasons why a click might be earned. Then the creative team can execute on that reason.

And here’s the best part, you’ll know how clever the team is based on how the thing is shared. Now admittedly, one can follow all the above and still not get shared. This isn’t a known science, but then, neither is advertising in general. We make 30-second spots, and make accurate guesses on the impact of those spots on sales.

This is the same thing. It’s starting with a foundation of thinking, and then executing on that foundation.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2009 4:35 pm

    Hey Matt, well put.

    I’d also add that the old assumption of an 80 / 20 split in budget between media / creative needs to be revised accordingly.

    I’ve been making the argument that the split should be flipped to 20 / 80 between media / creative.

    Here’s the intro to the idea:

  2. April 2, 2009 4:00 pm

    I agree that its all about earning the clicks and the sharing. How do we earn that, by building relationships and trust.

    I propose similar ideas at

    I on Twitter I will forward or retweet from people that I have built a relationship (even if its just a digital relationship) with, but not from those I don’t trust.

  3. July 3, 2009 7:07 pm

    We just have fun with our animations and take photos of what we do, it seems to work, at first we were pushing it onto people, but after the first year it went the other way and people were pushing us to make more!,



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