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When Viral Doesn't Work

Paul Steinbrueck, CEO of, was pretty jazzed about his AIDS Clickathon idea – like a walkathon, except people click and sponsors donate to a home for orphaned African Children – and he thought it was the perfect basis for a viral Internet campaign.
Editor’s Note: There’s been a lot of hype around viral marketing, but it is one of those concepts that is difficult to execute. It’s bipolar, even, down in the depths or high as a kite. We’re looking for a robust discussion about effective techniques, what to avoid, and whether some topics are too heavy to float. Let us know what you think at WebProWorld, or in the comments section.

A short time and shorter amount of money later, Paul’s trying to understand what went wrong.

Paul set a goal of raising $50,000 for missionary friends of his who were to set out for Africa to build the orphanage – and what a sad state for a large cluster of children, to find themselves alone in the world as AIDS ravaged their parents.

But maybe that was a little heavy, Paul wonders. Maybe we’ve grown used to sad video footage of the starving and destitute. Maybe Internet users (when surfing, not necessarily in everyday life) are still too self-serving and utilitarian, looking to fill their own needs online.

Maybe Bono was too busy with his own AIDS in Africa campaign (Paul did try to contact Bono’s One Campaign, but never received a response). Or maybe he didn’t set up his campaign right. After 15 weeks, the AIDS Clickathon collected just $1500.
And so, Paul is losing faith in social marketing. “I’m undecided about how successful a viral campaign like this can be,” he told WebProNews. “We did it in conjunction with the viral marketing competition on Andy Beal’s site. That was done in the hopes that the people who cover viral marketing would pick it up.”

Sorry we missed you, Paul. The Web is an easy place to get yourself lost in.

Steinbrueck’s strategy is easy enough to find on Marketing Pilgrim. He outlines it with 12 different focus points that include search, blogging, posting video on YouTube, submitting to Digg, directories, sending press releases, emailing friends, setting up the website, soliciting links from related sites and forums, and setting up a MySpace profile.

The AIDS Clickathon MySpace page currently has 66 friends – not nearly enough to raise some serious green. Barack Obama’s MySpace page hauled thousands of friends in a matter of months.

But just 66 people cared enough to make a few clicks (that’s all it was really, they weren’t asking for money directly)? So what gives?

Paul’s main theory is that it was too heavy a subject. It may be that viral marketing doesn’t work if the subject matter isn’t “funny or outrageous,” as Steinbrueck put it. He took his concerns to our WebProWorld forum to seek advice, with an admission that he made mistakes from launch that may have affected the outcome.

“Doing it right the first time matters,” he said. “When you first kick off a viral campaign, the biggest supporters are people you know. And it depends on a lot of people picking up the ball and running with it.”

Even that WPW post had viral elements, posing humorous analogies beginning with “Viral marketing is like…,” and fill in your favorite. My favorite was “Viral marketing is like Sanjaya’s hair. Sometimes things are popular because they stand out not because they’re good.”

Indeed they are. The forum presented their theories with little real consensus other than sometimes viral just doesn’t work.

So let’s conclude this case study with an invitation to our readers to drop into the WebProWorld forum, or into the comments section on WebProNews (which we in the news room are affectionately – okay, sometimes begrudgingly – calling “the water cooler.”

Maybe a robust discussion of Paul’s campaign and what went wrong will be a great learning opportunity.

About the Author:
Jason Lee Miller is a WebProNews editor and writer covering business and technology.

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