My Other Life as a Viral Narrative Marketer

Last week put me a bit behind on publishing to ReveNews, as I was buried in my other life as consultant helping marketers with interactive viral narrative techniques, a style we’ve been utilizing for years. One of those recent campaigns for ad firm Wieden+Kennedy’s client SEGA generated alot of attention for the technique (and picked the campaign up Grand and Gold CLIO Awards, a Gold Pencil, a Gold Award from the Art Directors’ Club, a Silver Andy and two Yahoo! Big Idea awards.) These ideas in marketing aren’t new to us, and these days we aren’t the only ones exploring them either, but interactive marketers are still stumbling around a bit trying to understand “viral marketing” let alone the specific narrative versions of those techniques we practice. Which is why I plan to blog more about the approach here at ReveNews, starting with the 30,000-foot overview of the technique I use to educate advertising and public relations firms.


The Viral Narrative Technique

Storytelling is an inherent and natural behavior of people in every culture and time period, wired into our genes as social creatures at an instinctual level. As the marketing environment becomes more and more cluttered, and as consumers’ personal and technological filters become increasingly more sophisticated at separating “advertising” from “content,” adopting narrative forms of marketing that rely upon this propensity for storytelling offer new opportunities for reaching and, most of all, engaging an audience effectively.

When these narrative techniques are utilized in a networked online environment, they can engage people not just as an audience to the story, but as storytellers themselves, repeating and spreading a story to others in the same way that legends, myths and rumors spread in non-networked environments (but at a far accelerated pace unhindered by the limits of geography.) Utilizing this dual quality of inherent storytelling — the fascination with a good story (especially one still on-going) and the natural desire to repeat that story to others — is the core of the technique we call “viral narrative”.

When applied to marketing efforts, viral narrative approaches synthesize with direct brand messaging via public relations or marketing by embedding product and brand into the story, or by making the product the story, or by using the story to shape opinion and connect with the audience that the marketer desires as potential consumers. Ultimately, the story serves to plant questions in the consumers’ minds … questions that are answered by the traditional marketing effort (thereby creating a greater receptiveness to these traditional efforts by defusing the content/advertising filters.)

How Viral Narrative Fits Into the Marketing Mix

Viral narrative marketing is not a replacement for traditional marketing or public relations efforts. Instead, it is an effective parallel channel of marketing that synthesizes with the traditional efforts (feeding upon their efforts as well as amplifying their effectiveness.) A viral narrative campaign relies first and foremost on a sense of mystery, eliciting the desire to “poke deeper” and “find out more” through the classic techniques that make good narrative flow work. Overt direct messaging of brand works against this technique when it interrupts that flow, but works well with this technique when it is integrated.

Because of the slower geometric growth of viral campaigns, integrating the effort with traditional marketing approaches helps to accelerate the campaign’s rush towards the “tipping point” of broad consumer reach. After this tipping point, viral campaigns reverse their role (attracting natural attention and pass-thru and refocusing that traffic flow back to the more traditional product marketing vehicles.) Using the traditional buy, earlier in the campaign, to “push” people towards the viral narrative pays off in marketing dividends later, when the narrative causes consumers to “pull” the traditional marketing to them (rather than viewing that marketing as an intrusive presence that should be filtered out.)

Unique Benefits of Viral Narrative Marketing

  • Defusing of “Advertising Filters”

    In the age of TiVos, ad blockers, spam and advertising clutter, media virii (as viral marketing techniques) trigger the mental response of “content” rather than “advertising”. This produces a seeking out (“pull”) of these marketing messages by the consumer, rather than a view of the campaign as an intrusion on their attention.

  • High Repeat Visitation vs. One Time Curiosity

    For most web marketing efforts, “the click” (by whatever means it might be generated online) produces a narrow window of attention from the consumer during which your marketing message can be delivered. Using narrative marketing techniques, consumers’ curiosity (and desire to “see what happens next”) becomes a leverageable asset for repeat visitations — extending the opportunity for brand messaging beyond that one click for weeks or months to come.

  • Longer “Stick Times” Produces Deeper Mind Share

    Like a good novel, an engaging conversation, or an intriguing broadcast, viral narrative techniques extend the amount of time and the depth of exploration that a consumer spends on a website, described in web statistics as “stick times” (the amount of time that a visitor spends on a website during a session.) Content and community web destinations produce much deeper stick times that product marketing websites, and adopting that strategy as part of the marketing mix allows the development of deeper “mind share” by extending the time of each visit from a quick one-minute browse to a deep read lasting as long as 15-30 minutes per session in some of our previous campaigns.

  • Stimulating Consumer-to-Consumer Marketing

    Whether you conceptualize of it as buzz, word-of-mouth, or spontaneous evangelism, the depth, uniqueness and novelty of viral narrative marketing encourages consumers to spread word of the campaign — through email forwards, discussion group threads, personal “blog” references and via “real life” conversations — to other potential consumers. This valuable asset carries a high degree of responsiveness (since recommendations of “you should check this out” from friends, colleagues and trusted sources are far more effective than traditional marketing) and propagation (since “cross fertilizers” in community spaces and extended networks in social settings can grow small seeds of referrals into broader natural recommendation efforts.)

About Brian Clark

Brian Clark of GMDStudios (http://www.gmdstudios.com/)

Website: http://

3 Responses to My Other Life as a Viral Narrative Marketer

  1. Brian,

    Fascinating article. Can you recommend some good books that explore these techniques for newcomers?

  2. Ramit Sethi says:

    Check out Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus.

    John Jantsch also has a great site (www.referralflood.com) that uses the similar principles. He just calls it referral marketing and focuses on small businesses.

  3. Brian Martin says:

    the tipping point by Malcom Gladwell. check it out