Recently I found out about the dangers of the internet. A friend posted what seemed like an innocuous Facebook status asking a question about foot care. I replied out of genuine concern. Sadly for me, it was a trap, the status was, as explained in the message he sent me, one of several that were part of a viral game. The rules to that game were simple: if you commented on one of these trap statuses, you then had to choose one of the statuses given and post it on your profile. The surprising part was that the viral game with a collection of funny statuses was apparently a campaign to raise awareness about breast cancer.
How could a Facebook status about foot care or acquiring a new possession or finding an animal etc. be possibly linked to breast cancer? Where was the social message or the call to action? The only time breast cancer was mentioned was when he told me and when I in turn inboxed the same message to the friends I trapped with my own status.
As a marketer I have been partly amused and mostly disappointed by the viral efforts to raise awareness about this deadly disease over the years. There have been haphazard efforts to create social media awareness – I am sure many will recall that phenomenon of women posting statuses about colours some years ago. This trend also went viral along with women commenting and enjoying the inside ‘joke’.
Finally the cloud of confusion was somewhat lifted when we were informed that this seemingly eccentric behaviour was actually a viral, although in my view it was an ineffective campaign to raise awareness about breast cancer. Women were posting the colour of their bras. That having been said, this was still a better connect to the communication message than the game my friend played.
Recently in Pakistan people were posting statuses about suicide which also went viral: “Could at least three of my Facebook friends please copy and re-post (not share) this? We're trying to demonstrate that someone is always listening. #SuicideAwareness.”
No, for as I found out, when my friend Neil Christy posted a cynical status about the trend and it turned out that people sharing the post had forgotten an important element: the phone number of a Lahore-based health awareness society: +92 42 3587 1930 (this happened in the U.S. as well.)
So in their eagerness to contribute (or desire to fit in), people were actually blindly following each other and in reality not achieving the campaign objective of sharing the number. The campaign went viral but it achieved nothing of worth in ROI or social change.
Marketers chasing after virality are falling into a trap, just like I did with my friend’s status. In the same way that there is hardly any connection between the game and breast cancer, ill planned and effectively executed campaigns that get WOM have little or no connection to lasting ROI. Interestingly my friend’s status was put up in November. Yet, the month of November is dedicated to prostate cancer awareness while October is dedicated to breast cancer awareness. So I was also confused as to why a game designed (I use the word loosely) to raise awareness about breast cancer was played during a month dedicated to raise awareness about prostate cancer.
You may be surprised to learn that prostate cancer is a disease that is more prevalent than breast cancer but receives less media and social media interest, even among men and even in our male dominated world governments. More men suffer let alone die from prostate cancer than women suffer or die from breast cancer and in most cases, prostate cancer is treatable.
Could it be that in some morbid way breast cancer awareness is more glamorous? Or perhaps no one bothered to look closely at the stats and question the status quo just like a gleeful brand manager being seduced by the allure of virality and believing he or she has achieved something of worth. Or like me being lulled in to a sense of security and commenting on my friend’s status.
So what should marketers work towards rather than virality? In my view, it’s simple and relatable communication that informs and causes a change in behaviour. One of my favourite ad campaigns is from Macedonia. It relates to testicular cancer. Using local insights, the campaign asked men to check their eggs (Macedonian slang for testes). And yes you guessed it, they advertised on eggs (the line ‘Be bold. Check them.’ was stamped on eggs sold in local markets), as well as other mediums.
This campaign was effective not because it went viral or received free publicity but because it was based on insight and consumer understanding. This for me is a better formula for success than virality and the games people play on the internet.
Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org