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Conversation Killers

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The movie Rounders contains a life lesson: "When sitting down at the poker table, look around for the sucker. If you don't recognize the sucker, get up and leave, because the sucker is you." Along the same lines, the next time you sit down at a planning table to discuss something viral, look for the moron leading the project and if you don't see him, excuse yourself from the meeting because that moron, my friend, is you.

As an industry, we're awfully good (and by good I mean bad) at bastardizing or perverting pretty much any natural and pure expression of engagement, influence, authenticity or passion. Take word of mouth for example: It's the oldest and most credible form of influence and "persuasion" (insert your choice of chart proving that word of mouth obliterates any other form of marketing, advertising or media), and so what do we do? We add the word "marketing" to form a new compound phrase synonymous with lame and ineffective.

It's the same concern I have with the phrase "conversational marketing," which I either created myself or just took credit for. It would appear that the second we find something that actually works, we do our best to exploit it to the point where it becomes unrecognizable and downright repugnant.

It's the same for the term "viral marketing," which has seemingly sprouted an entire industry dealing with shocking or extreme video designed to ring up "hits" on YouTube.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of the masters of pass along. I don't profess to be expert in how viruses are spread; what makes them infectious and what defines, differentiates or classifies one virus from another. It's terrific when the "world" in "world wide Web" embraces a piece of video (did you see the one where the elephant paints a self-portrait?), site (www.manbabies.com) or idea (moveon.org).

That said, I'm not terribly sure that it's predictable or reliable to plan for this kind of spreading of the word and, even more troubling, I'm not convinced that it actually works.

Here's the thing: In this day and age, all content has the ability to be wildly viral, that is, embraced, internalized, evangelized and disseminated. Rather than plan with the end in mind, might I suggest instead that we focus on the idea itself and the means to achieve that end. In other words, getting back to basics to generate compelling, relevant and engaging content and then liberating it to be embedded, hacked, mashed and showcased accordingly.

Then there's the efficacy element of the viral industry. In many respects the viral video is separated at birth from (in the greatest irony of all) the 30-second spot: Although they live at opposite ends of the spectrum, each is equally ineffective at selling stuff. The latter sells too hard, whereas the former doesn't sell hard enough. Indeed, the viral video seems to be almost apologetic at putting a brand face on an allegedly infectious value proposition.

But what if the goal of the viral is not to sell stuff at all? Heresy, I know, but not unlike 99.72 percent of all unmeasurable paid media that would make John Wanamaker vomit just a little in his mouth. What if the goal is to ring up those "hits," those faceless impressions that are reconciled with a paid media cost of zilch and multiplied by an earned media commensurate value? It's hard to argue with a free lunch, but at the same time, surely our efforts are better served by an agenda that balances quality with quantity views.

Perhaps it is unfair to hold the viral ad to a higher standard than the rest of the peanut gallery. After all, we're still talking about OfficeMax elves, CareerBuilder monkeys, a subservient chicken, Ray-Ban performing dudes and Waspy New England Smirnoff Tea Partayers aren't we? Compare this to the Stupid Bowl CareerBuilder debacle -- or as Wendell, the Miller Lite delivery guy, would say, a most effective anti-drug commercial -- and it surely seems like a steal (versus the real thieves behind the 30-second fireworks display).

True enough. But by the same token, we're also still talking about Apple's "1984," Miley Cyrus' Vanity Fair "expos