How to Be Viral Without Viral Marketing

It’s not that Apple doesn’t spend any money on cheap louis vuitton handbags advertising – no, it was pouring a whopping $ 500 million into its launch campaign for the iPad. But what is different is that Apple’s marketing doesn’t have to be clever or utterly creative. In fact, it is stunningly not so. No major social media campaign needed to be sparked, no user-generated content contest needed to be held. And while the ongoing tongue-in-cheek anti-Microsoft ads are undeniably cute, they are not really an advertising revelation. Gone are the days of the bold “1984” campaigns. Today, Apple has earned enough attention to forgo any ostentatious marketing, in fact, so much that a cleverly orchestrated campaign would distract from the brand rather than boosting it. The company simply displays its products – that’s all it takes. Apple’s products are viral without any viral marketing.

Viral and ‘spreadable’

Before digging more into this, let’s pause for a moment to examine the term ‘viral,’ which has come under scrutiny recently, not for the first time but more critically, since transmedia augur Henry Jenkins, in ever-so-dramatic fashion, “declared war on viral media.” Jenkins wrote: “Until marketers understand the consumer’s active agency and the social mechanisms shaping their circulation of content, they are doomed to insult and alienate the very people they are hoping to attract.” Jenkins suggests we replace ‘viral media’ – and, by extension, ‘viral marketing’ as the discipline that produces ‘viral media’ – with the new term ‘spreadable,’ arguing that this would more accurately reflect the consumer’s agency and the dynamics of content-sharing. Fair enough, yet Jenkins, in his academic fervor, underestimates practitioners. They know the social mechanisms of sharing all too well and are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the built-in contagious distribution of a product and the spreading of cultural memes as content that accumulates meaning as it is passed on. They are not one and the same, but innovative cheap gucci handbags  marketers use both notions and the outcome is similar, which is why, for the sake of simplicity, I will stick with the catch-all ‘viral’ in this post.

Advocacy and amplification

But back to Apple and the relationship between product and marketing innovation. At the Marketing 2.0 conference in Paris this spring, I had the pleasure of hearing Steve Knox from Tremor, Procter & Gamble’s word-of-mouth marketing arm, illustrate the underlying cognitive principles of viral marketing. In his view, there are two dimensions that matter: advocacy and amplification. If you have a strong brand advocate (a passionate user) but lack the appropriate channels to amplify his/her evangelism, you won’t have much of a viral effect. You are stuck with early adopters, derived from sociologist Everett Rogers’s “diffusion of innovations” theory and so perfectly portrayed by Rob Walker in his New York Times Magazine column, but without critical mass they will not convert into mainstream success. On the other hand, if you muster strong amplification, yet for a product without vocal advocates, you will fall into the over-amplification trap: Awareness of the product will quickly dissipate or, worse, the over-exposure might backfire and inadvertently shed light on the product’s flaws as the gap between visibility and user advocacy will create a suspicious gap just waiting for the blood-sucking blogosphere to be exploited. Simply put: If you generate a lot of talk, but there’s nothing to really talk about, you may end up with a lot of chatter, but no true social conversation – and thus no viral, no networked distribution.

Disruption and transcendence

So what makes a product worth talking about? Fox’s theory is intriguing: he points to two main principles of viral effects that emulate cognitive models. First, the product needs to disrupt a cognitive schema, a mental model that the mind produces to consolidate divergent information into one convergent worldview. We’re lazy and fearful creatures, easily intimidated and overwhelmed, so cognitive schemata help us make sense of the world around us by simplifying it into templates. They allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting a vast amount of information. Here’s an cheap coach handbags example: A plane in the air matches our mental model of a plane but a plane on the Hudson River presents a stark violation to our cognitive schema of a plane. It will therefore create much more attention than the routine plane picture we’re used to. It is – in other words – disruptive.