Viral marketing seems like something of the holy grail for advertisers: it’s very cheap, turns peers into pushers, and is impossible to stop once it attains gains enough inertia. But designing a message to go viral is difficult, and if marketers have found the secret sauce they’re keeping it very tightly guarded. Yet, despite all the time and energy that goes into even reasonably successful viral campaigns, their popularity often seems meek compared to things that just happen. There’s a whole world of “internet memes” out there, little bits of digital culture that catch like wildfire in people’s attention and spread around the internet; these are what the best viral marketing campaigns can only hope to be.
Some time ago internet memes were confined mostly to the periphery of the Internet, but some made it into the mainstream–think LOLCats and RickRolling. These two and their fore-bearers originally spread on message boards, forums, and irc channels; parts of the internet that weren’t especially welcoming to casual users. But the face of the internet has changed: it’s now easier to use and more people are on it. And it’s more social. Lots has been written about how it’s easier for messages to go viral on social networking sites like facebook because people have a built-in friends list, and their peers are likely to be more receptive to a message that comes from a friend.
Lately on facebook these mainstream internet memes really seem to be taking off. A few weeks ago women everywhere were posting status updates that were only one word long: a color that corresponded to that of their bra. This was allegedly to raise awareness about breast cancer, though it’s equally plausible that the idea was simply to “confuse boys.” Shortly thereafter, “doppelganger week” began, and people started changing their facebook pictures to photos of celebrities that they vaguely (or wishfully) resembled. Next was the “post the urbandictionary definition of your name. Finally, and most recently, has been a political meme going around seeing if an onion ring can amass more facebook fans than Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper (and boy can it ever).
These four memes have taken over my facebook newsfeed, and likely those of just about everyone else who shares more than a few friends with me. Viral marketers would love to get this kind of reach, but doing so largely remains a dream. So why not change the rules of the game a bit?
Urbandictionary is clearly benefiting a great deal from being the center of attention in this way, but what’s to stop other companies from joining-in on the trend and showing that they “get it”? Various breast cancer societies could have easily hopped on the bra-color bandwagon. New York Fries or Pizza Pizza (the only places I can think of off the top of my head that serve onion rings) could roll out a “Prime Minister Onion Meal,” and any number of celebrity gossip magazines could use the doppelganger meme to great effect.
After all, if these trends simply “happen,” then there’s no intellectual property concerns to worry about, the message already exists and is popular (making it a proven commodity), and it shows people who already feel like they’re a part of something that the marketer/company is also in the know. Macy’s tried this by hiring Rick Astley to sing “Never gonna give you up” in 2008’s Macy’s day parade, but I think the best has yet to come in terms of marketers latching on to, and reflecting back, the spontaneous culture of the internet.