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How does a viral advert go viral?

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Today's viral video ad

By Alex Hudson
Today programme

From Vancouver to Egypt, from Derby to Tokyo, nearly 50,000 people have watched the Today programme "viral" advertisement on video-sharing website YouTube.

The viral, a video that is distributed and shared on the internet, was launched by the programme as an experiment to see how far the three-minute ad could travel.

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Reaction to the video has been mixed - from "awesome", as David Naylor of Search Marketing puts it, to "terrible and embarrassing", as lennyteeman comments on YouTube.

However, the one thing that has provoked more debate than anything else - in newspapers, on blogs and on forums - is whether the Today campaign fulfils the definition of a viral ad.

Jim Naughtie described it on air as "something like a virus that can be caught on YouTube" but it just goes to show how difficult it is to describe exactly what constitutes something "being viral".

Picking up momentum

Media strategist Brendan Cooper, who blogged about the video, tried to describe what a viral is.

"[Being] viral is an effect, not a strategy, and certainly not an objective. So, simply because I'm blogging about it now… you could say it's viral," he says.

"A virus slowly picks up momentum because people feel they've found something which they want to pass on to other people. There's something about the content that infects them and then they pass that on in a sort of e-sneeze.

"So does something follow this pattern if it's broadcast by radio? In the short term, if lots of people are talking about it, it's viral, right?

"But in the longer term I'd like to know whether it remains so or whether - because it popped into the public consciousness because it was broadcast to millions of people throughout the country - it will pop back out again before long, just like 'normal' news."

Was it a blockbuster?

The BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones helped out, spreading the viral by using the micro-blogging site Twitter and embedding the video on his Comic Relief fundraising page.

Of course it's viral - we're talking about it, some of us have blogged about it, others have sent the link out
Jez Jowett

He too tried to work out if what was produced was actually a viral.

"The Inside Today video is not so much a viral as a blockbuster and by the traditional definition of a viral - [a "video that spreads quickly via the internet"] - I think it hacks it.

"The purists would say the essence of a viral is that it spreads in a slow, undercover manner. Viral status can only be conferred by the democratic will of the people and not by some media behemoth or shadowy marketing agency.

"Too late, folks, I'm afraid - the marketing folks have seized on the viral idea like drowning men spotting a lifeboat… the web purists have lost the battle - viral now just means another way to spend your advertising dollars."

The debate raged as to whether the BBC "cheated" in its promotion of the advert on air and using Twitter. One of those more critical was Sophie Morris of the Independent.

YouTube web page
YouTube is the most popular video-sharing website on the internet

"A viral is a marketing tool whereby an advert is disseminated online via a bottom-up distribution model," she wrote.

"The main problem with the Today viral… is the fact [he] announced its existence on the BBC to more than six million listeners."

The accusation is that a viral must be something of a "slow-burner". To be true to the spirit of this form of advertising, if not the troublesome definition, the brute force of mainstream brands should not be utilised.

The method requires much more subtlety than traditional forms of advertising.

Mainstream media

Rob Brown, author of PR Media Blog, disagrees.

"The excitement about new media and new marketing, we must not underestimate the power of mainstream media brands.

"What makes this viral interesting and what is promoting its spread is the Today programme itself. Now there are few greater bastions of mainstream media than that."

Matt Golding, from Rubber Republic, which made the advertisement, described the way that clips are distributed on the internet.

"The idea that clips take off from being uploaded to one place is not really true. A huge amount of time, money and thought [goes into their distribution]."

So is Inside Today a viral? The answer appears to be obvious - yes...and no.

Forum user Jez Jowett responded to other entries saying that the Today programme was video and not a viral.

What you really need for a viral campaign to work is the kind of audience that will "mash up" - [re-edit , experiment with and then re-publish] - your content
Emily Bell, Guardian

"Of course it's viral - we're talking about it, some of us have blogged about it, others have sent the link out. "Even this conversation thread [on the Brand Republic forum] means it's viral."

It seems simple then - because Inside Today provoked a response from those who watched the video, then what Rubber Republic has done is create a viral.

Pursued by syringe

Ciaran Norris, of Altogether Digital, does not agree. "You simply can not create a viral. It's impossible," he says. "What you can do, is create a great piece of content, work really hard to market it to the right people, and cross your fingers that it starts to spread itself. Virals are only created in hindsight."

Emily Bell, director of digital content for the Guardian, appeared on the programme to discuss if the campaign was a success.

She said she felt that she was being "pursued with a syringe" rather than catching a virus - as it was mentioned frequently on air.

She also questioned the benefits of a viral campaign. "For a programme that reaches millions a week, [50,000 views] demonstrates the problem with viral marketing - it doesn't reach that many people yet. There are methods which are much more effective," she says.

"What you really need for a viral campaign to work is the kind of audience that will "mash up" - [re-edit , experiment with and then re-publish] - your content."

Because the internet is still in its infancy, the terms are always changing. Who would have thought the term googling would be used to describe the use of an internet search engine?

Indeed, who would have thought that the term "mash up" would appear on the Today programme?

What's most interesting about the debate surrounding Inside Today therefore, is not whether it is a viral - the internet community remains divided - but whether a viral can be correctly defined at all.




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