Everybody’s doing it. They might not admit they are, but you know they are, at least, you do if you spend any time on the Internet at all.

I’m talking about viral marketing. Take, for example, Burger King’s bizarre Web site where a guy dressed in a chicken suit would follow the instructions users typed in, or that nasty short in which a cat has its head separated from its body in a Ford’s hungry sunroof. Or, more recently, the Super Bowl ads now available on sites such as Yahoo and AOL for viewers to pass around.

Today, viral marketing has become a viable – some might say crucial – way for companies to extend their brands beyond the traditional capabilities of print and TV.

What every successful viral marketing ad has in common, it seems, is that it is funny, even if in a tragic, cruel or ironic way, which tends to appeal to those between the ages of 17 to 40. (Roughly, of course. Oddly enough, one’s sense of humour isn’t necessarily tied to the decrease in production of melanin in one’s hair follicles.)

But when I say everybody, I lie, of course.  Ironically, considering they’re the ones making all this possible, IT firms, even the ones willing to take risks with edgier traditional advertising, such as IBM, have been slow to embrace this new way of reaching untapped markets.

Troll through any IT news site, for example, and you’ll find an advertising universe populated with those traditional, static banner ads. When was the last time you covertly watched, say, a Cisco or a Nortel viral video at your desk?

The rare time an IT firm’s ads get circulated on the Internet, it seems, is when an ad appearing in mainstream media has generated some controversy, such as the recent Bell ad in which a cougar, symbolizing its high-speed DSL service, swallows and barfs up a rabbit, symbolizing Rogers’ high-speed service. Had Rogers not threatened to sue Bell over the spot, though, it is unlikely it would have gained any notoriety on its own merit.

One exception is Verizon’s Jobs Suck campaign to promote its SMS service. The video, available at www.reallybadjobs.com, is a high-quality short that not only conveys its message with humour, but makes the user want to share it with others.

Considering most IT vendors’ market – geeks who spend their entire days and nights on the Internet – it’s odd the industry hasn’t fallen all over itself exploring the possibilities viral marketing offers.

It’s a low-cost distribution channel, tightly targeted — IT pro to IT pro — and it comes with a built-in recommendation (“you’ll enjoy this”). Yet the industry has been much slower to embrace it than the enterprise customers it serves. Makes ya think.

Kathleen Sibley is the editor of Technology in Government.

ksibley@itbusiness.ca 

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