Viral marketing
equates to successful marketing in viral times.

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Viral marketing in times of the Coronavirus.

If you’re expecting a blog article here stating ten good reasons why you should be pursuing viral marketing right now, then kindly make your way to guys and girls next door who are already poised on Xing and LinkedIn (and other social media channels, come to think of it) to post their article, or perhaps they’ve already done so. You’ll be sure to find these reasons here too, but rather in passing. In fact, it’s about something else. In order to gain a different understanding of what is generally considered viral marketing. A different understanding of what is otherwise classified as a viral campaign. If you’re interested, you’ll find here some – apparently loose-knit – viral thoughts that attempt to trace how viral dissemination works (and who makes use of it) from very different perspectives and dimensions.

Viral marketing as an advertising tool.

But, first thing’s first. Actually, there should’ve actually been an article here on the subject of “funny advertising”. Hahaha. Actually. But right now, only a handful of people real feel like laughing. Right now, it’s Corona having all the laughs. And it’s Corona that is expected to rule for a long time to come. A virus can paralyse everything. Society. Culture. Sport. The economy. As was the case in Shakespeare’s time when the plague ravaged the world, theatres are once again closed today – as are opera houses and cinemas. Not to mention open-air pools and similar leisure facilities, and yes: even the brothels. The Olympic Games have been postponed, as has the European Championship. The Pope gave his urbi et orbi blessing in front of an empty St Peter’s Square, two weeks before Easter. In industry, production is at a standstill. Especially when considering that the concept of “viral” has come to shape every facet of our lives. Even in Marketing. Perhaps right there, in particular. Remember: marketing also goes viral. But what does that mean exactly: “viral marketing”? The digital behemoth, Wikipedia, defines viral marketing (sometimes also referred to as “virus marketing”) as a form of marketing that utilises social networks and media to draw attention to a brand, product or campaign with a message that is rather unusual or cryptic. Is it possible to express this in a way that is even drier – I mean more down-to-earth? The idea behind this, of course, is that advertising, communication and marketing spread like a virus, that the underlying messages, statements, images and content envelope everything like wildfire and have everyone in their grip, infecting each and every individual and sparing no one. Communication so viral, it encompasses everyone and everything before you can scream “unsubscribe”. What do you mean by “click” – more like “swipe”. Again, the association of smear infection with viral communication – viral marketing. Regardless of any encyclopaedic definition, viral marketing is best defined in terms of performance, i.e. through a successful example of viral marketing itself, the benchmark of viral marketing – and everyone in our part of the world immediately thinks of “Todesstern Stuttgart” or “Death Star Stuttgart”. Viral definition at its best.

The idea that the Swabian dubbing of this iconic Star Wars scene would one day harness such prophetic power that just reading the title would make you look nervously at the sickness statistics of the capital of Baden-Württemberg, as well as at the dormant belts of the local car manufacturer, is something that even the ingenious Swabian dubber “Dodokay” probably never dreamed of. The fact is that: Especially in times of a pandemic, “viral marketing proves to be an incredibly powerful advertising tool”. But this is not to be interpreted as simply parroting how important viral marketing is right now. It’s not a matter of emphasising to customers that, come what may, they should now invest their “entire marketing budget in viral marketing”. The point is not to explain exactly how viral marketing works, to state the advantages of viral marketing or to cite its disadvantages. And then to back it all up with examples of viral marketing successes. The proposition is different: Viral marketing doesn’t have to go viral here, it doesn’t have to be understood in its usual sense here. Viral marketing in this capacity means, first and foremost, communication in times dominated by viruses, in times of Corona. From everyone, to everyone.

Holed up and lying low – viral marketing’s new M.O.

What’s that? In actual fact, another film classic, “The Godfather” springs to mind here. Especially when considering that the Coronavirus has forced all of us to be “holed up, lying low” for a while. This doesn’t even mean – either primarily and cynically – the sick themselves, but rather all those who are no longer allowed onto the streets, who are no longer permitted to go to work, who have to stay at home, who have to stay put. Just like the Mafiosi of opposing clans who need to be out of sight and off the street as gang war looms. Just like all of us marketers “holed up and lying low” – in the home office. This applies almost in proverbial fashion to the author himself, who, in his search for a wifi-compatible place that has not yet been taken over by other family members, has ended up on a couch in the study. But it also applies to colleagues whom you no longer get to meet in person, but rather only in the context of video conferences that show brief excerpts of their private surroundings. It also applies to clients whose marketing departments have often been banished to the home office, if not to the malaise of reduced working hours. This is accompanied by the discontinuation or conversion of daytime operations. At first, the fairs and exhibitions were cancelled. “Postponed” said many organisers. But till when? Then, in many places, production was limited (or stopped altogether), campaigns were postponed and often cancelled. And who, you may ask, is it that keeps the place running?

A viral campaign here, a viral campaign there.

In the news, an increasing number of politicians are speaking out about how we are “at war”. And that’s right: Like in war, people are dying. In some places very many, while elsewhere it’s (still) none or just a few. This discrepancy is causing many to doubt as to whether all the measures make sense, whether all the restrictions are appropriate, whether they have not been exaggerated, and whether it’s not just pure hysteria. And how do these doubts manifest themselves? Virally, of course. Content is posted on social media: as interviews with immunologists and virologists, or it’s simply “lifted right off the net”, but it is “certainly no conspiracy theory”. When scratching beneath the surface, one wonders what it is, if not exactly that. And this “information” finds its “target group”. Then there are the “supply bottlenecks”. So far, rather bizarrely. All of a sudden, bog roll is in short supply. And if you want to believe all the people who complain about that type who bought it in droves, you’d think there are only those who laugh about it, as opposed to those who actually bought and bunkered the damn toilet paper. It’s a bit like porn – which no one admits to having watched – but those high click rates have to have come from somewhere. Especially now – in times of “the Rona” – those numbers are once again on the up. However, back to the bottlenecks: Of course, there’s also the pasta, the flour. Then the shops, restaurants and cafés have been forced to close. Social life has been put on ice. The day-care centres, kindergartens, schools and universities are shutting their doors. The borders will be closed, flights reduced and public transport restricted.

What are the different forms of viral marketing?

And what, you may now be asking, does all this have to do with viral marketing. Everything. Given that, suddenly, everyone has become an interest group. Today, each and every person is a target group in their own right, an entity that stands up for its interests and wants to see its own needs satisfied. Professional groups whose fate has to date only been of marginal interest to us – that is, to the vast majority of us – are now being celebrated as heroes in the news and on social media. And rightly so. But why only now? And for how long once a vaccine is available to all? The whole thing does, at times, feel like a sanctimonious charade perpetuated by some who’d have you think that they genuinely thought and felt like this all the time, if their posts were to be believed. But what exactly? And why always only when it has been brought to everyone’s attention anyway? And anyone who doesn’t heed the call to share the message fast enough almost renders themselves suspect in their target group – in their bubble – of not being exactly in line. How harmless, by comparison, was Ellen DeGeneres’ highly successful Oscar selfie, which depicted her and other Hollywood celebrities and which went viral with over three million retweets. And what kind of smartphone was the selfie taken with again? And who benefited from it?

Just like with politicians. Politicians who were written off yesterday, or who simply didn’t cut the political mustard, are now getting their chance – at press conferences that are broadcast live. Where? On social media, of course. And how does their reach expand there? What is that? Of course, that’s also viral marketing. Other politicians, by contrast, who had once been someone and who want to become that someone once again, now have to come to terms with the reality that there will be no third chance for them. This could almost seem tragic, if it weren’t perhaps comical in view of the real tragedies taking place.

Everyone is a target group, there is a campaign for everything

Specifically, for people like service cashiers, for nurses, for all those who are now directly on the infection frontline in supermarkets, one or the other campaign is now being launched online pleading for better pay. Germany’s much-maligned Grand Coalition (GroKo) is suddenly enjoying our unqualified trust once again. 89 per cent feel that the measures in place are appropriate. As if each of us had been longing for a curfew. Mind you – Let there be no doubt: Cashiers and care workers – indeed all affected individuals, irrespective of their gender identity – should be remunerated appropriately – or receive bonuses. Just like those managers who are perhaps no longer considered so systemically relevant. The author feels that the measures are just as prudent as the other 89 per cent. The only question is, where were roughly half of these 89 per cent in previous years, when the government did just as good a job, despite all the adverse circumstances? Despite all the coalition refuseniks – be it among the parties, be it on the streets. The answer: They fell for all the other “viral campaigns” bemoaning all the intolerable conditions besetting the country, wondering what was wrong. Some of them had perhaps lost sight of what works quite well in this country, all things considered. And what works pretty well: viral marketing – including now in the hands of the government. Given that, for the government, it’s all about information, information and more information. In a sense, it’s fighting the virus with its own weapons – you guessed it: virally.

Viral marketing literally turns everything on its head

And what becomes clear: Society is turned upside down. Society’s lowest echelons find themselves catapulted to the top. Some hierarchies have collapsed. Some are consolidated. If you were on the lookout for a governing rule, you could almost say: Literally everything is happening right now that you didn’t expect. Even the people are becoming friendlier again. Greetings on the street are becoming more frequent. Probably because there is a ban in place on social contact. Maybe because you meet so few people that it’s easy to greet them all, even in a big city. Sometimes, there’s even a smile to go with it. It’s this “we-are-all-in-the-same-boat” mood that creates such a sense of solidarity.

And where does this feeling of equality express itself most abundantly? Online, of course. That’s where it’s spreading. And the word “online” in this context not only means the Internet and social media. This also includes radio and TV, because these formats are now also primarily broadcast online. In this way, everyone finds their target group. And they all share their message. And they all spread their mantra. A large provider of building society savings plans urges everyone to play with their children, to make love with their partner, to work in a home office, but without doubt to stay at home. And what stands out: What spreads as virally as the virus itself is the #StayHome, which some social networks also broadcast as an addition to the profile picture. Some, adding extra emphasis to the expression of doing the right thing, even make it a #StayTheFuckHome, whatever that’s supposed to achieve.

Dissemination is the currency of viral marketing.

Dissemination connects the #StayHome with the message put out by the building society and the viral press conference of our crisis managers, as well as the conspiracy theorists who wonder what is wrong in this country? What connects them with the initiatives for our newly discovered everyday heroes (who, let it be said again, really are just that – only, we should all not forget is how the heroes from wars were usually received on their homeward return: often in an unfriendly way, left alone with their problems). What connects them to the selfies that reveal not so much the celebrities who are captured on them, but the marketing strategy that is actually behind the image itself. It’s viral marketing. We all practise it. This Marketing. We all ignore it. That Marketing. We’re all fed up with this marketing, whether it’s our own or someone else’s, whether it’s political or often some form of ideological terrorism. That’s because everyone (really EVERYONE) markets themselves – e.g. privately, e.g. as a vegan, e.g. as a freelancer, e.g. as a thingamajig, e.g. as a whachamacallit. And, seriously: We ourselves are no better. Nor are you, for that matter. And if you didn’t do it on Facebook with your last post, then it was on LinkedIn or Xing. And if you didn't tweet it, it was simply your last picture on Instagram: “Check it out: What a great shot.” Or: “Perhaps even a tad psychedelic in the home office #coronamonamur.” We all do it, viral marketing. Because that’s also like a virus. They are campaigns in and of themselves. Each and every one of us starts a campaign for this, a campaign for that, the main thing is that it’s a campaign for what each of us thinks is a good cause. It’s about viral and about dissemination.

Viral marketing is an opportunity.

Strangely enough, what is practised so ubiquitously does not yet seem to have arrived to the same extent in many companies. At least in the field of B2B sales. Of course, something gets posted for one or the other brand from time to time. But a clear-cut campaign is rarely discernible. Dissemination is then the order of the day. Dissemination is what everyone wants. But the mostly uncoordinated individual actions tend not to achieve the desired dissemination all by themselves. And the resources required for this are often not (yet) available. That is now changing. At least there’s a chance for it: viral marketing in viral times. What does “viral” have to offer companies? What does “viral” have to offer brands? Which brand? Your brand. More attention? No, more future viability. Modernisation through accelerated digitisation. And, all of a sudden, what we talked about for years is now possible. The digitisation of marketing is driven by the power of “viral”. The cancelled, postponed trade fairs and exhibitions are an initial step towards this. The first few companies – Geberit, for example – reacted immediately with a virtual trade fair on Instagram. In short, an approach at best, an example in any case, and a good example to boot. Almost immediately after the ban on social contact was introduced, the first wave of emails went viral with offers to implement virtual online trade fairs and exhibitions. And these offers spread rapidly. The message is clear: You, dear customer, don’t need the real thing at all. Everything you wanted to display there can easily be shown virtually and, thanks to the power of “viral”, can even reach and expand your target group more directly. The target group? You can address it directly, and you can draw its attention directly to your brand. And the response is measurable. The success is shown in the leads, in the downloads, and in the click rates. Dissemination, dissemination, dissemination is possible in many ways and on numerous channels. Some of them can be actively controlled and selected. And at a given point, viral marketing then continues, but passively. That’s how viral works. First off: it’s a campaign. Later: this transforms into campaigns. And from campaigns: it becomes the norm. It’s becoming our way of communicating content – via viral marketing. Is that cynical now in view of the crisis besetting our way of life, the pandemic? The author says no. Intelligent posts like this one here have already been circulating online: “The Coronavirus will mean financial demise for more people than it actually kills – and that is the real disaster!” You actually have to read this twice to wonder what kind of world view the person who wrote it must have. You’d almost like to ask him to learn enough Italian to tell the poor people of Lombardy that in person: They’re paying both – a heavy toll in terms of lives lost and the economy. And vice versa: Viral marketing – or marketing in “viral” times – both can help get companies back on track. At local level, this is already happening via virtual word of mouth. “Help, save my local pub” – posted by a user on Facebook – is just one example of how a target group is once again activated to order food online until the pub is allowed to reopen. It’s a campaign for the target group of hospitality, just like there are other campaigns for the target group of food retailers. The fish shop around the corner from me, or the local butcher. And every campaign transmits its content to its recipient via a different viral path. Given that content is what counts in viral marketing – be it in brand building or brand communication. At least that’s how we see it in our advertising agency near to Constance.


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Christoph Siwek

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