Viral advertising: Why this trend is important for you

The benefits from publishing a viral advertisement are portrayed by focusing on the necessary characteristics and underlying sharing process...

6 Apr 2023 2600 Views

Written by a Master Student at Lund University

Viral Advertising Examples – Two elderly teddy bears at Heathrow Airport

The main characters of Heathrow Airport’s Christmas Viral “Coming Home for Christmas” (Heathrow Airport, 2016)

A huge plane arrived at Heathrow Airport. Inside you see two rather old but cute teddy bears, one waking the other one softly. A stewardess brings them their coats and then both teddy bears are walking down the gangway. A male voice starts singing “I’m going back to see the place where I come from…” and you can follow the teddy bears’ mastering all the tiny airport obstacles with help of various kind airport employees. Along the way you can see how both teddy bears are very tender to each other. This is the beginning of Heathrow Airport’s 2016 Christmas advert (Heathrow Airport, 2016), which went viral directly after publishing and reached more than 67.3m views in the first week (Hia, 2016).

Viral Advertising: a recent trend

Especially at Christmas time many established companies try to reach their customers with a heart-warming spot (e.g. John Lewis, 2016; M&S, 2016; EDEKA, 2015; Sainsbury’s, 2015). Besides this there seems to be an overall trend for viral videos. Since November 2013 Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches“ (Dove US, 2013) is holding the Guinness World Record for the “Most viewed online video advertisement“ (Most Viewed Online Video Advertisement, 2016) with over 124m views on different platforms. Before this, Evian’s “Roller Babies” owned that record since 2009, with more than 45m views (EvianBabies, 2009; Whitehead, 2009). This replacement shows the recent trend for viral advertising very clear – both on producer as well as on the consumer side. Considering, that now three years later Heathrow Airport’s viral provoked more than 67.3m views in one week, it will be only a matter of time, that the Guinness World Record is passed on to another viral.

If you would like to be the one receiving the record next, an outstanding viral advert is needed. Taking into account, that producing such a viral takes a lot of thought and effort, the question arises, if such a video is at all beneficial for the launching company and if so, in which way. I would like to answer this question in this blog post, by firstly looking at what a viral defines and which characteristics it should incorporate for making a success more likely. Secondly I continue with having a look at the sharing process. The last argumentative point will then be about users engaging due generating parodies or spin-offs related to a company’s viral ad. Finally I will provide a summary of the discussed benefits and a managerial advice.

Defining Viral Advertising

In contrast to traditional advertising, viral advertising is mostly shared on platforms which are free of charge (Porter & Golan, 2006). The most popular examples are YouTube and Facebook. Here the viral ad – mostly as a video – is seeded on the company’s channel in order to eventually become viral. Loyal customers shall share the advert with their friends and family, who again shall forward it as trustworthy spokesmen. This recommendation system also implies that viral advertising is more personal than traditional advertising (Porter & Golan, 2006). Additionally, since the platforms are free of charge, there is no traditional gatekeeper (e.g. publisher) involved. Instead, the audience defines the popularity, which makes it had to predict, which video will go viral. (TED, 2012).

Viral Advertising Characteristics

Even though it is so far not possible to predict which video will go viral, many academics and practitioners try to find patterns in successful virals (e.g. Berger & Milkman, 2012; Botha & Reyneke, 2013; Dobele et al., 2007; Eckler & Bolls, 2011; Porter & Golan, 2006; Shehu, Bijmolt & Clement, 2016; TED, 2012). They turn their attention especially to characteristics, which an advertisement has to have in order to make it more likely to get this one shared, always based on knowledge from past viral ad. Investigating these characteristics will furthermore help to get a better understanding about how viral advertising works.

Previous research shows, that the likelihood of consumers sharing an advertisement is higher, if the content is relevant or emotional connected to the consumer self or at least for a close relative (Berger & Milkman, 2012; Botha & Reyneke, 2013; Dobele et al., 2007). In addition the content should be emotional. Even though both positive and negative feelings help to boost a viral, the positive ones have an even bigger impact (Berger & Milkman, 2012; Botha & Reyneke, 2013; Eckler & Bolls, 2011). Besides this it is beneficial to incorporate extraordinary or unexpected contend in viral advertising. This implies, that not the products a company is selling have to be unique, but the campaign should stand out, in order to maximise the chances to produce a viral video (Porter & Golan, 2006; TED, 2012).

Dobele et al. (2007) go even further, when they explain, that it is not only important to have this surprising twist in your viral advert, but you should rather couple it with other emotions. Here it is also important to reflect upon the own company and products, to make the ad fitting. Therefore you should carefully choose if you want to add joy, sadness, anger, fear or disgust. Joy for example would fit a fun brand with younger target customers, whereas sadness for example would match, when the viral advertisement has rather a short-term goal and is meant a reply to disasters, especially Acts of God. Additionally the responsible marketer should always reflect on the cultural background, because this can lead to completely different worldviews and tastes, when it comes to a viral ad (Dobele et al., 2007).

Besides the importance for the liking of the advertisement, the aroused positive feelings lead also to a positive attitude towards the brand in general. Thus makes it again more likely that customers will spread the ad further and it eventually becomes viral (Eckler & Bolls, 2011).

Viral Advertising Sharing

The sharing of an ad so that it becomes a viral is, as presented above, one of the key distinctions between traditional advertising and viral advertising. The just discussed characteristics play a big part in customers’ liking and sharing. Furthermore the plot should be aligned, so that the likability is highest at the beginning and the end, whereby the recency effect is stronger. In between a “rollercoaster effect”, meaning a high variability in likability, also increases the likelihood of sharing the advertisement, so it can become viral (Shehu, Bijmolt & Clement, 2016).

This sharing process with friends and family is nowadays extremely important for viral marketing. An average customer has 20 000 brand exposures every day, but out of this huge number only 12 ads make an impression (Johnson, 2014). A reason for this might be the overexposure, as this lead to consumers ignoring advertising messages on purpose. Now, the permission to promote something for customers is only granted, if they see a benefit it this. In other words, the customers have to invite the marketers to communicate to them, if there shall be an effect (Godin, 1997).

Here the viral advertising comes in. As presented above, the ad is likely to be shared with friends and family, if the characteristics match. As both parties know each other, it is more likely, that the receiver watches the viral ad and forwards the message further. Additionally it is very likely that the content suits the receiver, as the sender most likely only passes these ads on to somebody, he knows the receiver will be interested in (Godin, 1997; Porter & Golan, 2006). Therefore this sharing works the same way as electronic Word of mouth (eWOM), which is trust-related too (Ferguson, 2008).

Advantages of Viral Advertising: Buzz and Brand Awareness

Due to the sharing and the eWOM, buzz is generated. Ferguson (2008) even writes, that this can be as much buzz for a viral advertisement, as for a Hollywood premiere. This, in the end, equals out in brand awareness. Thus the viral advertising leads to a better knowledge about the company or the product in question, which might have an effect on the awareness or even evoked set. This in turn might even lead to a trial or a purchase (Ferguson, 2008).

Another way to generate a lot of buzz in a very short time is the use of tastemakers. These are people with a giant audience, most of the time because they are celebrities. If these Tastemakers introduce something new to their audience, they will reach a lot of people. This effect can be that influential, that a unknown video can go viral over night (TED, 2012).

Even more buzz and thus brand awareness will be reached, when the audience does not only consume the viral advertisement, but participates. Participation can be for example incorporating the viral as a topic in everyday conversations or even producing own related content as a spin-off. Therefore the consumers are becoming an important part of the phenomena (TED, 2012). This can be brought even further in actively encouraging the customers to engage in the viral advertising campaign through empowering them with tools for example. Furthermore the audience empowerment is, additionally to the buzz and brand awareness, likely to lead to a deeper loyalty (Ferguson, 2008).

Summing up

As shown in this blog post by briefly explaining how viral advertising works and especially focusing on the needed conditions, under which customers are likely to forward an advertisement, a viral video is not easy to produce, but if it works out definitely beneficial for the distributing company. The positive effects are electronic Word of mouth, Online Buzz and, following out of this, brand awareness. It might be, that there is no immediate measurable effect for the company in the beginning, but over the years the effect should be remarkable.

Therefore it is advisable for managers to at least think about the characteristics and match them to the company. By following the recommendations developed from former successful viral advertisements, you company has after all the chance to produce a viral!


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