The Rules of Viral Web Success, at Least for Now

NEW YORK The site is undeniably frivolous. Visitors are greeted by a quartet of shimmying elves with cutout photos pasted on their bodies. They are invited to do the same and pass it along to their friends. It is neither a work of fine art nor a technological marvel.

But the OfficeMax “Elf Yourself” campaign, which wrapped up last week, drew more than 110 million visitors, according to OfficeMax’s Web stats. Third-party measurement service Alexa ranked it as a top 1,000 Web site in some 50 countries. Yet more than pure numbers, “Elf Yourself” has hit the bull’s-eye of viral success: It has seeped into pop culture. Broadcasters at several local stations, The Today Show and Good Morning America created their own dancing holiday greeting for viewers. For the second year, the campaign was a winner.

The success of “Elf Yourself,” created by Toy in New York and EVB in San Francisco, is one of several Web initiatives that have attained viral fame while others with flashier technology or in-depth storytelling have fallen short. Their secret: Keep it dead simple, make it personal and give people a reason to pass it on. These sites might not win awards or wow other creative directors, but they draw big audiences by eschewing the urge to add on features and functions.

“Our lives are already complicated. I can’t imagine anything online wants to be complicated,” said Bob Thacker, svp of marketing at OfficeMax “Eighty-year-old women are sending these out and 8-year-olds are doing it.”

“Elf Yourself” followed in the footsteps of similar simple Web apps that became viral sensations by toning down the technology and turning up the personalization. Burger King saw 40 million Simpsons avatars created in a “Simpsonize Me” campaign that kicked off in the spring. In an 11-month effort that wrapped up in October, Purina’s “Doggie Mail” got 1 million users to upload photos of their pets and seat them next to the Mona Lisa, for example. They spent an average of five minutes with the site, the same amount “Elf Yourself” garnered.

Compare those success stories to a more technically advanced effort like Verizon’s “Action Hero,” a Web application that used sophisticated computer-generated graphics to upload a person’s image onto a 3-D film character, with dozens of choices to customize everything from body type to dialogue to the film’s score. It was a 10- to 15-minute process for users, and due to the production power needed, Verizon required up to 24 hours to send the finished movie to them.

Despite generating considerable industry buzz, the application was scrapped when Verizon’s new marketing chief decided to concentrate on more tried-and-true Web marketing tactics, like e-mail. Verizon declined to say how many films were made, but the site never crossed the minimum audience threshold for Internet measurement firms.

“As long as the quality of the concept is high, you can get away with a lot of different things,” said Taras Wayner, ecd at R/GA, Verizon’s agency. “The quality of this concept was very tech driven.”

Such a tradeoff can be difficult to make, particularly as digital creatives have increasing technological firepower to play with. OfficeMax was determined to keep the simplicity of “Elf Yourself” in its follow-up effort. It merely tweaked the app to let users create multiple elves. The keep-it-simple approach paid off: This year’s version drew five times the traffic.

“Digital agencies often get wrapped up in thinking it won’t be interesting if they don’t use the latest and greatest technology,” said Daniel Stein, CEO of EVB. “That’s a fallacy.”

The urge to overcomplicate applications is real, said Rob Reilly, creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. For Burger King, the shop created, which invited users to upload photos and affix moustaches to them. It aimed for deeper engagement by requiring users to regularly return to “groom” their new upper-lip hair. In the end, Reilly said, visitors wanted just a quick laugh at an oversized ‘stache on their mug.

Crispin applied that lesson when it and promotions agency Pitch created “Simpsonize Me” for the burger chain. An early version of the app was filled with bells and whistles. It let users create a Simpsons avatar and place it in a scene. “We had to stop ourselves and think, ‘What’s going to make this stick?'” Reilly said. “If you can’t describe what it is in one sentence, it’s probably not going to work.”

New York technology firm Oddcast has an enviable record of creating Web viral winners. In addition to developing “Doggie Mail” for Purina, it worked with CareerBuilder and agency Cramer-Krasselt to create an earlier version, “Monk-e-Mail,” which let users send talking chimps featured in CareerBuilder TV spots. The site attracted 25 million visitors.

But it hasn’t all been hits. Last year, Oddcast created a sophisticated application for Internet telephony company Jaduka that let people produce an animated vignette, record dialogue for a character, then pass it along for friends to add their own bits.

Such collaborative storytelling is compelling, said Oddcast CEO Adi Sideman, yet it runs the risk of both overcomplicating the process and not giving the instant gratification consumers have come to expect. “If you don’t capture them in the first two seconds, they’re gone,” he said. “They’re too busy.”

The biggest challenge is to grab people’s attention in the first place. “Elf Yourself” was one of 20 holiday-themed sites OfficeMax released during year-end 2006. It was the only one to draw significant traffic.

“There are no rules, and next year the rules will change,” said Ari Merkin, CCO at Toy. “The best thing you can do is be in the right place at the right time.”