Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Viral Marketing Offers Risks, Rewards - Foiled by Google

Greenberg wrote with a bit of a guilty conscience, since in one sense it was his story that killed the buzz campaign – and he thought it was a good one too. He’d written an item about an ad and web campaign for MTD Products Cadet Cub riding mowers. The web campaign talks about a fictional kudzu-like strain of grass “that has reportedly begun taking over several states. Per the story, this grass grows several inches per day and defies nearly every effort to cut it,” explains Greenberg.

There’s no one web site devoted to the ad campaign, as there is for the Subservient Chicken. People are supposed to stumble across news of the strain from several different sites: a blog by a scientist, a conspiracy theorist, and an enraged stump clearer. One could also Google the name of the grass strain to find the sites. And that’s where the trouble starts.

You see, Greenberg’s source told him the name of the fictional grass strain. He naturally mentioned it in his story, though not in his “Cautionary Tale.” So what happens when someone puts the name of the grass strain into Google? The search engine, in its infinite wisdom, returns Greenberg’s story as the number one result. “And right below my story, whose slug mentions the three fictional web sites, are those three fictional web sites. Therefore, the fiction is ruined by my story about the fiction. Yes, the company got buzz but not the kind it wanted,” Greenberg elaborated.

It’s a little tricky to find Greenberg’s original story; when you do, you see that he mentions the fictional grass -- Loogootee Strain – only once. Greenberg’s editor insisted that the story couldn’t be taken down, and the name of the grass couldn’t be eliminated from it. The lawn mower company is probably relieved that Greenberg’s story now appears in the fourth position rather than the first one, but that’s still fairly prominent for viral marketing purposes.

If I hadn’t found the original story, I would have been tempted to wonder if Greenberg’s warning was intended more as a tongue-in-cheek punning statement about the hazards of faking your grass roots in viral marketing campaigns. Still, the issue he points out is quite real: you don’t always know what’s going to rank, or how, for a particular viral campaign. This is why SEO often seems like it is as much an art as a science.

“What hits me over and over in my job about getting press for my various clients is all the places online that press shows up in,” Greenberg quotes the Cub Cadet media relations person as saying. “You can’t tell where a story is going to show up.”

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