Viral marketing: tips to avoid failure by analyzing two campaigns

It is easy to pinpoint the biggest viral marketing successes, and incredibly hard to find any real failures. This is not because there aren’t any out there – there are thousands of viral marketing failures every year – but because a viral marketing failure is typically a lack of enthusiasm, lack of exposure, and in the end, a lack of any measurable results. 

How can you avoid this type of marketing failure for yourself? By studying the most successful viral marketing campaigns and using them to shape your own marketing strategy. Here’s an analysis of two viral marketing campaigns, one that was a huge success, and the other a huge failure.

The Dark Knight, the biggest movie of 2008, was born with an incredibly effective viral marketing campaign. In the United States’ major cities, vans could be seen with large and effective “Harvey Dent for D.A.” graphics on the side: the name and rank of one of the movie’s major characters. The marketing effort was discreet but not unknown, and inspired discussion and mystery throughout the public.

What made this small campaign so effective was that it didn’t reveal too much. These inexpensive vans and indirect advertisements drew the major fan base absolutely crazy, with internet forums exploding in conversation about just what the messages could mean. 

Buzz grew from the major fan base and trickled down into smaller groups, who took the message to heart and started doing their own research. Thanks to the awareness raised by this initial (and inexpensive) marketing effort, the film’s major advertising had record levels of penetration and effectiveness, shooting the film to the top of the box office.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force, an offbeat comedy series that made it to the big screen, tried a similar strategy before its release. By planting computer chip circuits around Boston, designed in the shape of the movie’s major character, the marketers intended to create a stir and draw up awareness for the movie itself. 

While they achieved that awareness, it wasn’t for the reasons that they intended. People mistook the circuits for bombs, police teams were dispatched, and the whole episode turned into a nasty marketing failure for the film.

What should you take away from this? The viral marketing plan of The Dark Knight succeeded because it was subtle to the general public and didn’t appear to be a direct marketing effort. To the dedicated fans, however, it was a very direct message, and one that inspired a lot of conversations and mystery. Discussions were everywhere, and when they made it down to the general public, they made people more open to advertising materials, promotional gear, and the film itself.

Use this strategy in your own viral marketing. Instead of focusing on just creating a stir, focus on stirring up a targeted and influential group. 

Treat your core fans to an indirect and interesting marketing display and your message will go beyond just them. Appeal to everyone with mass controversy and you’ll ultimately fail to deliver the message that you want.

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