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Do social media sites and brands really want to use viral marketing?

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The dream of many marketers is to achieve the phenomenon known as "going viral". Meaning, your created content gets spread so fast around the internet that it's like a virus circulating around a community. But is going viral really beneficial to your bottom line? Is having your content shared by millions and millions of people actually profitable?

Most likely, no, and here's why.

One of the most used examples of viral marketing being NOT beneficial to your business is 2013's hottest viral company of the year: Kmart. Kmart has dominated the social media scene, more specifically, YouTube, all year with hilarious viral ads like "Ship My Pants", "Big Gas Savings", and most recently, "Show Us Your Joe".

All three of these advertisements have reached over 5,000,000 views on YouTube, and benefited by being edgy and controversial as well. But over the past year, Kmart has seen a decline in sales.

But how is that possible? Their brand exposure must be significantly up, correct? Well, no.

Commercials, in traditional media or on social media, are tough. Balancing entertainment, message, and brand implementation is a difficult challenge. If it were so easy, then advertising agencies would be out of a job. Brands would just create their own commercials, and business would boom automatically. But they don't, because, like I said, the delicate balance of branding, entertainment, and purpose is a skill.

Here are three reasons why Kmart exposes the problems with viral marketing:

We had a laugh and now we're done.

One of the biggest problems with Kmart's viral ads, and most viral ads, is that they are so funny that we forget , or quit caring, about what we're watching. For instance, with Kmart and their inaugural "Ship My Pants" foray into viral videos, the Kmart logo, or mention of Kmart doesn't come into the video until :28 into a 35-second video. And, by that time, we're so busy laughing at the simple pun that we don't really care what is being shipped, or by whom. In other words, the message and branding gets lost, or pushed aside, by the primary desire to be funny.

Bright stars burn and die.

In the pay-for-content market, smart journalists know that top news stories get the hits, but evergreen articles pay the bills. Content that's continuously educational and informational only grows over time, like an evergreen tree. Top news lasts only until the next big hit comes along. The same concept rings true for viral ads. Viral content is only the best content out there, until the next best content comes along. After that, viral content has little-to-no residual value. Like a star, it shines bright, fades, then dies.

If you are aiming for fame, you better be prepared to handle it.

One of the biggest complaints of Kmart and their viral videos is that the store doesn't match the brand message. Their viral videos are edgy, cool, and hip, but walk into a Kmart store and it appears it's just business as usual. The same old "blue light specials", aisles half filled with random items, and the same old and stale feel that has hindered Kmart over the past few years.

Conversely, to bring up a brand that is doing something right, look at Applebees. They've launched viral campaigns like #CallTheShots: a cross-medium promotional campaign that involves the customer. They've focused on combining their social success with traditional media to promote their "cooler" image, and they've redesigned their stores to align with this brand image. Just take a look inside an Applebees these days and you'll see the same branding, hometown restaurant feel, but with a slightly cooler look.

The change is simple, subtle, and effective. It doesn't make a huge leap and alienate long-term customers, but it does still attract a new demographic.

And the result has been in an increase in sales.

Don't get me wrong, I am bashing Kmart somewhat in this article, but this is not solely a Kmart issue. The carrot of getting millions of views has dangled in front of marketers for years, and many have taken the bait and aimed for viral. But advertisements have always been about branding and consistency; getting your message and your brand ingrained into the minds of consumers.

Bottom line is: viral videos may be good for hits, but you have to make sure you don't sacrifice the long-term message.

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