Last week, a random ad by a third-tier city technical school went viral across the Chinese Internet. It certainly wasn’t intentional planning by the brand owners, because much of the buzz surrounding it was about how bad the ad was.
Now, we can analyze the reasons why it went viral all we want, but I believe viral cannot be planned. Most of the time content goes viral for completely no reason at all, and rarely for the purpose with which the content owners intended. For the technical school case, I doubt the intention was for netizens all around China to make fun of it, but the buzz definitely helped them in gaining more brand awareness.
The below Baidu search index shows a significant spike in branded search volume post the incident.
The green line is the ad tagline that buzzed across social media, while the blue line is the brand name of the technical school. So however unplanned, the viral effect did help increase brand recognition.
Looking at similar branded viral cases in the past, Vancl was another viral campaign that comes to mind. The ad that went viral back in 2010 was based on an outdoor ad. Netizens took the original version and adapted it for their own purposes, varying from making fun of famous actors to portraying cartoon/game characters. Again, the reason why it went viral cannot be rationalized. Millions of other outdoor ads could have been picked – why this specific one?
Hence it leads to the conclusion that true viral simply cannot be planned.
The whole illusion of a planned viral campaign is hyped by social agencies. However, the illusion leads brand owners to have unrealistic expectations for a planned viral campaign. For example, some clients will ask for media key performance indicators (KPI) estimations for a viral campaign. This in itself is an irony because media estimations are usually based on standard benchmarks from banners or other native formats.
So, if I can estimate the KPI based on a normal standard, then it’s not a true viral campaign. The whole premise of a viral campaign is that the brand owners truly take a risk with their creative asset, based on the belief that it will exceed the paid media’s standard influence. Paid media is able to estimate KPIs prior to campaign start because it’s usually the safest way to conduct a media buy. Hence, wanting a viral campaign with a preset KPI in itself is a contradiction.
What we should do instead is be adaptive, let the creative asset “run in the wild,” and see if it gains any traction. Multiple versions or ideas can be tested with minimal media support, and if a single one takes off, we can focus on amplifying that specific one with additional paid media support.
The best ad formats to amplify good ideas on social media are native formats. Weibo offers both hashtag topic ads, as well as native formats that show up in a consumer’s feed. Combining paid media, it would also help to have different KOLs and influencers to retweet the content in hopes of further amplifying and sustaining the buzz.
An interesting platform to select KOL in China is Weiboyi. The website allows brand owners to upload their campaign tweet as a “mission,” and various influencers and even consumers can select to retweet the brand content and receive a payment. Of course, the more active fans a user has, the higher the cost. This platform is often used to seed content as well as picking influential KOLs to amplify branded content.
This article was written for ClickZ