Does Viral Pay?

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

But one achievement it did not 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, said, that decline may have little to do with marketing and everything to do with 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  convince consumers to buy a product.

A look at the most-viewed virals promoting a product last year, per Visible Measure, shows 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 viral ads certainly got a lot of exposure, but what kind of ROI did they enjoy? 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 [they] 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, Xbox.com 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.

Meanwhile, another brand on Visible Measure’s list with a more straightforward cause-and-effect story is T-Mobile. The company credits its “Life for Sharing” flash mob video with a record increase in foot traffic in the U.K. and a 29 percent jump in sales in a lousy retail environment.

Augustine Fou, group chief digital officer at Omnicom’s Healthcare Consultancy and author of a personal blog, go-Digital, takes issue with measuring the success of these virals by gauging their entertainment value alone.

“A lot of these videos have nothing to do with the product and how you can drive sales,” he argued. “People who defend them say they want engagement but that’s not enough. These days the bar is higher with so many analytics, people expect more ROI.”

However, Fou said Evian’s roller babies delivers on both fronts, weaving brand attributes of health, youth and purity into a hard-to-resist video. He also points out that the video gained mass exposure without the spending it took to popularize, for example, E*Trade’s equally photogenic tykes.