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How Effective is Viral Marketing as a tool of Public Relations?


The term viral marketing which is a stealth or guerrilla kind of marketing thrives on its ability to communicate messaging in a covert and underlying manner. Viral marketing describes any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence.
The emergence of viral marketing is tied to the popularization of the notion that ideas spread like viruses, this notion emerged into the study of memetics which peaked in popularity in the 1990s and branched out into viral marketing which took up a separate study on its own.
According to Wikipedia, Doug Rushkoff was among the first people to write about viral marketing where he posited that if a marketing message reaches a prospect, that user becomes infected (accepts the idea) and shares the idea with others. In his words, “In viral analogy terms, as long as each infected user shares the idea with more than one susceptible user, the basic reproductive rate is greater than one which is the standard in epidemiology for qualifying something as an epidemic. Thus the number of infected users grows according to an exponential curve.” Also, marketing professors Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein opine that viral marketing relies primarily on getting the right message to the right messengers in the right environment.

Examples of successful viral marketing campaigns abound, one of which is the ALS ice bucket challenge. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a specific disease that causes the death of neurons which control voluntary muscles. ALS is characterized by stiff muscles, muscle twitching and gradually worsening weakness due to muscles decreasing in size from lack of use. This results in difficulty speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing. The Ice bucket challenge which sought to create awareness and raise funds for research entailed nominating participants to be filmed having a bucket of ice water poured on their heads and then nominating others to do the same.
Notable Personalities like Barack Obama, David Cameron, Lebron James, Alex Salmond, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Ethel Kennedy were nominated to take part in the challenge. The origins of the idea of dumping cold water on one’s head to raise money ALS are quite fuzzy but the most commonly accepted origin credits Pete Frates and Pat Quinn (diagnosed with ALS) for creating the challenge.
The Ice Bucket Challenge was a successful campaign. Its resulted in 2.4 million tagged videos circulating on Facebook. The Challenge instigated large numbers of people, videos and donations. It accessed many people worldwide and had a personal touch to it when identifying prospects. Again, the videos were often entertaining and had ripple effect such as inspiring features for articles, such as The Guardian’s “10 More of the Best Celebrity Takes on the Ice Bucket Challenge”. The success of the challenge prompted the Muscular Dystrophy Association (which also raises funds to combat ALS) to discontinue its long-running annual telethon, stating that the Ice Bucket Challenge prompted the MDA to re-evaluate how it can better connect with the public.

Another classical example of a successful viral campaign is Volvo’s The Epic Split featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme where he performs a split between two reversing Volvo trucks to demonstrate the stability and precision of Volvo’s dynamic steering.
Used to a traditional marketing approach, the use of viral marketing was innovative for Volvo howbeit it proved to be a huge success. According to the agency, the campaign generated 20,000 media reports worldwide equivalent to an estimated $172.6m USD /126m Euros. Between June 2012 and May 2014, Volvo Trucks’ Live Test films generated 100 million plus YouTube views and were shared nearly 8 million times, according to a recent survey of 2,200 owners of different truck brands, almost half of those who have seen the film say they are now more than likely to choose Volvo next time they buy a truck. A third of respondents had contacted a dealer or visited a Volvo Trucks website to learn more while the survey showed a positive impact on the perception of Volvo Trucks as an innovative and modern truck brand. Again, because of the stickiness of the brand film, Volvo salespeople in 140 markets world wide say they that the first things prospective customers bring up in conversation is the viral film.

Bringing the concept of viral marketing to our indigenous climes, the trending idea of mid night worship has taken a further step with the Halleluyia challenge which has gone viral with Christian worshippers online. The concept of mid night worship is not too novel -as many Christian believers are known to pray and worship at about that time, also the mid night crew- a gospel music group are known to perform at shows and event at about midnight – but the messaging of the Halleluyia challenge seems more sticky and more impactful than ever before. According to Nathaniel Bassey the initiator of this idea and a gospel music minister, things happen suddenly at midnight, like the sudden break of dawn, things you have waited for long to happen suddenly happen at midnight, settling foundational issues while declaring victory over seemingly insurmountable challenges in the name of Jesus.
The wide-spread success of the Halleluyia campaign began with a live announcement where Bassey encouraged his about140k Instagram followers to join the midnight praise and share the message via their platforms resulting in its viral spread online. This is followed by a daily logging on of followers at the assigned time to a live video broadcast by Nathaniel Bassey – which results in a daily trending, then is the actual worship which is an emotional connection to the Halleluyia challenge idea and lastly is the talkability and continued buzz resulting from personal testimonies and experiences as a result of the unique idea.
A Google search on the theme of the Halleluyia challenge – Olowogbogboro has shown that the term has gained widespread association with the Halleluyia challenge idea and has transverse meaning the world over.
As surmised from above, we can clearly appreciate the effectiveness of viral marketing as a tool to change opinions and align the interests of an organisation, idea or lifestyle with that of the varied publics. Viral marketing was used by Volvo to show case their superior technological savvy while aligning the interests of the digital audience to their innovative approach. The ALS ice bucket challenge was used to create awareness of the ALS disease while encouraging donation of funds to research combative and preventive measures and the Halleluyia challenge aims at aligning the upwardly mobile, digitally inclined public to a new method of worship without borders .


Hence viral marketing is a proven and effective method of relating with and soliciting a favourable disposition from the varied publics of an organisation or the varied prospects of an idea. This is why at CMC Connect Burson-Marsteller, we believe Public Relations is about telling a compelling story. Who is telling yours?

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