Viral Complexity

Last year, those Evian roller babies skated their way into the pages of the Guinness World Records as the most viewed online ad, now with what the company claims is more than 100 million views.

Even though the viral video had little offline promotional support in the U.S., its mass appeal won top honors from Time magazine as the No. 1 TV ad of the year and recognition on TBS’ Funniest Commercials of the Year. It became the fifth-most popular video on YouTube. One achievement it   didn’t pull off? A boost in U.S. sales. Evian lost market share as sales dropped 28 percent in each of the first two quarters although it reduced those declines to 26 percent in the third quarter and 19 percent in the fourth, according to Beverage Digest.

As the newsletter’s editor, John Sicher, points out, that decline may have little to do with marketing and everything to do with a premium product caught in a year of economic turmoil. Likewise, it’s hard to know if the lessening in sales declines after the babies made their debut in July can be attributed to their popularity or the improving economy as consumers did less trading down in their brand choices.

In fact, the evidence is thin that any viral video, no matter how successful, is likely to act as standard advertising does—that is, as a way to convince consumers to buy a product. An analysis of the top viral ads of 2009 show that the best a marketer can hope for is to raise awareness and drive traffic to a Web site. For many, that may be enough.

The brands behind the top 10 viral ads of 2009 [see chart] got a lot of exposure, but what kind of ROI did they get? The answer is more complicated than just moving more units, said Benjamin Palmer, CEO of the Barbarian Group. “In that group there are probably five-to-six different goals, whether brand building, awareness, PR or a product launch,” he said. “But collectively, those top 10 were successful in what they set out to do. If several million people saw them, then how could they not be a success? Nobody had a brief to create a video that had as few viewings as possible.”

David Berkowitz, senior director of emerging media and innovation for agency 360i, said boosting search results is another consideration. “An added value for these viral videos is that they can be great for search engine optimization, claiming valuable real estate on search engine results pages, especially if the videos are picked up on blogs and linked to,” he said.

The example of Microsoft’s Project Natal, the code name for a new Xbox 360 natural user interface technology, to be released this holiday season, underscores the success of such strategies. Robert Matthews, gm, global marketing communications Xbox, Project Natal, said after the company released the video, got more than 825,000 unique visitors in seven days. While stressing that “we can’t attribute all the increased traffic to the Project Natal video alone,” that week “Project Natal” was also the No. 1 search term on Google and the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter. As for sales: That’s a moot point because the product isn’t available yet.

Microsoft’s other big hit viral—a “Megawoosh” video where a man shoots down a waterslide, flies off a ramp and lands in a small wading pool—not only garnered a lot of views and tweets but drove people to the Web site. Christoph Mayer, chief creative officer for Microsoft former agency MRM Germany, said the conversion rate from the video to the Web site was about 8 percent. The upshot was that about 1 million visitors to the landing page used one of the site’s offerings, including a test version of Microsoft Office Project, which was the product the video was designed to promote.