In light of Chevy Tahoe’s recent experience with consumer backlash towards their promotion run on The Apprentice, viral marketing is a hot topic of discussion in marketing circles these days.  Is it too risky to do well?  Should companies avoid it?  Is Chevy doing the right thing by not stepping in and removing negative consumer created ads from their site as Nike did during the whole "sweatshop" escapade?  I think it’s too soon to tell what damage this may or may not do to the Chevy Tahoe brand – but it has certainly gotten people thinking about marketing in an era where giving up control of marketing messages is becoming a necessity.  Is there a formula for doing viral marketing that works?  Unfortunately, you never really know what will truly take off – however, I believe you can predict what is going to flop.  To that end, for marketers considering launching a viral marketing campaign, here is my list of top five ways that you can tell viral marketing may not be the best tactic for your campaign:

  1. The people who hate you are louder than the people who like you. This was Chevy’s big mistake.  The anti-SUV groups are organizing and gaining support.  The people who drive SUVs or buy SUVs are often ashamed of their choice. Put these together and you have an environment ripe for backlash against any consumer generated program trying to get consumers to declare their love for an SUV.  Chevy should have seen this trend and stayed away from viral marketing.
  2. You don’t have something sexy, funny, controversial or voyeuristicThese four are my own list of what qualities have made successful viral marketing campaigns (and in particular viral videos online).  The first three are self-explanatory, and the last is meant to cover the phenomenon of curiosity marketing that I have written about before.  If you can’t honestly look at your program and say that it fits one of these four categories, make some changes or risk boring consumers and wasting your marketing budget. 
  3. The message is too difficult (or impossible) to pass on. Viral marketing is not only about getting someone to interact with a message, it needs to be viral – it needs to have a pass along effect.  Billboards, events, or stunts can all have a creative concept that could be viral, but if customers have no easy way to spread the word about your promotion, you should think twice about whether it will truly be effective.
  4. Your focus is on the tactic instead of the strategy.  It’s the ultimate cart before horse marketing mistake – committed all the time on countless programs.  You have a creative idea, you (and your agency) fall in love with it, and you want to do it.  The only problem is, it has nothing to do with your brand or products.  What you could end up with is Subservient Chicken – a highly original viral marketing program that wins awards, but does little for your brand. Contrast this with Mastercard’s campaign which was on strategy, on message, and on brand.  Avoid recreating the chicken – you can do better.
  5. Overselling and overbranding. Viral marketing online, by its nature focuses on content.  This content is meant to deliver a message, usually through ways that are engaging and compelling for people to interact with. The biggest mistake marketers make is feeling the necessity to overly brand their efforts or sell their product due to fear that customers won’t follow through or won’t know who was behind the promotion.  Customers will always find out – if you really have a compelling campaign that makes sense for your brand, people will know who’s behind it.