The essentials: online marketing - Viralling out of control?

The short history of viral advertising has included controversy as well as success, but it can be a highly effective form of low-cost, attention-grabbing publicity. Helen Barrett offers a step-by-step guide.

Office workers were confused when a grisly film landed in their email inboxes last year. The video, which featured a cat's untimely demise as it was decapitated in the grip of a Ford SportsKa's sunroof, was an email advert, usually known as a viral.

The spoof, which caused more outrage than laughs, turned out to be computer-generated trickery. Ford denied leaking the viral to boost publicity, but the damage had been done - emailers who liked its brand of sick humour had already selected a list of like-minded friends and colleagues from their address books with whom to share the joke.

The SportsKa viral overstepped the mark and risked damaging the brand.

But in spite of bad publicity, the hoo-ha proved that viral advertisements can be effective in creating low-cost, attention-grabbing advertising that propagates itself through 'word of mouse'.

Charities are starting to exploit similar techniques to transmit their messages - Shelter, ChildLine, the Institute of Cancer Research and the Ramblers' Association are among those commissioning risque virals to attract attention. With the potential to pass on news of campaigns with minimum cost and effort, a good viral is perfect for the kind of irreverent humour that can create a buzz.

This step-by-step guide shows you how to make the most of viral marketing.

1. Decide if a viral is right for your campaign Do you want to encourage sign-ups to newsletters, generate donations or raise awareness? "It's important to be clear about what you want to achieve," says Nicolas Roope, creative director at Poke, the agency behind Care International's highly regarded viral campaign the Global Rich List.

The viral, inspired by The Sunday Times' annual rich list, asks users to enter their income and reveals their position on a slide indicator of the personal wealth of the world's population. There is an option to donate, but Care International's aim was to change perceptions about relative wealth. The site has attracted 1.5 million visits in total, and up to a thousand hits a day. Since it was launched in 2003, just over £8,000 has been raised in click-through donations.

"With smaller charities, people are often less trusting when deciding whether to give donations," says Roope. "For them, virals may be more valuable for changing perceptions."

2. Keep it simple "If you can't sum up the idea in a single sentence, it won't work," says Roope. "The rule is that it has to be a single idea." Roope, who has also created virals for Christian Aid and for Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better school meals campaign, argues that simplicity works because of the way people talk about virals and pass them around the internet.

Busy workers, for example, welcome light-hearted relief in the middle of the day. If it takes ten minutes to download an attachment, then no one will bother. Recipients need virals to be quick, just in case the boss is looking over their shoulder.

Nick Milton, director of marketing and communication for the Ramblers' Association, cautions against sending virals as large attachments. "You run the risk of alienating people if you send them something that they can't open or which causes their ICT department grief," he says.

In 2003, the association used a bold viral designed to convince young people that, far from being an organisation of "people with bobble hats, knobbly knees and Tupperware", it is relevant to them.

Although successful, the viral was not without hitches. "Many emails with the film attached were filtered out as spam, particularly by companies," says Milton. "Setting up a dedicated website and driving people there is your best option."

3. Keep costs low One of the key advantages virals have over bought advertising space on television or in print is that they cost little to produce. "For an investment of less than £10,000, virals represent incredible value for money, with potentially very high returns," says Roope.

Charities are often able to secure the services of advertising agencies for nothing, particularly if they are prepared to try an edgy creative concept that allows the agency to showcase creative skills in an unregulated environment.

Brendan Paddy, head of media and PR at ChildLine, approached the agency Quiet Storm about working for free for a good cause. In August, he persuaded it to produce a viral film - We Hear Scared People - to raise money for the charity's emergency nightline appeal at no cost. "We had no difficulty in persuading people," says Paddy. "Quiet Storm is a large agency - we had an editor who usually works with the director Ridley Scott."

So what's in it for the agency? "It's interested in making a high-quality, effective product," says Paddy. "Applying its skills to a good cause brings a challenge - a different kind of creative brief."

Paddy's advice for persuading an agency to work for nothing is this: "Be clear about what it can do for you, and what you are trying to achieve. Remember, it's worth a try - you have nothing to lose."

4. Grab people's attention "A viral has to be funny, shocking or sexy," says Victoria Rae, acting communications manager at the Institute of Cancer Research. Rae commissioned the Rachel Gets Fruity viral, starring pop star Rachel Stevens, for the Everyman campaign. "Get talked about," she advises. "Especially if your objectives are about breaking down taboos."

This is a view shared by Roope. "Outrageous content can work well," he says. "People won't pass on a viral because they think others should see a worthy message - it's all about peer group identity. You want to share what represents you well and makes you look cool."

Virals starring celebrities are another way to attract attention. As a 'lads' mag' regular, Stevens was the perfect choice to communicate with young men, says Rae. Care International is hoping for similar success with its new viral, a game starring celebrity chef Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall to launch World Food Day on Sunday. "You use arrow keys to direct Hugh around a farmers' market," explains Sarah Fish, the charity's online marketing executive. "Our message will be that shopping for food is easy for Hugh - not everyone is so lucky."

Television and print are subject to a raft of Advertising Standards Authority regulations that, so far, virals have been able to dodge. It makes sense to take advantage, because the most talked-about virals are those that surprise. And because of the selective nature of email and the 'good cause' effect, it should be possible to avoid controversy on the scale of the Ford viral. "Of 750,000 impressions in the early weeks, we had only two emails complaining about the content of Rachel Gets Fruity," says Rae.

"And even they recognised that we were trying to reach our audience."

5. 'Seed' your viral with care For a viral to circulate, it needs to be planted at the email addresses of people who are most likely to pass it on. Fish will be making use of Care International's own email subscribers and those of Fernley-Whittingstall's River Cottage website, but she is also considering buying lists from lifestyle research sites after checking online marketing discussion forums to see which are performing well.

Paddy is sceptical about the benefits of email lists, however. "They run against the principles of a viral," he argues. "The danger is that it ceases to be a viral and starts to be electronic direct mail. If you treat virals like a direct marketing campaign, you risk losing the buzz that makes them interesting."

It is also necessary to be aware of data protection issues. The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations came into force in December 2003, superseding the Telecommunications (Data Protection and Privacy) Regulations 1999. It's a surprisingly simple document with two new rules for email marketing - senders must not conceal their identity and must provide a valid email address for opt-out requests.

In addition, a strict 'opt-in' rule means that recipients whose addresses appear on bought-in lists must have checked a box confirming that they are happy to receive unsolicited mail.

The rules in full are available at the website of the Information Commissioner's Office, www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk.

6. Measure your impact As well as direct donations, there are data tools for gauging the popularity of virals. But measuring success will depend on your original aims. Charities that have commissioned virals believe click-through rates, conversion rates, page view impressions and pass-on rates are useful, but most agree that it's in brand or campaign awareness and spin-off donations that they can really work.

Roope stresses that each case is different, which is why it's important to be clear about your intent from the start. "Success depends on specific aims and content," he says. "With Feed Me Better, we gathered 270,000 names, which were taken to Downing Street and ended up changing Government policy."

ChildLine found that as We Hear Scared People gained momentum, there were unexpected successes that were impossible to quantify. "There have been further immeasurable benefits," says Paddy. "A women's magazine had a vote and, after seeing our viral, it has chosen the nightline appeal for this year's readers' Christmas appeal."

Success indeed.

CASE STUDY - Institute of Cancer Research Everyman Campaign - Rachel Gets Fruity

Young men are notoriously reluctant to check themselves for testicular cancer. To help them along, the Institute of Cancer Research recruited Rachel Stevens to star in a viral advertisement to launch the 2005 Everyman Male Cancer Awareness Month.

In Rachel Gets Fruity, Stevens explains, with the help of a pair of ripe plums, what men should be looking for.

"We chose viral because we wanted something playful, not sombre messages that would turn people off," says Victoria Rae, acting communications manager at the charity. "And we needed to catch younger men."

The viral was made free of charge by both the advertising agency DLKW and Stevens, although a small production budget was allocated.

The charity then 'seeded' the viral, shunning email lists in favour of carefully targeted subscriptions. "We placed a link on FHM magazine's Friday email, but otherwise it was a case of people at the advertising agency emailing it to friends and family," says Rae.

On launch, Rachel Gets Fruity clocked up 75,000 hits in one hour, and attracted more than 750,000 hits in its first weeks. It was shown on Top of the Pops, BBC1's What's the Problem? and British Forces Television.

"The coverage was huge," says Rae. "For a budget production cost of £10,000, it was incredible value."

VIRAL MARKETING JARGON BUSTER

- Viral: An email attachment - usually a short film, competition, joke or quiz - circulated around the internet

- Infected user: Recipient who signs up for an account after receiving a viral

- Click-through rate: Average percentage of viral recipients who visit the originator's website

- Conversion rate: Percentage of site visitors who take the desired action - for example, making donations or signing online petitions

- Page view impression: Request to load a single web page

- Pass-on rate: Percentage of recipients who pass a viral on to other people

- Seeding: The process of identifying websites, blogs or individual email addresses as destinations to start the viral campaign.

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