Viral Marketing. Roughly as Scary as It Sounds.
I recently gave a talk in Seattle on marketing yourself and your children’s book. One aspect of marketing that I failed to address at the time, however, is viral marketing. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, wikipedia temporarily defines it as, "a marketing phenomenon that facilitates and encourages people to pass along a marketing message voluntarily. Viral promotions may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, ebooks, brandable software, images, or even text messages." For example, Cory Doctorow has done a little of it with his new YA novel Little Brother.
Sounds simple enough. Now as odd as this may seem many of my friends from my youth have ended up here in New York working in businesses that often intersect with my own occupation. While in high school I befriended a pair of twins with a penchant for a wacky MacBeth adaptation (It was Banquo behind the murders all along!) and early computer design. The MacBeth thing never quite hit the streets, but by jumping onto computer design early, Don and Mike Citarella have become heavy duty players in the world of website design (amongst other things).
And what do they like to do? They like to spur on viral marketing. Here’s a piece from their company recently that describes work they did with the title Beautiful Children. Clearly you’d want to take a different path when marketing a children’s or YA book, but maybe this will inspire some of you to greater heights of internet marketing. From the era404 website:
Beautiful Children Susceptible to Viral Marketing
era//404 Viral Video Gets Rave Reviews on Gawker, Adrants
Last summer, era//404 was approached by Beautiful Children (2008 Random House) author, Charles Bock , to design and develop an online home for his novel. Upon its launch in November 2007, BeautifulChildren.net steadily grew to become an online portal for fiction readers and newly-found Bock enthusiasts. And while the site created a community for fans of Beautiful Children, it also provides a hub for teenage runaways, victims of the adult film industry, and kids who found themselves needing help, and people to talk to.
The novel, which focuses on the events that lead to a young boy’s disappearance in Las Vegas, follows a stream of inter-connected runaways through casinos, pawn shops, desert punk parties, strip clubs and seedy adult film studios.
"I wanted a site that would be its own world," said author Charles Bock. "A site that supplemented the book and the characters. A place where a visitor would come away convinced this was going to be the coolest novel of all time, where someone could go to learn about the book, and where, at the same time, someone who had read the book could visit and feel like they were getting even more of the world of the novel."
"Charles was quite specific on wanting the site to be more than just a marketing initiative," said era//404 Technical Director, Mike Citarella . "Part of the reason the novel is so important is that it doesn’t sensationalize the runaways’ plight, but opens readers to the harsh reality of the characters’ lives. A site that didn’t provide a community with online friends, outreach links and chat rooms to discuss these issues would go against the book’s values."
era//404 began by developing static storyboards for how the site would look and operate, based on conversations with the client, research from notes provided by the author and answers to the Ten Questions survey they ask all clients when embarking on a new web project. During this initial concepting, the author contacted a number of unsigned bands to feature their music on the different sections of the site.
"Charles wanted to be intimately involved in all aspects of the site’s concepting," said Citarella. "His enthusiasm, talent and feedback played an integral role in the site’s design."
Since its launch, BeautifulChildren.net has attracted thousands of unique visitors that spend time learning about the novel, talking with other fans in the online chat rooms, signing the guestbook and listening to music.
"We weren’t necessarily surprised that the site would gain traction among the target audience," said Creative Director, Don Citarella , "though we hadn’t anticipated how quickly it would grow and the number of users that would regularly access the site and share it with friends. The main challenge of sites like these, beyond building a community of users, is to maintain traffic over long periods."
"Following the initial surge and Beautiful Children becoming a bestseller, Random House wanted to offer the book for free for a three-day period," said Mike Citarella. "We braced for the bandwidth and monitored the views and downloads as users shared the link with friends."
When the free offer was over and the dust settled, the bandwidth clocked in just shy of its quota with over 15,000 downloads. The promotion increased awareness through an unprecedented amount of press and enabled book sales to level off during the following weeks. Traffic to the site, which had been tapering off since the book’s release, also continued to hold strong. But how long after publicity by the publisher and free offer promotions could the site maintain these numbers?
Shortly after beginning the site concepting, with the foresight that traffic would decline over time, era//404 approached Charles Bock about creating a viral marketing initiative.
"Almost any site out there incorporates viral marketing of some sort," said Don Citarella. "Anytime someone browses to a site, they pick up information—good or bad—and react. That, alone, is viral."
"If they choose to email their friends or family, or mention it in a company meeting or at a family dinner, that’s how the marketing effort spreads."
The idea was to highlight a specific chapter of the book, in which Cheri Blossom, one of the main characters, interviews for a pornography studio.
"In this section, Mr. Bock’s gift for making the reader feel helplessly vulnerable really shines through," said Mike Citarella. "You find yourself conflicted between empathy and voyeurism. Bock artfully tears the reader between their own discomfort and curiosity for what happens next. Ultimately, this is the core of the novel."
"Don [Citarella] and I were talking and he brought up the idea of a tryout video," Charles said. "Immediately I was against it, because I thought we’d catch too much flack. But we talked about it, and agreed that if we came up with something that made the viewer complicit, something that was unsettling enough to pull a viewer in further, then a video could be a really effective teaser for the website, which itself is a great vehicle for the novel."
era//404 began by assembling a team whose core competencies would help to fully realize the vision of the viral concept. This involved bringing on members of their Creative Network, including director/editor Greg Stadnik.
"The guys at era//404 were clever enough to tell me I would be working on viral marketing for a book, being published by Random House," jokes Stadnik, "prior to informing me the video would resemble a porn audition.
Bock interviewed a number of actresses that were interested in playing the role of the young runaway’s first encounter with the adult film industry.
"We lucked out in that Dionne Michelle is an amazing, extremely talented actress, and Greg Stadnik knew exactly what we were going for. We shot the video in about two hours."
"Charles is quite the character in his own right," said Stadnik. "He was a pleasure to work with, and was a consummate professional when dealing with Dionne and myself on the set. Dionne is a very talented actress and addressed the subtleties of her role with ease and grace."
As the challenge was to stimulate the viral marketing surreptitiously, it was important for it to grow on its own, without the intervention of era//404 or the author.
The four-minute interview, titled Landey Audition Video , launched on March 12th under the guise of fictional adult film studio Slinky Fox Video (www.slinkyfoxvideo.com). With only a few minor pushes to public message boards and chat rooms, the developers were careful to not directly correlate the interview with the novel, author or publisher.
"Working with era//404 on this was an amazing and surprisingly easy experience," said Bock. "I think their implementation of the video — via the design of the Slinky Fox website, the links, and the credits box explaining everything — was ingenious. Through every facet of the process, they continually blew my mind."
Within a month of its launch, with shared links and views steadily growing, the video was picked up by Gawker (Audience seeks Sex, Gets Book Instead) and AdRants (That Hot Chick is Also a Human Being) and the traffic exploded.
"It was back to monitoring and increasing bandwidth," said Mike Citarella. "The site exceeded the bandwidth quota, yet again. When faced with the alternative (minimal to no traffic), this is a good problem to have."
In the four months since the initial launch, said era//404, the server had exceeded bandwidth quotas twice. The initial limit was set at 10GB/month and increased to 50GB during the free download promotion. Upon the launch of the viral video and a second bandwidth outage, the site had to be moved to a dedicated server with a quota of 100GB of bandwidth to allow for the site’s massive amount of traffic.
In his Gawker post, Hamilton Nolan said: "In this competitive publishing environment, you need book promotions that are really HOT…This is truly forward-thinking strategic marketing."
Steve Hall , of AdRants , said: "We’ve seen a lot of videos used to promote all sorts of things… This is one of the best. One could argue it’s just another trashy sex-sells piece of crap but one would be wrong. The content of the video is directly related to what’s pitched at the end of the video and it’s wonderfully done. This work comes from a category that’s seen an astounding improvement in terms of what it’s done to promote its products over the past few years. It’s like they all woke up one day and realized, damn, there’s more to this advertising thing than small space, black and white newspaper ads."
"Reactions to the video run the gamut," says Bock. "People are shocked. They’re creeped out. But it sucks them in. Most of my friends who saw it the first time sent in emails — the first sentence says how disturbing it was, and the second says how brilliant it is. The goal was to get college-aged and post-collegiate males interested in the novel. But we’re also getting a ton of hits from people in the advertising and creative worlds, who check out the video to see just what we’ve done and this crazy world we’ve created."
According to the site’s statistics software, during the next three days, almost every single major advertising agency in the United States watched the video and continued to the web site. On more than one occasion, agencies spent 1-3+ hours browsing through the site and video content.
The video reignited enthusiasm for the novel and online community created by BeautifulChildren.net and further reaffirms era//404’s beliefs in serving the online audience rich media and innovative ways to appreciate popular culture.
"It’s wonderful to work with clients that are open to new and ground-breaking ideas like BeautifulChildren.net and the viral video," said Mike Citarella. "When they really embrace the idea that the web can do and be anything they can imagine, take risks and collaborate to explore new ways of promoting their services and businesses, that’s the most exhilarating part of what we do."
Creative Director, Don Citarella, a guest lecturer with The School of Visual Arts and Communication Arts (Insights 2005) interviewee, consistently promotes the value of viral marketing disguised as irrelevant content. "It used to be a Field of Dreams situation," said Citarella. "’If you built it, people would come’. Now, in the competitive online landscape, you have to be more innovative to attract audiences. You target people emotionally—for better or worse—and hope they react. At the very least, if they remember it, you’ve done your job."
"I would highly recommend others to work with era//404 on viral marketing initiatives," said Stadnik. "They take a unique approach in using the latest technology, across various platforms, to best achieve both creative and effective results."
"I honestly could not be happier with era//404 and the work they’ve done for me," said Bock. "What impressed me most about the process is the fact that these guys are pretty much geniuses at what they do, and at the same time they are patient with people who aren’t exactly internet savvy, and are also open to creative feedback on their work. I can’t imagine working with better, more professional, more excellent people."
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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