Viral Marketing: How Online Reputation Spreads (Part I)

As the driving force behind the revival of the Batman franchise and the recent blockbuster Inception, Christopher Nolan has cemented his place as a household name.  One of his most notable trademarks has been the large viral marketing campaigns for both The Dark Knight and Inception which created enormous buzz in the months leading to their respective releases.  Despite its place as a buzzword, many people have difficulty understanding what viral marketing actually is.

The first thing to understand about viral marketing is that it is comprised of two separate and distinct components.  You can have marketing without it being viral, and content can be viral without being marketing.  In order to be viral, the content has to be passed from person to person.  If you create a website that a bunch of people visit, it’s popular, but it doesn’t really count as viral unless it’s being shared and advertised by other people.  Digg is a great example of capitalizing on this idea; they basically collect a bunch of links, and allow people to rate them.  The more people that rate a website highly, the more attention it gets, and therefore exponentially more people are likely to see it.

Marketing, on the other hand, is at its core a call to action.  It encourages you to buy a product, use a service, see a movie, or otherwise do something.  All ad campaigns are predicated on this; otherwise, what would be the point?  Viral marketing is the marriage between the two: a call to action that’s spread via word of mouth (and Twitter and e-mail and forums and Facebook, etc.)

For as many viral marketing success stories as there are, there are many failures as well.  For the most part, virality actually is not difficult to do.  The problem largely stems from the content side; if you have something boring or uninteresting, it will typically get a proportional response.

The Dark Knight did not suffer from this problem.  Nolan made some basic assumptions and ran with them.  When it comes to superheroes, particularly one as famous as Batman, there is already a large fanbase, and Nolan wasted no time engaging them.  In 2007, Nolan kicked things off with the website WhySoSerious.com, and slowly began adding content to it.  As Halloween came around, they started a game where you had to take a picture of yourself, family, and friends in front of the most famous landmark in your city in exchange for “something”.  They were vague on what that something was (it turned out to be the Gotham Times).  At least 13 more sites came online with games involving descrambling text messages, clues to set your computers time to a certain time to open a vault with more teasers, etc.

In conjunction with a more traditional marketing campaign of videos, cut scenes, posters, and memorable taglines, Nolan effectively engaged his audience for months leading up to the movie.  Compared to the traditional trailer and movie posters, the marketing success was impressive.  The Dark Knight was tossed around Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, IM, text, and message boards just to name a few of the media involved, drawing attention all the way up to it’s launch date with weeks of packed theaters and ultimately to it’s spot as the 6th highest grossing film of all time.

Part II of Viral Marketing – How personal branding combined with viral marketing has launched books, TV series, and major motion pictures.

About Holden Fenner

Holden Fenner is a recent graduate of Syracuse University's School of Information Studies (also known as the iSchool to those with a particular attraction to the lower-case vowel that seems to precede all technology these days). He is currently a blogger for Brand-Yourself and also a freelance geek in his spare time.