In some circles of interactive marketing, there is an unhealthy obsession with the term “viral.” Essentially it is a synonym for cheap in my opinion, and completely misunderstood unless one takes it with the same rough definition that you’ll know it when you see it.
There’s pedestrian viral — the stuff that clogs your inbox from your brother-in-law. Today’s meme is the crazed guy in Brooklyn ranting about Starbucks into his webcam and dropping F-bombs every other word. Okay, sixty second video rant, delivered to me via video is not viral. The second time it gets forwarded to me, like the Numa Numa guy, the Star Wars Kid, or the Car-Sunroof-That-Decapitates-Cats, then it is a phenomenon, but is it “viral?”
Then there’s overcooked viral — the dumb crap that some ad agency bakes for a client and then buys advertising to promote. I won’t cite any examples because I don’t know any.
Let’s first look at the attributes of Internet viral.
1. It is spread by email. Mostly. Blogs can spread it too. Slashdot, Boing-Boing, they are the mass media of the medium.
2. It is generally video. Four year-olds shooting M-60s, Seth Godin at Google, the aforementioned ads. Text viral is stuff like the Darwin Awards or urban myth stuff. Jokes are not viral.
3. It is rarely a game. Viral games … I remember an animated quiz that asked guys to select which urinal they would use under several situations. A plastic surgeon friend was quite taken by a “Real or Fake” quiz (which I kicked his professional butt at).
4. Viral is often pornographic, involves obese people, and makes fun of rednecks.
5. Animation can go viral. Jib-jab, etc. and indeed is very viral when done right. PPS — or powerpoint slideshows are viral too. Paul Allen’s MegaYacht hit my inbox a lot. The Engrish Powerpoint was big in January. The world’s biggest piece of construction equipment. That British music cartoon hit thing around Christmas about the kid riding in his father’s “JCB”
6. The best product viral was the Subservient Chicken — and that proves the other attribute of viral, it must carry a high dementia factor. Burger King rules at dementia. I think I saw the Subservient Chicken get ridden in a rodeo last night on the tube, but the killer part of the ad was the set up so the singers could shout “Buckin’ Chicken” at the end. That will make anybody look up from the newspaper.
I worry that he who sets out to be viral is as doomed as a geek who sets out to be cool, or a bore who works at being funny. I regard good viral as a stubbed-toe opportunity. You go “aha!” and if you’re lucky it will pyramid faster than a get rich scheme in Albania.