Going viral

Infectious: a viral campaign can spread faster than an outbreak of norovirus – and can be just as unpleasant


If you’re a gamer, you were probably rather excited to read on a number of tech sites earlier this
week that Microsoft was to make a seven-inch gaming tablet called the Xbox Surface that would run games and be able to access all the Xbox services.


The only problem was that it wasn’t true. Not a word of it. The “story” was the work of someone claiming to be a hacked-off blogger who was fed up with reading rumours dressed up as stories and who decided to bung out an email carefully crafted to tantalise reporters.


It’s usually the tech sites that do the reporting when something goes viral and bites its creator in the posterior. This time the sites themselves were bitten in the arse by something that went viral.


Going viral is something marketers dream of. Create a message, seed it out to a few favoured (or credulous) folk, sit back and watch the acclaim roll in. And there are agencies all over the world desperately trying to come up with the next brilliant viral campaign.


The only problem is, whenever anyone comes up with a list of the supposedly best viral campaigns, I usually end up concluding that I’m a hermit, because the ones breathlessly listed as the most fantastically viral campaigns EVAR have barely made a dent in my consciousness.


What I do remember, and what other people remember too, are the campaigns that went horribly wrong, rampaging across the web and social media like, well, an outbreak of norovirus. Or perhaps Ebola.


The mere mention of the word “Femfresh” is still enough to reduce me to helpless giggles. God knows, it’s an obnoxious enough brand, offering a range of products designed to deodorise “down there”, but its coyness reached new heights when it launched a campaign called “Whatever you call it,make sure you love it”.


The aim was to get lots of people spreading its brand message by talking about the words they use to refer to vaginas. To get the ball rolling, Femfresh chucked out a few twee euphemisms of its own: “Mini, twinkle, hoo haa, flower … “(Mini??? In what parallel universe does several tonnes of metal,tyres and petrol even remotely suggest a vagina?).


And then it went viral. Really viral. Massively, uncontrollably viral as thousands of people, both men and women, descended on the Facebook page to point and laugh/express disgust/take Femfresh to task. Femfresh quickly took the page down, but it was far too late: the brand will be tainted by this
incredibly badly judged episode for a very long time.


Brands can protect against that kind of thing by not being stupid in the first place, but there’s not much a big company can do when campaigners create a viral campaign that both catches on and deliberately sets out to damage, as Shell discovered when a a website purporting to be about its presence in the arctic popped up.


The website invited visitors to use its ad generator to create messages about Shell in the arctic – which of course immediately spawned hundreds of images with copy that was rather less than complimentary about Shell.


The social web was aghast at what appeared to be an epic fail of viral marketing from Shell – didn’t they realise that the campaign was bound to go horribly wrong?


I was suspicious pretty early on, and some quick and amateur sleuthing – I checked the who is record for the domain – revealed that sure enough, it was a hoax. Greenpeace was later revealed to be behind the site.


Clever or bullying? Well, both: Greenpeace deployed the viral form brilliantly, combining a compelling call to action with an easy-to-use tool, guaranteeing that the images created by visitors would spread all over the web via social media.


The downside for Greenpeace was that it came out of the affair looking like, well, a bully, especially when Shell took the grown-up approach and simply indicated that it wouldn’t be suing Greenpeace.


Viral is a mixed blessing. If it takes off, it’s brilliant. If it goes wrong – as it can so easily do – it’s a disaster. And finally, don’t forget that viral can bite its own creator on the arse, too, as Joe, the hoaxer behind the Xbox Surface rumour discovered.


Although the fake story was picked up by news outlets including the Telegraph, not everyone fell for it. Rob Crossley, associate editor at gaming site CVG, smelled a rat and emailed “Joe”, who was less than gracious at being called out.


Crossley tweeted screengrabs of his email conversation with Joe, who retaliated by posting a
tremendously petulant response on his blog, thereby instantly abandoning any moral high ground he’d occupied – and became yet another viral marketer who was bitten in the arse by his own campaign.




Kate Bevan is a freelance writer and broadcaster who specialises in technology and social media. She has written for most of the national newspapers, including the Guardian, the FT, the Telegraph, the People and Mail Online. Find her on Twitter @katebevan and on her blog


Photo credits: Image 1 – Creative Comms (rights reserved) copyright AJC1 and Image 2 – Kate Bevan (All rights reserved) copyright David Firn


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