Viral is a Verb

A man puffs into a rubber dinghy on the beach. A boy patters toward him and flings himself onto it. The man’s head explodes. Seven years ago, Head Rush – a simple 10-second clip, carefully honed to 790k to punch through Hotmail’s attachment filters – launched Ed Robinson’s company, The Viral Factory. It’s since been viewed 100 million times. “It feels incredibly crass now,” he’s prepared to admit, “but that’s how it was then.”

Of course, in the Web 2.0 world the huge advertising potential in peer-to-peer networks is clear to a growing number of brands – but agencies exploiting the system are still shaking off those past associations. Ed for one is clearly weary of justifying himself to people who still think ‘viral’ just means a bedroom-produced funny.

“Viral is a terrible buzzword,” he concedes. “It’s a mechanism; it’ll probably disappear from our company name within a year. It’s been misconstrued. A viral isn’t a short, rude 30-second TV spot you couldn’t get past the BACC – it’s a mysterious peer-to-peer network. Viral is something that happens when a piece of content wins its own audience in an exponential way, and we use the term as a verb. It’s ‘gone’ viral.”

Head Rush unquestionably went viral, and it persuaded Ed to reach beyond his job as a TV ads producer in favour of something edgier. “I didn’t want to make ads. I wanted to make films. As a punter I resent advertising – I want an honest exchange. Either give me hard facts, or engage me; give me something. I resent people just selling eyeball space.”

Ironically, the original proposal was not too far removed from that of a traditional broadcaster – selling space either side of great content. “I had this image of not having a relationship with clients. I’d just make stuff, put it out there in a locked environment and then advertisers would buy a placement; their name at the end of it. Effectively I’d be a programme maker, making small bits of communication.”

In principle, it made sense – clients would buy media space in return for the content winning viewers. It works on TV. But perhaps it was a paradigm shift too far – part of the appeal of online content, after all, is stripping off the ads. “They didn’t buy it,” Ed recalls. So, with reluctance, he began to explore winning an audience with an integral advertising message. In other words, ads that people want to watch. And share.

Evil Twin Ka came a couple of years later: a deliciously sinister decapitation episode in which a black Ford Ka tempts an unsuspecting feline into its open sunroof, and then slides it back in place with a sickening clunk. In another version, a pigeon is splatted flat in the road by a timely flick of its bonnet. “That was back in the day when email peer-to-peer – ‘have you seen this’ – was key,” adds Ed, acknowledging Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a useful reference on this kind of exponential growth.

“When people pull your content to them instead of having it pushed at them, you get a buzz,” he smiles. “But at the time it was an add-on thing. It’s only in the last two years that we’ve realised virals can be part of the bigger picture.”

And without the need to deal with media buyers, campaign budgets can be significantly lower. “The ad process can be quite stifling. You may have a million quid to make the ad, but they’ve got 10 million quid to buy the media for a couple of nights on Channel 4 – which is why everyone’s so anxious and sits around debating what colour a certain guy’s shirt should be. We have a much more fluid process – come up with an idea; make it for £50-100k; come back and hopefully they like it. We’re called a factory for a reason.”

Ed goes on to discuss their 2003 Trojan Games campaign for the UK launch of the condom brand, whose quirky notion of a sex Olympics persuaded 55 million visitors to spend an average of five minutes on the website, enjoying and recommending short videos of lycra-clad athletes engaging in acrobatic penetration. This equates to an army of excitable brand advocates roughly the size of the country’s population. Not bad, especially considering the clips contained no explicit sexual content whatsoever.

Sex, violence and slapstick humour – check, check, check. But within the viral space there remains infinite scope for creativity, depending entirely on who you’re targeting to disseminate your message, and why they’d be motivated to pass it on.

Web audiences are notoriously fickle with short attention spans, flitting from clip to clip on giant rambling sites like YouTube and MySpace, and are accordingly much more empowered than their passive TV counterparts. But with the growing interconnectivity between social networking sites, finding what you want (and dumping what you don’t) is only going to get easier. “Above all the advertising industry has to re-learn that they have to give something back,” is Ed’s take on it. “It’s an exchange.”

Perhaps their most innovative work to date was for Levi’s in 2006, ostensibly involving a gigantic jeans-wearing marionette being manoeuvred through the streets of Reykjavik by a trio of helicopters. Such a stunt would cost millions to stage for real, and it was considerably cheaper and savvier to mock the whole thing up in post-production, project it in cinematic glory onto a giant plasma screen – and film it on mobiles. The resulting clips, scattered over YouTube to give the illusion that random Icelandic passers-by had witnessed something wondrous, have garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

There’s an inherent talkability about a giant airborne puppet – even if people decide it’s a hoax, they’ve spread the clip, thought about it and engaged with other users about it on comment threads. That’s what a modern viral campaign needs to be about, and Ed is regularly frustrated by clients who want ‘something on YouTube’ – a request that, as he points out, is pretty meaningless. He turns 70 percent of potential work down, partly as a reality check for clients whose campaigns simply would never go viral.

“You can stick anything on YouTube – a picture of your product with you sticking your thumbs up in front of it. It doesn’t mean people will see it, and it doesn’t make it a viral. It only becomes a viral if you’ve specifically set out to generate an audience.”

Most important of all is to be straight with them once you have them. “They’ll turn against you if you try to ram a message down their throats, and that’s a massive turn-off to some clients,” he warns. “But if you do it right, you have free media, and an audience that voluntarily spreads your message.”

Ed took part in 4Talent‘s Inspiration Session on Advertising in Birmingham, May 2007

© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 7 of TEN4 magazine

4 thoughts on “Viral is a Verb

  1. Hey Nick, nice article.

    But surely you mean Viral as an Adjective?

    As in ‘gone crazy’, ‘gone ballistic’, etc., I haven’t heard anyone say I viralled this thing the other day, or I’ll viral it… or am I getting old?

  2. Hehe… nothing like a semantic argument on a Sunday morning. I’d argue that ‘to go viral’ is a phrasal verb, as opposed to ‘that piece of content is viral’ (adjective) or ‘is a viral’ (noun) but I take your point. Cheers Stef

  3. Ah… well I’m showing my ignorance – you learn something new every day.

    It looks like it hasn’t been picked up by any dictionaries yet which is interesting because I’ve been using the phrase for ages!

    So are you going to change the title of the article to “‘To Go Viral” is a Phrasal Verb”? 😀

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