Korean pop sensation, Psy.

Korean pop sensation, Psy. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Faced with a big brief from a small brand seeking to penetrate the flooded sports drink market, creative director Jules Hall's team considered their options. Traditional media, they calculated, would quickly consume Mizone's $200,000 marketing budget. A different approach was needed.

The answer, they discovered, lay in the same concept behind a 56-second video of an infant biting his brother's finger being viewed nearly half a billion times, and a campaign to promote a job vacancy at Hamilton Island revolutionising Queensland tourism. It was the same concept that led to a movement to catch Joseph Kony resulting in the suspected Ugandan war criminal being officially condemned in the US Senate. The answer lay in Mizone's advertising campaign going viral.

Hall's team at creative agency The Hallway considered the relationship between sport and music. They sought a psychologist's advice on the topic and then linked four music producers with four sporty people. The producers were asked to record a track they believed would inspire sporting performance, later to be judged by the sportspeople. Videos of the recordings and tests were uploaded to the drink company's website and on YouTube. The songs were offered as a freebie when people bought the drink, to be downloaded from the website, and conversations about music and sport were prompted on Mizone's Facebook page.

iSnack 2.0. left a bad taste.

iSnack 2.0. left a bad taste.

It was a hit. More than 35,000 people redeemed the free music, Facebook followers rose from a few hundred to more than 10,000 and annual sales rose 35 per cent despite a 71 per cent reduction in the company's marketing budget. The idea was picked up by some members of the mainstream media as a story about music's link to sporting proficiency, vastly escalating the campaign's visibility.

''It was a rip-roaring success,'' Hall says, ''a really clever way to use the media available to us to amplify the impact of a small budget and a small brand. It got huge uptake.''

The principle Hall's company used was the basis of ''viral marketing'' or ''viral campaigning'', a term that has spread, well, like a virus since experts at Harvard Business School coined the term in the mid-1990s to hint at how technology would change communication. The concept is old: that ideas, if humorous, informative or compelling, will get people talking. The difference is, where once the reach was confined to traditional media and word-of-mouth, viral marketing uses new media and cross-platform strategies to get perhaps millions of people talking in a short space of time about a product, initiative, movement or idea.

The growth and rapid evolution of viral marketing has made novices of advertising experts. It has opened the door to mainstream exposure for companies on small budgets and kept bigger companies on their toes, especially at a time when people are tuning out of formulaic tried-and-tested forms of product promotion. As technology enables consumers to avoid advertising, it also provides new tools for businesses, big and small, to draw in consumers.

Not that the viral phenomenon is all about selling things. It can apply to a mother blogging her thoughts from a lounge room in Mumbai, a student shooting an amateur film in Buenos Aires, a child uploading funny photos in Montreal or a lobby group advocating human rights from Johannesburg. And its impact can range from making people laugh to influencing government policy.

A University of Melbourne marketing lecturer who specialises in online psychology, strategy and social media, Brent Coker, says a communication is commonly considered viral if it has a million or more internet hits. ''But 100,000 can qualify as viral if you take into account a short time period,'' he says. ''That volume can still make a big impact.''

The numbers may be straightforward, but the sense of what qualifies as viral is harder to define. Hall says it's about ''ideas or experiences that people find so intriguing, informing or entertaining, they can't help but tell other people about it''.

In that sense it's nothing new, he says. ''Years ago, there were television campaigns that you couldn't help but discuss in the school playground with your mates. That's viral. But we didn't have the internet to share it as quickly with as many people as we do now.''

The chief executive of communications agency Universal McCann, Mat Baxter, suggests that, in advertising, viral is defined by the removal of the product from the promotion process.

''It's any communication that occurs between consumers where the brand is not an active participant,'' Baxter says. ''A consumer sees a movie they think is great and they tell another consumer or stick it on their Facebook. People pass the message on without the brand itself promoting the message.''

Social media expert John Chalmers, of Brandtology, defines viral marketing as using ''a mix of mediums like video clips, text or imagery, with the hope of imparting a message to people with high social networking potential in a short amount of time''.

It sounds easy: create a smart short film, put it in front of people, companies or organisations with lots of ''followers'' and wait for the virus to spread. However, in this new realm, not everything is as it seems and viral campaigns do not always work as hoped. For every success, there may be hundreds of sometimes very costly failures.

Perhaps the biggest danger is that once a campaign goes viral, the creator relinquishes control of the information. In television campaigns, the agent decides where and when the ad goes and what it says. Its strategy is to influence the user. But with viral marketing, the consumer delivers the message to someone else, a strategy of influencing the influencer, severely diminishing the initiator's input. When it goes wrong, serious brand damage can occur.

''The consumer might warp the facts or add their own commentary,'' Baxter says. ''When someone turns against you in viral, they're hearing negative commentary from people they trust much more than they trust the actual advertiser.''

Even when less control is relinquished, dangers exist. Kraft's interactive campaign to solicit name suggestions for their new Vegemite variety went awry when the winning name, iSnack 2.0, was received negatively. Within days, the company abandoned it.

Nevertheless, success stories ensure the lure of viral marketing remains strong. So strong, Hall says, that creative agencies sometimes forget that the principles for success are the same as in a traditional media campaign - the brand must be presented most appropriately for the target audience.

A great example was the Old Spice commercial, which started as a popular television ad. People began posting it on YouTube and making comments, creating an opportunity to create viral content. It was done in real time, with people asking questions of the actor in the ad. The agency then published the footage to YouTube. ''It was a very clever way to get people engaged with the brand and using the technology they had available,'' Hall says. The series of Old Spice ads have had nearly 100 million hits on YouTube.

Then there is the massive viral hit associated with the song Gangnam Style by South Korean pop star Psy. It was claimed last week that the song's video had been viewed more than 530 million times since its launch in July. Certainly it has made a worldwide phenomenon of its idiosyncratic star.

Likewise, much non-advertising viral content was never intended to spread like wildfire but did so because it contained the basic elements of successful marketing. The video ''Charlie Bit My Finger'', viewed more than 490 million times, made celebrities of British infants Harry and Charlie Davies-Carr and serious money through merchandise for their parents.

''It was because mums could relate to it,'' Hall says. ''Perhaps it gives reassurance that their kid is like everyone else's. And it's a bit funny, short and sharp. It can be as simple as that.''

Another non-brand-related viral hit was ''Jesus Christ in Richmond Park'', in which the owner of Fenton the labrador screams after the dog, which is chasing a herd of deer in a London park. It's had more than 7.2 million views. It went viral after a TV channel picked up on the 47-second amateur video and produced a news segment, which included starting a search for the dog's owner.

''It's an incredible example of a simple piece of content that has entertainment value and then the mainstream media picks up on it and amplifies it,'' Hall says. ''That news segment would have reached millions of people.''

Other examples of mainstream media catapulting online campaigns were the Catch Kony movement and the award-winning ''The Best Job in the World'' advertisement, which gained worldwide exposure for Tourism Queensland. They show that viral marketing and campaigning come in various guises, keeping creative agencies, organisations and individuals thinking of new ways to engage big audiences in a short time. In marketing, a rough template of how to use new technology to promote products is emerging after a decade or more of seeing which non-brand-related content has gone viral.

''[Creative agencies] can look at a cute or funny video that's spread across Facebook or been viewed a million times on YouTube and work out how to attach a brand to it,'' Coker says. ''But still, they're pretty much working off intuition and guesswork.''

Baxter and Hall concede this is true. They say the basic drivers of people's interest remain constant - love, power, money, sex and popular culture - but the packages in which those ingredients are delivered in advertising will continue to change.

''It used to be set and forget,'' Baxter says. ''Agencies would come up with an idea, shoot it, book media space and wait for the sales to come in. But the viral phenomenon has changed all that. And everyone's playing catch-up.

''No one's an expert in this space. These are living and breathing ideas, which warp and change as they go. It's a great time in media and communications, the most exciting period this industry might ever go through. It's a complete reinvention, powered by technology. It's a once-in-a-millennium occurrence. We're the pioneers.''

Hall says he and his peers ''still can't decide if something's going to go viral or not'', like his successful sports-drink campaign did.

''All we can do is produce the best content we can and, if it's relevant to society and it's intriguing, entertaining and informing, it may get a life of it's own,'' he says.

''The reality is, anyone who claims they're an expert in this area is lying. There's no set prescriptive formula for it. If you find one, I'll buy it off you.''