Viral Reality

by Per Zennström

For a long time now I have been intrigued by the work of Studio Total and their work in communication, PR and advertising and especially their unconventional and highly successful methods using viral marketing and/or guerrilla campaigns. Recently I had the privilege to be Skyping with Per Eriksson from Studio Total on the realities of the New Media and I asked him do tell me more about their work.

“We don´t see ourselves as a typical advertising, or typical PR agency or even Marketing bureau for that matter. In fact we quite enjoy or somewhat diffuse position on this playing field, which gives us great freedom to do pretty much what we want”

“We as an agency are constantly trying to find out what we actually are, and we´re therefore constantly re-defining what we are. One of our main realizations and strong points is that we have truly understood, and acted upon, the fact that a lot of traditional advertising is a massive waste of the clients resources. There are countless of “non-traditional” ways of getting Your message across which have proven to be more effective (and more fun) and we tend to explore those avenues. I guess the keyword here is “effectivness” We see ourselves and our solutions as being very, very effective”

I came across Per and Studio Total through the very popular blog Black Ascot which shot to prominence and controversy in Sweden in just 4 short months and with just 100 posts managed to illuminate the creativeness, confusion and general “anything goes” attitude in todays frenzied new media landscape. Not so very long ago it was revealed that the blog, chronicling the life of an orphaned teenager, Erika, living in the Stockholm equivalent of Upper-East Side, in an apartment with “750 dresses and doing my best to drink/shop my brains out” was in fact an advertising campaign for the Malmö Opera’s production “Vanessa” seeking to “expand their audience beyond the obvious core loyalists
The blog with it’s hedonistic and sometimes very dark streaks, featured “Erika”, a privileged Stockholm teenager doing what a lot of young, urban women do… Postings of “todays outfit”, documenting sloppy kissing and casual sex and hang-overs, mixed with images of white lilies and the descriptions of the smell of certain perfumes… Other posts deals with popular drugs, what wine tastes best with semen, (Trimbach Gewurztraminer Selection de Grains Nobles) and references to certain boyfriends new Dior Hommes pants. Name-, and label dropping on a very high level with that sort of expertise that only a certain media/pop-cultural/Stockholm elite possesses. All of it done with an absolute deadpan arrogance and delicious morbidity…

“Erika”, quickly developed a cult following with her observations and musings on fashion, sex, upper-class life and death, (sex, drugs & rock´n roll) and for me being a visual person I was jealously realizing the power of a text well written. Some of the comments revealed a deep connection with this character, firmly in place on the dark side… Reading the comments I couldn’t help fantasizing that maybe some of them actually come from the writer’s team responsible for the blog, they were just to perfectly, lazily lingering over sensual details like the type of silk best used while masturbating. … or languidly examining dildos in a sex-shop.
Per, reflecting on the cult following Erika attracted (Erika Ascot has at present 1601 Facebook friends) and the unusual intense relationship she spawned:

“One of my favorite blog comments from a reader was “ I don’t care that You’re not real ! I still want to have sex with You”

Once it was revealed that this was not a “real” blog some readers felt cheated that Erika was “just an” invention by a “lowly” PR agency. The teenage-angst ridden content had obviously put a hook in a lot of readers and some of them felt “betrayed” I assume. Fuming, moralistic “You cannot do this” type comments where mixed in with glowing “Thank You´s” I found it very interesting thing to see how readers struggled to make sense of something they couldn’t quite understand… OK, You know an ad when You see one and we all have gotten fed up by the endless ad´s on TV, but a blog ?

Erika, perfectly well aware of it, stuck her neck out, especially in Sweden with it’s political correctness and wall-to-wall-carpeted uniformity, with posts like:

The European nobility. Seems nowadays everyone wants to join our little club. Some guidelines: spend at least one fifth of each year in a place beginning with “St” (At Anton, St Tropez) and if you are vomiting from panic anxiety, do it in matching underwear.” Of course this wouldn’t go un-noticed. …or how about this one:

“Two new years resolutions. Stop fucking people in Acqua Di Parma and start blogging”

Consulting a prime example of this new (media) world order, Wikipedia on Viral Marketing, You get this definition:

…viral marketing and viral advertising refer to marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of pathological and computer viruses. It can be word-of-mouth delivered or enhanced by the network effects of the Internet.[1] Viral promotions may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, adver -games, e-books, brand able software, images, or even text messages. The basic form of viral marketing is not infinitely sustainable. The goal of marketers interested in creating successful viral marketing programs is to identify individuals with high Social Networking Potential (SNP) and create Viral Messages that appeal to this segment of the population and have a high probability of being taken by another competitor.”

Now, viral marketing is nothing new, actually quite the contrary. Your basic Ponzi- and Pyramid schemes are very early examples of viral phenomenon where “a message” is spread from user to user, just like a viral infection. Super con-man Bernie Maddoff relied on this word of mouth effect to expand his rooster of seemingly happy investors… Some more recent pop-cultural examples are the marketing of The Blair Witch Project or the launching of email giant Hotmail. … or just take hugely popular CraigsList which managed to spread solely on the basis of word of mouth. What is new is the enormous power and potential in using all the new social media such as the obvious ones: YouTube, Facebook or LinkedIn, to more specialized, “less open/more focused” networks such as Vimeo (if Your into moving image / video) or Glossom “a social network for fashion style and creativity”, and to use these networks to virally spread the word.

Curtis Silver wrote this in Wired Magazine:

“The power of influence is ever present in this discussion, which is what social media tools add to viral marketing. The crowd mentality is heavier within a social-media community, which makes it easier for viral marketing to do its job. Honestly, it seems like marketing through social media is the new form of viral marketing. That’s the wave of the future in marketing, a new and improved marketing platform.”

Another successful campaign by Studio Total was the highly controversial launch of a new political party, Kulturpartiet ( The Cultural Party.) Announced at the annual political show-off and spectacle , Almedals veckan, where the absolute politico – cultural – media elite grandstand and network, the press conference headed by some of the swedish cultural heavy-weights, who with absolute perfect pokerfaces deadpanned into the TV lights that they intended to run for seats in parlament on a one-issue-campaign of more money for culture ! For a few intense days the speculations and media pressure was enormous until it was revealed that this again was an effort by Studio Total to gain some publicity for Riksteatern.

At some point in a viral campaign the creators need to accept that they give up control of the message and let it live it’s own life, changing and going through “mutations” as it’s being passed on word-of-mouth, or through the social media networks. This is a radical difference to a more conventional campaign where everything is researched in minute detail with focus groups, test panels and what have You…

Now, it may seem like the successful Viral Campaigns are created by a bunch of guys just goofing around, coming up with funny and outragous things that gets taped and uploaded on You Tube and subsequently passed around and at some stage reaching a tipping point but some rules seem to exist and there seems to be a method to the madness and anarchy:
When You talk about anything Viral it’s easy to get the impression that it’s a little bit like the Wild West !
I mean like “anything goes” and creative’s relying on their gut feeling to put strategies together
Or are there theories, procedures or protocols to follow ? How do You see this ?

To get the media attention in order to get people to talk about your brand it’s difficult to rely on theories. We’ll have to rely on our sense for what catches peoples interest.
The structure of stories is in one sense theoretical as constructed in classic literature and film and that might work as a theory that we could apply. We use basic story elements as finding an enemy, moving things around in order to create something new or not trying to blend in by looking good. Since we cannot predict exactly what part of our campaigns that will be retold we need to keep them simple. People aren’t stupid, if you interrupt them with a story that isn’t relevant or clearly speculative you will not get the viral effect. Anything goes applies better for traditional advertising where you don’t have to earn the attention.

At some point in a viral campaign the creators need to accept that they give up control of the message and let it live it’s own life, changing and going through “mutations” as it’s being passed on word-of-mouth, or through the social media networks. This is a radical difference to a more conventional campaign where everything is researched in minute detail with focus groups, test panels and what have You…
Any thought comments on this ?

We haven’t experienced problems with messages that mutates in a bad way. If you think of your campaign as a headline in a newspaper, for example as our iPod speaker for Brothers – the WOS, the headlines was “The worlds most powerful iPod dock” and this was what people told each other and our client Brothers was there in the background as the manufacturer of WOS. In general we launch our campaigns in many different channels at the same time and this probably help to keep the campaigns together. In combination with a simple story I don’t see the risk of bad mutations as a problem when working viral. You’ll just have to accept that when using people for getting your story out it will be re-told in slightly different ways, but a simple story will keep on course.

… on the same thread about losing control.
Are You guys more about a “Happy Creative Chaos” or is it more a disciplined war-like campaign effort with flow charts etc etc ?

We’re not flow-charts guys, thats for sure. Not to say that there’s chaos in the office but a certain amount of improvisation is needed when launching our campaigns.

There seems to exist some rules to viral marketing like:
A successful viral campaign…
…gives away products or services, (Free)
…provides for effortless transfer to others, (the digital / mobile lifestyle)
…scales easily from small to very large
…exploits common motivations and behaviors,
…utilizes existing communication networks, (Social Media)
…takes advantage of others’ resources, (Let the consumer / prosumer do the heavy lifting)

Do You follow these rules, or is it done by gut feeling ?

Of course the presence of social media helps certain campaigns to evolve. The rules above might describe parts of a successful viral campaign but it will not necessarily help you create one. In order to fulfill all the rules above you’ll have to start out with something that’s worth telling. Once you’ve got this you can utilize social media and other means to get the story out. Focus on what matters, the story.

Please tell me more about the concept of, the strategy of, and the actual release of KULTURPARTIET (the Cultural Party) ?
Have seen the press conference tapes and the chaos and pandemonium is total… Fun or scary ?

Haha, a bit of both I must say. The mission was to help The Swedish National Theatre (Sweden’s largest theatre, with a turnover of more than 40 million euros) to get the cultural issues on the political agenda. Theaters need public funding. How could we show the importance of culture to politicians?
The conclusion was that everyone wants to get attention from politicians. So why not become politicians? We put together our own political party and baptized it “The Cultural Party” and invited famous writers, actors and musicians as spokespersons. Our fake party was featured as headline news in TV, radio and newspapers. A newspaper poll indicated that 16% of the population would vote for the party. After revealing the party was only an advertising hoax the chairmen of all the political parties liked the campaign (easy to say when the threat was gone). As a secondary effect the theater experienced a 10% increase in ticket sales that summer.

… as always more at 10.horses