The New Gold Rush: Viral Content

AS MARKETERS scramble to mine the “consumer-generated content” boom many will soon discover that while there is some gold in them there hills, only a few brands will be enriched by their efforts.

Chevy Tahoe is the most recent example of a marketer looking to capitalize on the idea. Their new Web site, ( /index_ca.php) gives consumers an easy way to create a Chevy Tahoe commercial. Consumers are invited to enter their creation in a contest and to send their video to a friend. What Chevy Tahoe quickly learned is that if you put the consumer in the driver seat sometimes they will crash the car. Various environmental groups had a field day with the content creating clever anti-SUV videos that have been played over and over again on

Fortunately, it seems that Chevy anticipated some negative ads and as of this moment is not planning on taking the site down. This form of marketing is not for the feint of heart. Rather than backing down, Chevy would be smarter to circulate some of the better ads consumers have created thus far, crank out a couple funny faux ads for and even engage in a dialogue with the environmental groups. Doing all this will be proof positive Chevy “gets it”.

Given the flack Chevy is taking from the press, one might then ask why would any marketer risk ceding control of their brand to the consumer? The answer: the spoils of marketing warfare go to the brave of heart. Cutting through requires taking chances, doing something noteworthy.
One reward is that the consumer creator will do the marketers’ work taking the brand in a wonderfully original direction that captivates the media and ultimately millions of other consumers, at a relatively low cost. This has certainly been the case with Burger King, as online viral activity helped further reinforce the King as a media celebrity. Even the Chevy Tahoe situation may ultimately pay out from the millions of free PR impressions that should help keep Tahoe top-of-mind.

That said, marketers who expect consumers to “play nice” will be deeply disappointed and must be prepared for their content to be used illicitly, as was the case with BK’s King, who found himself in various pornographic situations. The emerging genre of online viral videos is dominated by consumer cynicism and comedy. We all love the quick laughs provided by funny clips. Marketers who provide earnest content generally don’t find much of a viral following so they can assume the consumer will take images and twist them to their cynical worst. If this poses too much risk, marketers can simply control the submission process.

Moreover, a built-in screening process will not necessarily dilute the effectiveness of these programs. Converse sneakers, for example, promises that the best consumer-generated ads will be posted on its Web site, and some might even air on TV. For the creative community, it’s become a badge of honor, and a portfolio showcase, to have an ad featured in the Converse
Gallery. Similarly, Mercedes asks “proud owners” to submit snapshots of themselves next to their car, with the promise that a select few will be featured in a print campaign. In both examples, the marketer remains in control by offering an incentive for the consumer to play nice with the

Unfortunately, the very profusion of consumer-generated content programs could spell the tactics’ downfall. Consider for a moment that Converse, Adidas, Chevy, Mercedes, Mazda, Burger King and Coors Light have all created programs that call on their customers to create imagery of some kind. Hundreds of other marketers are undoubtedly cooking up their own versions as you read this. Their hyper-activity springs from the logic that if you let the consumer create the content, they will demonstrate their appreciation for a particular brand and share that affection with others.
This is all happening now because of the timely convergence of expansive broadband access, easy-to-use software for manipulating images/video, a growing class of highly creative people and sites that host such content (like YouTube) and the proliferation of e-mail.

Given this nexus of media, messenger and momentum, the promise of striking it rich with a successful viral initiative is just too tempting to ignore. Marketers will succeed when they figure out how to put consumers in the driver’s seat—and let them have their way in a fresh and engaging manner without totaling the car.


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