When you hear the term "viral video," you probably think of a clip you saw on YouTube, like a dog on a skateboard, a cat playing the piano, or a kid battling himself with a "Star Wars" light-saber. But recently, the web has been full of short, branded "viral" videos from companies like Carl's Jr., Mountain Dew, and Breyer's Ice Cream.
The term "viral" can mean different things to different people, but for the purposes of this article, we will define it as content that spreads around the web via word of mouth. The format is often a short-form video, but it can also be a widget, a blog entry, or an experiential event that is shared in the online/social media space.
One of the most famous is the Carl's Jr. Happy Star video, where famous skateboarder Rob Dyrdek shows off some tricks while riding around in a giant plush Carl's Jr. star uniform. At the end of the two-minute video, he slides down a zip-line, slips, and falls from high above the ground onto a concrete floor. We see the puffy Happy Star body suit crumble as he hits the ground, and we wonder whether he survived. The camera shakes as the camera man rushes to save his friend. "Dude... are you alright?" he asks. Finally, Rob emerges from the uniform, unscathed, exclaiming "Dude... Happy Star saved my life."
"Is it real?" the audience wonders.
"Will it sell more burgers?" the Carl's Jr. marketing manager wonders.
"Did they really just fake an injury to get attention?" the ad world wonders.
The answer to that question is yes. If the video is watched again slowly at the point where he falls, his legs are like rubber noodles just before the camera cuts away. Clearly, it's a mannequin.
Carl's Jr. spent a fraction of the cost of a regular 30-second spot to create this video. It became a viral sensation in the advertising world, and it resonated with millions of young, hungry males -- the core demographic sought after by the brand. By these measures, the campaign was a success. Which begs the question, why create traditional 30-second spots if you can achieve the same results via an inexpensive, viral video?
Lately, it seems the holy grail in marketing is to develop something viral. Brands ask agencies to do it on a daily basis. While we often think of viral content as short, funny amateur clips on YouTube, savvy marketers have learned that it is possible to consistently create viral content that promotes a brand.
Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it sounds. There are countless tales of companies that received backlash as a result of a viral advertising gone wrong. For example, the Sony PSP campaign that was discovered by its fans to be staged was subject to significant audience backlash. Or, more recently, a series of overtly sexual Burger King ads, which drew the ire of customers and the ad world alike. However, if done correctly, a viral campaign can help brands reach millions of viewers, raise awareness, and drive sales.
While there is no single formula to create a viral video, there are a few rules of the game. As with all good advertising, it starts with the big idea. Next, you insert viral hooks to enable the content to go viral. And finally, you seed the video into the market via websites, social media, and paid media.
Developing the big idea
Creating a viral campaign starts with choosing the right content. It's usually several parts of entertainment to every one part branding. The trick is integrating the brand in a natural, efficient way. While there are lots of companies that can create funny videos that travel around the world, there are few that can successfully and consistently insert a brand into that content without the brand message feeling forced or heavy-handed.
While there are many types of content that go viral, the common theme is either "funny," "unbelievable," or both. The Happy Star video is a good example of "unbelievable": "Was he really hurt when he fell?" Carl's Jr. also worked with Animax to create a different kind of viral video based on comedy called Carl's Jr. Slotcar. Even though the audience knew it was a spoof, they still watched this episodic series because it was funny and the branding was subtle (these eight videos got more than 2 million views at approximately $.07 per view).
Creating viral hooks
Another technique for creating viral videos is inserting hooks into the videos using technology. For example, many of us are familiar with the Elf Yourself campaign that reached 193 million visitors in 2007. Using a simple set of tools, you can insert your picture onto an elf and email it to a loved one each Christmas. Disney also recently used technology to create a viral video where you can dynamically insert your name and it says that the entire park was reserved for you that day.
Something to keep in mind is that viral content is not exclusive to videos. While video content is often the cornerstone of a viral campaign, smart marketers develop viral content across multiple platforms, such as games, email, SMS, and Twitter. Skittles, for example, recently released a site that has links to quirky commercials, Flickr slideshows, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed.
Seeding the video into the market
You've got great content and tons of viral hooks built in -- now what? Many companies think that they can just put it out there and hope it goes viral. While that may work in some cases, more often than not, it takes a little nudge for a viral campaign to catch on like wildfire.
Keep in mind that YouTube has more than 20 hours of video uploaded every minute, so the competition for eyeballs is fierce. The first step is to make sure that your content is enabled to go viral. This means that if you are serving it on your own website, you should have a video player that allows tagging, embedding, and sharing. There should be links to promote the video on social media sites like Facebook, Delicious, Twitter, and Digg.
In addition, you should make sure that both the site and the video are SEO-friendly. Videos, like web pages, can be optimized to be seen by the major search engines. YouTube has search algorithms that look for keywords in the title, description, and alt tags. Smart brands make sure that their key terms are embedded in the code.
There are many ways to freely distribute viral content into the market. There are platforms like YouTube, where you can upload your video yourself. Or, you can use a "hyper-syndication" platform, like TubeMogul or Blip.TV. These sites allow you to distribute your video easily across a number of important sites like YouTube, Break, CollegeHumor, FunnyorDie, Howcast, LiveLeak, Metacafe, Veoh, Viddler, Dailymotion, Revver, Yahoo Videos, and eBaum's World. Rather than uploading your video to each of those sites manually, they offer both free and paid services that help take the headache out of distributing your video to dozens of sites.
However, just uploading your video via these sites and services is not enough. You need to supplement these efforts with social media PR. This could include reaching out to bloggers with similar demographic/psychographic profiles to your content or creating a Facebook/MySpace/Twitter fan page for your content. You can do it yourself or hire a company that specializes in this type of word-of-mouth social marketing promotion.
Finally, perhaps the best way to ensure that your video gets out into the market is through paid promotional tactics. This can include keyword targeted efforts -- either as a sponsored video on YouTube or as text/video links on the major search engines. Using tools like Quantcast, you can see what other sites your audience might visit, and approach those sites for paid distribution. Paid distribution can take many forms -- your video could run in the place of a rich media banner on a website, it could be a pre-roll ad, or it could be embedded within a Facebook application (ex. RockYou's model).
As with any type of online media, the key is to watch the metrics and see what's working across both free and paid distribution channels. You can use third-party ad serving tools like DART or Atlas to measure the effectiveness of the paid placements. Google Analytics and YouTube insight analytics will tell you key information about your audience, such as their age and gender, the time they spent watching your video, keywords they searched for, and referring websites. Some of the hyper-syndication platforms like TubeMogul offer robust reporting tools that aggregate video viewing statistics across a number of different video sites. Finally, there are even tools that can help you measure social media mentions. For example, Social Mention shows you where your video was picked up by blogs, tweeted about, or commented upon -- and whether those were positive or negative mentions.
It requires a number of different skills to create and distribute a truly compelling, branded viral video. It's rare to find an agency that really gets it and embodies all of the necessary pieces it requires -- entertainment studio, advertising agency, PR firm, social media consultancy, and online media company. Viral marketing can be extremely cost-effective and do wonders for your brand. On the flip side, it can backfire and spin out of control if done incorrectly.
The interactive marketing industry is still growing up, and savvy marketers are learning how to replicate the viral media model time and again. But, as soon as they seem to get a handle on it, the tougher it becomes to create a stand-out viral video. The name of the game is to stay one step ahead of the competition -- through better content, better technology hooks, and a better distribution strategy.
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