How Do I Get It Viral?

"After we make the video, your team will need to make it viral!" The client might as well have said that we need to turn lead into gold by the end of the week. "Viral" has been one of the longest standing buzz words that I've heard in my career since it's inception. The problem is me. Me the blogger, me the messenger, me the journalist, me the over-inflated subject matter expert (SME). We've corrupted what viral really means and what it means in today marketing.

To be viral is the unintentional mass distribution of a message, media or initiative. Viral in the advertising world is the unintentional distribution of a marketing message or brand recognition with the distribution of said message. I rarely disagree with "the wiki" because if it's on the internet, TV, print or burned symbology on toast -- it must be true.

The wiki says of viral marketing:

"The buzzwords 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. Viral promotions may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, ebooks, brandable software, images, or even text messages.

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.

The term "viral marketing" has also been used pejoratively to refer to stealth marketing campaigns—the unscrupulous use of astroturfing on-line combined with undermarket advertising in shopping centers to create the impression of spontaneous word of mouth enthusiasm."

This is by no means wrong -- simply, this is not entirely complete. Viral marketing has lived in some context since some guy turned water into wine and his buddy split a sea. Since Mikey died of eating Pop-Rocks and drink a liter of Coke. You see the pattern – a stretch perhaps; but nevertheless, the point makes that myths, stories and unintentional secondary meanings behind our messaging have been a societal platform for a very long time. And while videos on YouTube, College Humor and a million other video platforms serve most of the stuff we spread, we'll be using online videos as the basis for this discussion.

Viral is rarely ever man-made (lemmie-splain'):

Yes, of course we shot it on video, captured a time-lapse or created an intricate titling sequence using man-made machines and techniques. What make something viral is ALMOST NEVER pre-contrived. It's in the moment. It's natural and it cannot be recreated. 

Therefore, we'll analyze one of my personal favorites: The Dramatic Prairie Dog - You may know him as Gopher, Groundhog, Chipmunk or Squirrel (if you're a moron) but he's always "dramatic." Heres why it became viral:

  • It's short
  • It's weird
  • It's funny
  • It's cute

Other factors that can/do apply are:

  • It's gross
  • It's clever
  • It's shocking/edgy*
  • It's profane
  • It's moving
  • It's memorable
  • It's a parody
  • It's makes a direct correlation to an event, time or location

It should not be:

  • Predictable
  • Feel like advertising
  • A rehashed idea (unless it's a parody and even that's a bad idea typically)

Things I've noted about successful viral videos from a production standpoint:

  • It has to be fast (20 seconds tops)
  • Single camera
  • High production quality (resolution, sound editing, multiple camera edits and cool effects) are often a turn off**
  • Believability must be high; there must be a sense of 'I could do this' or better yet 'that's happened to me' for increased believeability.
  • Minimize factors that can construct a sense of "place" (shooting in a dorm room can be just as viral as shooting in Grand Central Station)

Now, I'm not trying to crap on a full-production but it does beg the question of why would you if you didn't have to? This is why user-generated content (UGC) and crowd-sourcing advertising concepts has become such a hot topic. But there are fundamental problems with UGC that plague crowd-sourcing equally. Most of the times, the request is just too daunting for the average user (the one you were hoping to get) and it's left to people that want to be Scorsese and can't think fotoage without ten pounds of After Effect graphics laid on top of it.

*Key Point One:

Every agency and marketer is hoping that their video(s) will catch fire and single-handedly launch them, their client and the product to stardom. Your client must be willing to take a leap of faith. The less they try to make it safe, the more likely you'll get struck by the viral lighting of the internet. And that's about your chances, truthfully. Beyond the leap of faith, they need to release the need to make the brand the primary driver and simply let it exist as part of the story told.

**Key Point Two:

"Authenticity." If it feels real, then it's more apt to go viral than something that feels overly produced. People want to feel like they're passing on a secret or sharing a moment. People do, indeed, share advertising -- and some very lucky few go viral -- but more often than not, that message still holds the nugget of a shared moment.

Lastly, with all this said, I'm going to make some suggestions that (while might not make your video viral) might increase your following (subscribers and friends to your channel):

  • Reach out to YouTube channels which have consistently created videos that average 100k views or more. You can hire these people, and some of them have very credible records.
  • Instead of trying to make one winner, look at doing a series of videos or "webisodes" that tell your story over time. Remember, keep them short! (See Terry Tate)
  • Watch legal pitfalls when shooting your videos -- brands in the background that aren't yours, music overlays that you don't have rights to and make sure you get a model release on all participants, even if they're walking in the background.
  • Use videos to educate. Make step-by-step videos about your service. While not viral, showing people with detail how your product or service works is always good to reference as a resource and adds credibility to your mission.
  • "Behind the Scenes" – Show people how things got created, bloopers and interviews. These give people a human sense behind some of your efforts.
  • Don't think you know what's funny (test it, I advocate drinking beer with friends while doing this). Joking aside, you want a diverse set of minds to come to consensus on the end product. AND BE BRUTAL! IF YOU REALLY WANT IT TO WORK YOU MUST CALL OUT BULLSHIT WHEN YOU SEE IT! Just because a handful of people get it doesn't mean your demographic will.
  • Great ideas need to be protected yes, but even in covering yourself legally you must appeal to the audience as openly as possible.

Notable sites known for consistent video traffic:

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