Your Wandering, Viral Eye Is Making You Fat


mmm, viral

Writing for AdAge, Jim Louderback says we should screw viral videos. As marketers and content producers, we’ve developed an unhealthy fascination with viral and it’s making us fat as we focus on artificial flavor instead of repeatability. And, perhaps surprisingly since I did fawn over the Old Spice campaign, I agree with him. We’re all getting way too fat on viral.

My distaste appears to be rooted in reasons different from Jim’s. His concern comes from the videos themselves, calling them unpredictable, easy to manipulate and ineffective from an advertising standpoint. My concern is that it’s teaching businesses to become shiny instead of helpful. It’s teaching them to become brands, instead of small businesses. We chase elusive unicorns instead of committing to providing valuable resources that we can build upon, repeatedly, over time. And it’s when you start down that slope that you begin to lose focus. It’s when you lose customers.

I agree with Jim: We need to stop chasing viral, and start looking closely at [content] that delivers repeatable, measurable and sustainable views. That’s where your livelihood is. And though Jim may be talking specifically about video content, the rule applies to all of your content marketing.

I read an article in The New Yorker this morning that I think is quite applicable to this conversation. The article talks about the crisis in customer service and says, in part:

The real problem may be that companies have a roving eye: they’re always more interested in the customers they don’t have. So they pour money into sales and marketing to lure new customers while giving their existing ones short shrift, in an effort to minimize costs and maximize revenue… These days, annoyed customers are quick to take their business elsewhere. But, because most companies are set up to focus on the first sale rather than on all the ones that might follow, they end up devoting all their energies to courting us, promising wonderful products and excellent service. Then, once they’ve got us, their attention wanders—and Dave Carroll’s guitar gets tossed across the tarmac.

That’s how businesses are using viral — to go after the costly fish they dream of while ignoring the core. When you do that, you risk your real audience for people who will probably never like you. Because they’re not your audience and only came to you for the sex (appeal).  Just because you sit at the cool kids table once doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly have something in common tomorrow.

The folks you bring in through viral encounters are NOT your bread and butter. They’re NOT the people who will buy from you on a consistent basis. They’re not the people who will stick with you after your viral 15 are over. They’re the outliers. They’re the outliers outliers.

This is something we try to nail home with clients when we talk about content marketing. It’s good to aim big, it’s good to go after that one link or that one market that could take you to a new level. But you need to keep producing content that is going to benefit your core customers and the people who could potentially become your core customers. That means creating consistent content that fits together to create small, repeatable successes. That’s how you win.

What does that content look like? It’s the remarkable stuff that doesn’t feel so remarkable.

It’s the DIY video series you run every second Tuesday that shows your customers how to complete a project they’ve always wanted. It’s the eBook you write in a weekend that is filled with ideas for how to market a florist Web site. It’s the blog you write 3x a week that contains informative tutorial and unique insight to help readers see niche issues in a different light. It’s all the little things that are sexy when combined, even if they’re not necessarily sexy on their own. That’s the stuff your customers are salivating over and how you can make your brand useful to them.

One of the interesting things about the Web is that we see things out of order. As a new customer, I don’t know what you did last year or even last week because I’m just finding you today. That means you need to keep producing the stuff I’m after and keep building your own momentum. You can’t make people fall in love with you and then stop wooing them. Because that’s when divorce hits

When you have the option to be viral or useful, be useful. Being useful and serving a real need will often trump viral in the long term. And though Jim meant it in terms of video, I like the idea of thinking of all content as being “episodic” because it underlines that everything you create should flow and work together to create a larger narrative about your brand.  That’s how you attract and satisfy customers. Viral doesn’t do that. Screw viral. Focus on the episodic stuff that tells the real story.

Your Comments

  • Kim M.

    I think a better analogy is that virals are the handsome soulless devils of the internet … good for a one night stand but will sorely disappoint you if you look for anything more. The experience can’t be repeated so it’s better to just not to stick around … or you end up wondering what the hell even attracted you in the first place. Eventually you’re all washed up and alone. No good business wants to be that guy.

  • Rebecca

    This is a really great message, but what if you’re a fantastic company who is useful, and decides to attempt a viral campaign just to bring more people in. So it’s a very infrequent deal, and you still focus most of your energy on your customers? I think it could work then.

  • Caitlin

    I’m with you on this Lisa. Most ‘viral’ video campaigns have a total lack of strategy, which is what drives me crazy. Yes, a million people watched the video but without a goal and plan for what happens before and after it, those videos don’t accomplish much in the grand scheme of the marketing plan.
    Great post!

  • Rishi Sahgal

    Hi Lisa,

    Very insightful. There I think the focus on generating new customers and neglecting existing customers is something that is long running. Telco’s and cable companies come to mind…and it’s certainly driving the fascination with viral. At the same time, I think that a well devised viral campaign can also help strengthen existing customers repurchase intentions, particularly in FMCG and other low ticket sectors.

  • Olivier Amar

    So aiming for the first page of Digg as a strategy is a no-no? Oh wait, Digg’s dead :-)

  • Casie G

    I completely agree with the overall message here…and like with everything, there is definitely a balance between viral & useful. Here at Grasshopper we’ve had two very successful viral videos mixed in with the “useful” consistent content. Each video certainly brought us new customers but more importantly, they helped us keep our current customers.

    In a market where the differentiation from one competitor to the next is so small, being the company that puts out great videos & the company that people know (because of those videos), is definitely important. While you can’t rely on viral content to make your company…it can help for sure.