Case Study: How Google Sells Its Free Products

Modern commercials are a funny thing. Ad agencies are trying to figure out how to give their commercials viral appeal while balancing that against providing company or product information.

The Old Spice guy campaign is more or less universally lauded as an example of how to reboot a company’s image and turn a commercial idea into a viral phenomenon. However, the videos, and the campaign’s subsequent expansion onto Twitter, focused on entertainment and branding: We knew what kind of brand Old Spice wanted to be and we laughed at (most of) Isaiah Mustafa’s quips and sound bites. Old Spice prioritized those elements instead of explaining how its products work or even what they smell like.

That worked for Old Spice, because most people can intuit how deodorant works; the company wasn’t reinventing the wheel, it was reinventing its brand. Old Spice didn’t need to provide detailed product information to make its campaign successful. Other companies, like Google, don’t have the same luxury.

Google’s products are often less obvious to an everyday audience. Google Goggles? Do you wear them? Are they on your phone? Is that some Mountain View euphemism? Google has the task of both explaining its new tech and providing a viral kick with its ads — that’s not easy.

Despite the odds, the technology giant has done a great job with its latest round of marketing campaigns by applying some basic principles in some very creative ways. Read on for a look at what Google did right and what it could do better.

Make Your Audience Feel Smart

Google was not a company known for its commercials until last year’s Super Bowl “search” ad that simultaneously showed the narrative arc of a budding romance and the vast possibilities of Google’s core product all via search terms.

The next batch of commercials focused on the speed of its web browser, Chrome, by testing how quickly Chrome could load a page compared to a (usually silly or messy) science experiment, such as lightning hitting a small boat or shooting a potato gun.

The real gem is Google’s latest commercial focusing on Google Instant. While Google still handily owns the market for searches, it’s had real competition from Microsoft’s Bing. Google Instant was supposed to tip the balance by letting you see search results as you were typing — no need to hit enter. The idea is technologically complicated but not especially awe inspiring. To make the technology more compelling, Google put together a commercial that emphasized how much we take that instant gratification for granted while at the same time making the viewer feel smart (the video is embedded above).

People enjoy repeating patterns, and people especially like being able to recognize those patterns and start to solve them. “Humpty… ” “Fee Fi Fo… ” Both phrases are relatively simple to complete, but there is a certain satisfaction in being able to figure it out, as simple as it may be. That’s the concept behind the commercial: display a list of recognizable phrases that the viewer can piece quickly together as they watch. It’s an incredibly smart way of congratulating the user and making the case for Google Instant at the same time.

As smart as the commercial may be, it doesn’t have the same entertainment value or viral capacity as some of Google’s sillier campaigns. With just 22,000 views, the ads seem to be geared toward selling their product rather than making it onto sites like Reddit.

Make Your Audience Care

It is difficult to get people to care about things on the Internet. The Internet has a lot of things on it, and the average attention span is depressingly low. Still, there is one way to guarantee that people sit up and take notice: Put them in it. People are more likely to care about a product if they had some hand in its development.

The Google Demo Slam challenges users to come up with the funniest or most creative videos showcasing new Google technologies, like the aforementioned Google Goggles. It’s a total win for Google, combining the viral ridiculousness of dressing up like Mount Rushmore to test Google Maps, for example, while getting real people to demonstrate how the technology actually works.

There are some celebrity spots (like Maria Sharapova pelting helmeted reps with tennis balls), but many of the submissions come from independent groups (like Sony) or everyday people trying to out-do their competition. Submissions are screened by Google and then randomly paired against one another where users can vote for their favorites.

The interactive, gaming element helps draw the viewer into the competition (champions will be eventually named). The format of the Slam also necessitates that people spend some time on the site, creating stickiness and enticing people to watch more and more videos (each of which essentially is a commercial for a Google product). Google has started using the some of the videos as stand alone commercials, but they don’t necessarily play as well without the competitive aspect of the site.

By putting its faith into users to come up with interesting and genuinely funny videos, however, Google is potentially assuming some risk. It’s also hard to believe that all the videos submitted to the campaign are purely user-generated given their professional look and feel.

Offer Value in More Creative Ways

chrome experiment image

It may not take a lot of creativity to make your RSS feed into a mobile app; it does take some thinking to quietly sponsor an experimental music video that, by virtue of its complexity, showcases the power of Chrome. “The Wilderness Downtown” is a Chrome experiment directed by Chris Milk. It uses Arcade Fire’s song “We Used to Wait” and interactive HTML5 elements, synchronized pop-up windows and a spinning panorama using Google Maps. Not only was it an inventive and touching video, but it was an excellent showcase of Google products.

Of course, the video can be run on other browsers, and if you don’t like Arcade Fire or the chosen song, the video experiment won’t have much of an impact. So clearly not every view was a win for Google.

Google is far from a perfect company, but its marketing campaigns are often an intelligent blend of viral goodness and thoughtful product showcases. What do you think? What commercials or campaigns did you find memorable or smart? What were some of Googles major flops or missteps? Let us know below.

More Marketing Resources from Mashable:

HOW TO: Create a World-Class Online Community for Your Business
How Social Data & Mobile Tech Can Improve the Retail Experience
Making Data Relevant: The New Metrics for Social Marketing
Why Marketing Threatens the True Promise of Social Media
Why Every Brand Needs an Open API for Developers

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