“And then it will go viral.”

As much as I want to believe this guy and take what he says to heart, I can’t help feeling that it’s just another dealer ploy.

Still, I would have loved to have been in the pitch for this campaign. So many times, I hear the word “viral” thrown around in meetings, it’s as if people think there is a magic switch somewhere in the production process to make a campaign “go viral”, and it’s just not that easy. Anyone who says it is, is wrong, and here’s why:

An individual spot or campaign will only go viral if it’s strong enough by itself, and that is what most advertisers and ad agencies don’t realize. It cannot be faked, and it definitely can’t be forced, because viewers can tell when it is, and they resist being “sold” to.

By definition, a viral campaign is only as good as the viewers think it is, and whether or not they think it’s worth spreading. This particular spot is obviously viral enough (in my opinion), because I have chosen to embed it in my site and share it with you. I’m not getting paid by the client or the advertiser, I’m sharing it because I think it’s an excellent spot and it’s unlike anything else that has been done before. (Rule #1: Originality)

So the burden lies on the heart of the campaign, which starts at its initial conception, and whether or not it is captivating and original enough to make a viewer want to pass it on (Rule #2: Is it provocative?). If the message is watered down and/or diluted to the point of being just another bland, run-of-the-mill piece of advertising, then the viewer will realize it and the spot will die right then and there, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Even if the message itself is funny or thought-provoking, if it’s not strong enough to stand on its own, it won’t be shared.

The worst thing that an agency can do is try to force a viral campaign. Despite what youtube comments may have you believe, internet users are smart, and they know how to spread media across networks faster than you can say “I want it to go viral.” You may think that the Flash video embedded into your client’s website can’t be downloaded and saved onto a user’s computer, but let me be the one to break it to you: it’s incredibly easy. And furthermore, if the message is strong and original enough, you won’t have to worry about it going viral because the viewers will spread it on their own. The best (and smartest) thing that advertisers can do to encourage this is to make the content transferrable, by not trying to protect, hide and/or bury it deep within the website’s code, and instead make it easily saved and transmitted to other viewers. (Rule #3: Easily shared.)

An example: Whenever there is a “hit” video on YouTube, there are always a number of users who download and then re-upload the same video without making any changes to it. My best guess is that this is a vain attempt to attach themselves to the “next big thing,” and increase their own play count when really, by that point, they’re late to the party and just another part of the viral spread. But that just goes to show how spots propagate across the internet. (Rule #4: Self-spreading)

To re-iterate my points, a spot or campaign must be meet the following criteria to “go viral:”

1. It must be original. Copycat ads don’t go anywhere, because viewers will recognize it.

2. It must be original enough to make people want to share it.

3. It must be easily-shared. If a viewer can’t send a simple link directly to it, or if they can’t upload it to a video-sharing site (i.e., YouTube), then they won’t go to the trouble of spreading it. People don’t want to send links to friends that look like “www.speedstick.com/spots/ads/campaigns/viral/…”, they want to send YouTube, Break or College Humor links. Why? Because they want to feel like they’re spreading a funny or original message, not an advertisement, even when they know that’s what it is.

4. It must be captivating enough on its own to make people want to share it. If a spot requires explanation beyond what can be said in 30 or 60 seconds, then it’s going to require more effort than most people will put into spreading it. I imagine the average internet viewer to have an attention span of no longer than 60 seconds, so if you can’t keep a viewer interested for at least that long, then you’re doing something wrong.

Anyway, back to my original point. “Viral” is not a feature that you turn on or off. You can’t sell “viral” to a client if you haven’t put the work into it. You can spend hours, weeks, and months on one campaign, but if it feels too much like traditional advertising, then it’s ultimately going to be exactly that.