Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

More on viral videos, gut feeling and measuring what’s measurable

Posted by Graham Hayday on October 11, 2007

I blogged about viral videos a couple of weeks ago. To save you reading the whole post, here’s a 19 word summary: I once thought that you could plan for a piece of video to go viral, but changed by mind. (It was a fascinating post. No, really…)

Then I came across this post from Nigel Hollis at Millward Brown (the WPP-owned research outfit) recently, which almost made me change my mind again. Almost.

He was commenting on an article he’d read in Advertising Age about Professor Duncan Watts, an Australian who has conducted a lot of research into viral campaigns and concluded that ‘influencers’ are not as important as word of mouth marketers would have us believe. He therefore advocates that any viral campaign should be treated in the same way as any another piece of mass marketing, and supported on- and offline through advertising, PR etcetera etcetera.

Duncan said:

“[You] cannot predict what is going to happen… Things happen randomly. You want strategies that don’t depend on being right, but do depend on being able to measure things very well. You throw things out there, with as low cost as you can manage and with as great a diversity as you can stand and then you see what gets taken up.”

In response, Hollis wrote:

“Things happen randomly if you do not plan and test, and throwing things out there risks a potential backfire. The one factor that is not considered by Duncan’s analysis is the ‘stickiness’ of the idea behind a viral campaign, and that is certainly not immune to testing. There is no reason why you cannot pre-test a viral campaign. The objective would be to ascertain the likelihood that people would share the ad with others and it would reduce the chances of failure by ensuring people did find the content relevant, compelling and worth sharing.”

I must confess I’d not considered pre-testing a piece of viral video in the way you would a TV ad. And I’m still not convinced it would work. Surely the web is too ‘random’ (to use that word in a highly unscientific way) for your typical survey sample to indicate whether a video will take flight and spread far and wide? Can such a survey really predict the subtleties of the network effects that are required for a video to go viral? Hollis thinks it can. I’m not so sure.

Online communities value spontaneity and serendipity. Sure, we sneaky PR and marketing people can do our bit to support a viral campaign and give it a shot at succeeding, but if you market research something to death before you unleash it online you may well squash the spark of creative genius that would have seen it go massively viral in the first place.

Admittedly Mr Hollis chooses his words carefully, and says that pre-testing can only “reduce the chances of failure”, which isn’t the same thing as predicting success of course. His post is well worth a read, and I’ve probably done him a huge disservice by pruning his argument so aggressively.

But the approach he favours still feels too clinical to me (and it may not be entirely co-incidental that Millward Brown offers such services as pre-campaign testing…)

I’m all for measuring what’s measurable in all forms of communication, but sometimes gut feeling must have a role to play.


One Response to “More on viral videos, gut feeling and measuring what’s measurable”

  1. Thanks for the reference to my post on viral video. We have tested viral ads for a number of different brands but one finding comes out loud and clear, no matter how good the content it is the dissemination that matters. Poor content will not go anywhere but great content may never be discovered unless you get the distribution right.

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