Viral Manipulation for Fame and Profit

While it’s been a hot topic since Hotmail went huge, the buzz about viral marketing has never been stronger thanks to both social media and ubiquitous online video. No doubt every MBA with an emphasis in marketing is talking about “viral stories” in between latte slurps.

As a painful example of a story that went viral big and fast, think about how many people knew the name John Mark Karr prior to two weeks ago.

As Scott Baradell points out, Karr met all the “old school” criteria for viral replication:

A successful viral campaign:

1. Gives away valuable products and services.
2. Provides for effortless transfer to others.
3. Scales easily from small to very large.
4. Exploits common motivations and behaviors.
5. Utilizes existing communication networks.
6. Takes advantage of others’ resources.

Scott says (and I agree) that the “valuable service” was Karr’s confession, because it was a story we wanted to hear.

It’s no surprise that people are let down that it was all a lie. And while there’s no doubt that Mr. Karr is a disturbed individual, the signs that he wasn’t the killer were there from the start.

Still we wanted to believe, and the story spread, because people just don’t like the fact that JonBenet’s killer remains undiscovered. That intense desire to believe always makes the backlash worse when things turn out differently.

That’s just the nature of powerful stories.

Elsewhere, with much less dire circumstances, YouTube sensation LonelyGirl15 is being called out as a shill. If you haven’t been keeping up with her saga (and who could blame you), teenager “Bree” has made 23 videos mostly about her infatuation with Daniel, her home-schooled life, those mysterious family religious beliefs, and the “purity bond” pledge she’s made to her father.

From the Alternate Reality Gaming Network:

Buzz has it that the videos are too pat, too scripted, and too professional looking to be anything but some sort of viral campaign. Indeed, the clues are there. Bree initially gained an audience by making engaging and humorous videos featuring popular YouTube users. She’s very cagey about revealing any personally revealing information about herself, often completely dodging uncomfortable questions. Perhaps more telling is the fact that a vanity website under her name was registered on May 12 – almost two weeks before she showed up on YouTube.

Some are pointing fingers at my storytelling doppelganger Brian Clark of GMD Studios, who, among other things, creates marketing-motivated alternate reality games for companies. I have my doubts that Brian is involved; fans of ARG willingly suspend disbelief in order to play a game that appears to be real. YouTubers have stated no desire for that type of thing, and couldn’t be blamed for being upset.

Brian strikes me as too smart not to get that. But interview comments by Clark like this make one wonder:

What new technology or ideas would you like to include in future ARGs?

Video community. I’m starting to think that discussion boards are an interesting way to do community but not the penultimate. I’m really looking forward to doing an ARG project where the basis of player community might be more immediate or visual, auditory. Look at what people are starting to do with video blogging. I start to wonder if there are ways for the community of players to communicate with each other beyond just the written word.

The question is, does it matter if you lie, as long as you get attention?

Out of the many strategies for going viral, I like to stick to more mundane things like resources to get a bit of attention traction. But my storytelling side comes up with wild stuff all the time that might well break loose in a big way.

What keeps me in check are two simple realities:

1. Not all traffic is created equally.

2. It matters how you end up being perceived when the dust settles.

But branding philosopher Ze says it much better than I do. Make sure to think carefully about what he says at the end, because the answer you come up with will determine a lot about where you go from here and how people perceive you.

the show with zefrank

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Reader Comments (16)

  1. says

    I completely agree with the two points you made at the end of your post. Sure, you can lie and get all the traffic and exposure that you want. But once the dust settles, as you put it, you’re not going to be left with much at all. So if you’re intent on building lasting, long-term relationships with people, lies shouldn’t enter the equation.

  2. says

    Wow. Awesome post and amazing video. Maybe I should start checking out zefrank after all. This is the first time he’s really impressed me but then again I’ve only seen a few.

    The Digg post we had on the Ghetto Big Mac video got voted down because people in the comments suspected it was secretly a McDonald’s viral ad. Of course it wasn’t but it’s funny that people are quick to assume there’s something sinister going on.

    And related to the zefrank video, the success of the GBM most definitely rode on its association with the McDonald’s brand.

    So I guess something secret was actually going on… us using McDonalds to get attention for ourselves. And a byproduct of that was generating a bunch of free attention for McDonalds.

    Anyway we’re off to shoot our next video on Saturday. The topic is a secret for now. Hopefully it can go viral too but there’s no big corporation involved in the concept so we’ll have to do it on our own this time.

  3. Fred Sanford says

    Sure, YouTubers have no stated desire to suspend disbelief, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t open to the possibility of an ARG that starts off as a collection of videos posted on a social video sharing site.

    I think it makes sense to extend the ARG concept beyond the traditional text roots and onto community video sites. Users who don’t like it can just change the channel (new media, old concept). If it’s well done the chances are that quite a few users will get hooked on something they previously knew nothing about. Isn’t that what marketing is all about?

  4. says

    >>Isn’t that what marketing is all about?

    This could be why “marketing” has become a dirty word.

    As pissed off as YouTubers are right now, it appears that they might not be ready to play this game — unless they are told up front — and maybe not even then.

    That’s the deal with ARG, right? No one is fooled outside of their own desire to be.

    Don’t automatically assume your story is one that others want to hear. That attitude is what keeps people and companies unknown or badly known.

  5. says

    Despite what you say about the manipulative aspect of viral marketing, I know it won’t stop. None of the unethical net activies like spamming have stopped, because there’ll always be a sucker born every minute.

  6. says

    I’m not convinced that zefrank says it better than you. Faster maybe. And with wider eyes.

    This post reminds me of some things I was reading yesterday that questioned the effectiveness of traffic spikes from sources like digg.

  7. says

    Rico, not all viral marketing (or marketing in general) is manipulative… but when marketers value attention without regard for other considerations, they might be shooting themselves in the foot.

    I hear what you’re saying about this type of thing not stopping, but I think the spam analogy might not hold up.

    Spam works because of huge numbers and no real concern for “brand” issues. Big brands listening to viral marketing pitches need to consider how they’ll look when the dust settles.

  8. says

    Brian and Rafi, I didn’t mean to paint viral marketing as inherently bad. When I mentioned its “manipulative aspect” I was talking about its potential bad side, how it can mislead.

    That being said, I was trying to point out that such a negative application of VM will not stop, as there’ll be always someone willing to try it out, and those who’ll fall for it. Even the bad publicity generated when the dust settles won’t serve as a deterrent, because as more people get connected, there’ll be a new audience which unethical marketers will seek to take advantage of.

    Hope this clears things up.

  9. says

    The whole idea of viral marketing is fascinating. I can understand why some might find it misleading.

    There will always be some people who are mislead or misunderstand the point, though. After all, most of us know about Nigerian scams and can spot one in a heartbeat, but thousands are still taken by it each year.

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