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It's the product, stupid.

I have to admit, I do like advertising. A well-crafted TV commercial (or better yet, a movie trailer) can be great entertainment, and though predictions of its death abound, the 30-second spot lives on.

I don't think of myself as an especially naive person (of course, most naive people don't), but I'm sure I don't respond to ads. I've never bought a car because of some wistful image of a winding, leaf-strewn road. I don't drink a particular brand of beer because I feel it'll endow me with the same witty charm as the man on TV. I definitely don't buy software or online services because of magazine spreads or "oooh, let's use the Internet!" PPC ads.

For a while, everybody jumped onto the viral marketing bandwagon, eagerly citing Hotmail's pre-Microsoft success in building a user base of millions with the simple PS in every message: Get your free email at Hotmail. It seemed for a brief moment as though there was an answer to driving mass exposure without spending millions on advertising. In other words, people like me, who (or so I claim) don't respond to ads, but did get a Hotmail account in 1996 or so, were open for business.

The majority misinterpreted this success as evidence that users could be encouraged to spread the word about virtually anything. Sony really jumped the shark last year with their fake campaign, which sought to use a contrived blog and equally phony videos on YouTube to spread the word about the decidedly un-awesome PSP. Appropriately enough, the fake blog URL now returns: Bad Request.

The point is this: viral marketing (or to give it its less exciting but real name, "word of mouth") isn't a service that an ad agency can provide, and in fact it's more evidence that advertising doesn't work. Sure, you can do your best to tell those in your network, and do your best to expand this network and encourage everyone to spread the word, but it just won't work if the product or service you're selling doesn't have a simple, immediate appeal.

The latest generation of web apps typically can't attribute their success to the marketing budget so much as they can to doing something new and innovative, and making it so simple that the barriers to trying it virtually disappear. Or to put it another way, it's not a killer app if you have to tell someone why.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 25, 2007 2:01 PM.

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