If you google a few terms like Sony Viral Video Backlash you’ll find out what happens when marketers try to use the participants of a social network, instead of just trying to harness the network.
I once organized a charity Walk-a-Thon on Facebook, and I got to see what happens when you use a network, instead of its participants.
What’s the difference? Transparency. Participation implies consent, and when marketers try to trick people into doing their advertising for them, bad things ensue.
Sony’s example, the old “All I want for xmas is a PSP” debacle, emphasizes that when you try to fool people, and they find out (which they will), you turn your target market against you.
So, what if you want to use the viral properties of the Internet, without angering your target demographic?
Participants in Microsoft’s “I Love Bees” alternate reality game (ARG), advertising for Halo 2, knew what they were getting themselves into. Almost immediately, the connection between the ARG and its subject were revealed. They knew that their fervor for a product was just that — excitement over a product. But they were okay with it, because its means (a fun game) justified its end (hype for a video game).
Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero ARG followed the same route. Interestingly enough, according to Wikipedia, 42 Entertainment produced both ARGs. NiN’s campaign was transparent from the start. The album itself was the starting point for the game, with leaked tracks and album art kicking it off.
So, clearly, the people involved in the campaign, the users who spread the word about the game, knew what they were doing. And yet they did it anyway.
Remember the Futurama episode “The Why of Fry”? When Nibbler asked Fry why he was suddenly so reluctant to save the world, even though it involved getting to see the future, getting to be the person he’d always wanted to be, and getting to fit in, Fry said: “Because I don’t like being used.”
Even if people want to have fun, even if people don’t mind advertising for products and spreading the word, there’s one thing no one likes: Being used. Especially when they’re being used by huge corporations.
The successful Walk-a-Thon. I Love Bees. Year Zero. The similarity?
Tell people what they’re going to be doing and they’ll do it. If it’s interesting. If it’s fun. If it’s for a good cause.
Trick someone into doing something, trick someone into advertising, and you’ll alienate the very people you’d counted on to spread the word about your product. Your core audience.
Try to use viral marketing poorly and you’ll turn your fans against you.
Is there anything worse?