In 2001, grad student Jonah Peretti accidentally created an Internet sensation when e-mails of his attempts to put "sweatshop" on sneakers customized with Nike ID went viral. In 2005, he set out to repeat his unexpected success with far different content: Black People Love Us, a parody site of a quintessentially white couple's efforts to ingratiate themselves with African Americans. It also became a viral hit.
This convinced Peretti that the "mysterious" world of viral content can be broken down and made somewhat predictable. He went on to found content-sharing platform BuzzFeed in 2006 on the proposition that science can be applied to content creation to up the chances of viral appeal.
"There's an underlying human impulse to share ideas and experiences," said Peretti. "There are certain types of content that make you want to share them because they've put you in a social mind-set."
Now, BuzzFeed and other Web-sharing platforms such as StumbleUpon, Digg and even Twitter and Facebook are providing advertisers with an entrée into the stream of shared content by posting brand content on their sites. On top of this, they're then using the viral data to help ignite sharing that can meld paid impressions with earned media.
They've done just that for advertisers like National Geographic, AOL and DonQ.
Last week, Pepsi began a test with BuzzFeed to see if it could generate what PepsiCo Beverages head of digital Shiv Singh calls "impressions plus." Pepsi already had a TV spot that recently proved popular on YouTube, with 100,000 views in under a week. BuzzFeed, knowing that content with lists is more often shared, used the spot in a content package called "Top 10 Most Iconic Pepsi Commercials of All Time." It has proven only mildly popular, netting 946 viral views on top of 2,700 seeded views.
Singh said Pepsi would evaluate the best way to utilize BuzzFeed based on its performance so far.
There's a persistent argument that if a brand's content is good enough -- think: the recent Old Spice "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" social media response campaign -- it doesn't need advertising. But that's mostly a myth, Peretti contends, pointing out that even Burger King's "Subservient Chicken" benefited from a national TV campaign promoting the site.
"You don't want to have one hit you spent lots on and a bunch of flops," he said.
Once you have good content, it's also important to understand the lessons from the viral data. DonQ has a program with BuzzFeed that promotes its brand site by highlighting the DonQ.com's "LadyData" section, which shows men information culled from a focus group of young women on topics like "When to have the sexual history talk."
The content highlighted on BuzzFeed is based on what's popular with users. In this way, the viral feedback loop can be used by advertisers to test approaches and double down on what's taking off, Peretti said.
This feedback loop is critical with sharing sites. StumbleUpon, a social discovery platform, has developed an ad platform that periodically inserts an advertiser's site when users are "stumbling" through interesting sites recommended by the community. The advertiser sites, like all others, have sharing features. Once users share them, they are like all other non-advertiser recommended content.
"Clients get a doubling of their traffic because of the free samples," said Garrett Camp, CEO of StumbleUpon, which claims it sends more traffic to sites than Twitter and Facebook. "If we don't see any organic sharing, then we suggest adjusting the targeting."
Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board ran a StumbleUpon campaign recently to drive traffic to a "Grilled Cheese Academy" microsite. Its traffic increased 60 percent, according to StumbleUpon, thanks to users giving a "thumbs up" to "Grilled Cheese Academy."
"You can't build it and hope people show up," said Nick Newlin, interactive director at Shine Advertising, the agency behind the campaign. "It's all about seeding it and getting it in front of the right audience."
Larger Internet sharing platforms are taking similar approaches. Digg's ad system rates brand content higher based on share rates. If the ads aren't shared, they won't appear.
Twitter takes a similar tack. Its ad program is premised on advertisers creating content like other users, in the form of Promoted Trends, sponsored tweets and daily @earlybird specials. The ad content then lives on like other tweets. Coke used a Promoted Trend to push its World Cup microsite. The result: 86 million impressions in a day, according to Coke, many of which came from retweets rather than paid views.
The ultimate hurdle in making this work ends up coming down to correlating widely shared brand content with product sales. "Can they get a million people to see your content?" asked Josh Spear, co-founder of Undercurrent, the New York digital strategy firm.