Laugh lines: Humor in viral marketing
It's the best way to get a message passed on
February 7, 2006
To supplement its $2.5 million ad in Sunday’s Super Bowl, Careerbuilder.com also launched a viral campaign allowing visitors to its web site to send friends a so-called monk-email, a message featuring the commercial’s silly chimps. Chances are the campaign will be a success. When it comes to viral marketing, the best place to hit consumers is in the funny bone, according to a new study by New York’s Sharpe Partners, a digital marketing agency. The study found that 88 percent of those surveyed passed on humorous material such as jokes or cartoons to their friends. That was way ahead of news at 56 percent, healthcare and medical information at 32 percent, religious and spiritual material at 30 percent and games at 25 percent. Interestingly, consumers did not seem to care that the content they found amusing enough to pass along was accompanied by an ad message. Only 5 percent said they would not forward content with a clearly branded message. A full 75 percent said brand sponsorship had no impact on their decision to share a message. Sharpe Partners CEO Kathy Sharpe talks to Media Life about why humor succeeds in viral campaigns, which ones have worked best, and why sex content may be more popular than we think.
Can you give an example of a highly successful viral e-marketing campaign?
I think the whole ad community was aware of Subservient Chicken (Burger King), but there are questions on whether it delivered real metrics.
There was the Gap campaign with the closet. I heard of that from people outside of the business, people asking ˜Have you seen this?’ That to me seemed to have a further reach. But only the brand managers would know for sure, where actual metrics are concerned.
What’s a successful forwarding rate for such a campaign? What percentage of campaigns actually achieve that?
I haven’t heard other companies talk about what they shoot for, but I believe that before you start you should estimate if your target is a viral community themselves, and also if the message is something they even want to share. Based on the population, you can come up with an algorithm, but there’s not a real number.
It’s mainly based on a campaign-by-campaign basis. It’s like asking which ads are considered a success. A highly successful campaign may be one that wasn’t necessarily highly visible. You should be able to set metrics and goals, and make this more quantifiable.
Why is there such a high share of internet users who participate in such campaigns?
I think because it’s simple and it feeds off what email is all about, which is social, and keep in mind it’s not just campaigns, it’s also news and information generally.
It’s important to remember that there are certain sub-groups that share more. Call them Typhoid Marys, if you will. They just want to be people in the know. They want to be the people to give you the information first, and there’s a community of like-minded people.
Why is humor so effective in viral marketing campaigns? Why are people more likely to forward jokes along to their friends than news, medical or other types of information?
I think it’s effective because we all like to laugh and we all like to be thought of as funny.
But at the same time brands have to be very careful with humor because what’s funny to one person may not be the same for somebody else. It’s very subjective.
We try to do programs that enable the user to make the humor their own. You can create tools that allow people to change a caption or visual. What’s funny in New York to a bunch of ad guys is different from what’s funny to the rest of the nation.
I think for people who share emails the most, the importance of humor goes up higher even than the average. I don’t want to be simplistic, but if it amuses someone, they share it with other people.
Is there a particular type of humor–jokes, cartoons–that are more successful than others? Does edgy humor work well in this venue? How hard is it to judge whether something actually is funny?
That depends on the individual. If you were sharing with the under-25 set, you’d be sending different types of humor than you would to other groups.
The nature of viruses, from which the idea of viral marketining is derived, is that they evolve and change as they are passed along. Ideally you want to create a viral campaign that can be changed by the people who view it.
The more adaptable the viral component, the better. If you can accommodate that, that’s better.
Certain brands are naturally edgy, and that’s part of their brand personality. But I’m not sure Heinz, for example, should do edgy viral campaigns. But then again, let’s face it, there are some funny things that can be done with a squeezable ketchup bottle.
Virtually no one mentioned sex as a catalyst for sending emails along. Is it at all surprising that sexual email campaigns seem to be the least effective? Or is that perhaps a reaction to all the spam about Viagra, etc.?
I think everyone’s lying. I think people [getting messages at] work could be a reason, but I also think that people don’t want to say that’s what they share. Or else they look at it and don’t share it.
Does it matter more the way that the message is delivered (funny, serious, etc.) or the product that is being promoted?
For the general population, the brand does influence whether or not they’ll share. My guess is if they don’t like the brand or aren’t comfortable with it, it probably slows it down or stops it.
But I think humor actually overcomes that a little bit. They’re joining, in effect, a community. I don’t think it will slow it down if the humor is appropriate for the brand. There are just some of those that hate advertising, and you’re not ever going to get around that.
Do people react differently to different types of products advertised through email? Are there certain categories that do better than others?
Well, I think it depends on the goal of the brand and product. It would seem that health products would do better because people are always interested in health. Those products that are comfortable with being made fun of would work well.
It really depends on what the tone and manner of the brand is, and if it’s comfortable with it. Probably every advertiser should try viral marketing at least once to see what it does for them.
Does it help to be more overt about the branding in the campaign, or do people see through that anyway and appreciate a more up-front attitude?
I think you should just be upfront. The Gap was upfront, it was a store, there were people trying on clothes, and it didn’t get in the way. I think what you want is people to say that’s really cool, or that’s really odd, etc.
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