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The online buzz surrounding the Snakes on a Plane movie is a fine example of how internet publicity can go ballistic without a penny needing to be spent on traditional advertising.
The film’s producers have been licking their lips because consumers have been doing their viral marketing for them, creating everything from video blogs to T-shirts and insuring a successful lift-off long before its August release date.
The online hype seems to date back to a blog post by the screenwriter Josh Friedman in which he sang the praises of the film's name, calling it the “Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles".
Unless I am doing the Snakes on a Plane (SoaP) creators a major disservice, it seems that the online near-hysteria was an unplanned occurrence resulting from a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title which plays on the phobias of millions of people.
This view is evidenced by a plan to change the film title to the more prosaic Pacific Air Flight 121, much to the chagrin of the film’s star Samuel L Jackson. Of course, the possibility that this was itself a clever publicity stunt cannot be ruled out.
Sadly, for most marketers who want to exploit viral marketing to promote a product, brand or services, it is unlikely they will ever be able to make the same kind of impact as SoaP.
Indeed, some would argue that the SoaP phenomenon is the antithesis of marketing because it has been almost entirely consumer-driven without the controlling hand of Hollywood.
However, while it is impossible to guarantee that something goes viral, there are ways of increasing your chances of success.
The challenge is to come up with something creative and appealing, while at the same time framing a campaign with clear objectives, measurement criteria and success factors.
This seems daunting but viral marketing experts agree that, when done properly, it is possible to harness the lawlessness and spontaneity of the online world.
Jesse Sandqvist, of Responsewave, which runs viral marketing campaigns for clients, said that the first step for businesses is to identify and target their audience.
He said: “Marketers should always first think about who their target audience really is and what would motivate the target audience to pass the message on to their peers. The real difference to traditional media advertising is that the marketers need to persuade their channel, the audience, to work with them to spread the campaign to their friends.”
He added: “It is rare that the kind of buzz surrounding Snakes on a Plane just happens on its own. Creating successful viral marketing usually requires a lot of planning, testing and creativity behind the scenes.
"Companies who specialise in viral marketing already have methodologies and tools in place for creating campaigns that are increasingly likely to succeed in delivering commercial success.”
Topicality is also essential. Over the last few days, there have been good examples of viral emails relating to World Cup events, such as the alleged role played by the Portugese "Winker" Christiano Ronaldo in getting Wayne Rooney sent off, or the extraordinary head-butt of fallen French idol Zinedane Zidane.
Herein lies another challenge. In today's fast-moving online world you need to be very timely in going live while at the same time making sure you are have done the necessary planning and testing.
The bottom line is that you can have the most organised viral marketing campaign in the world, but your initiative is likely to flop if your content doesn’t have the prerequisite quality and appeal needed to go viral.