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Why viral video is a waste of money

Why viral video is a waste of money Michael Estrin

When you talk about online video, it's only a matter of time before a buzzword like viral pokes its head into the conversation. In fact, viral and video have become almost inextricably linked. But can such a product be conjured at will? Can agencies deliver viral videos with the same predictability as a banner ad, or a search campaign, or a 30-second spot? Maybe the idea of being able to order a viral video like it's a banner ad is a little silly. But only a little.

I hear a lot about viral videos. It's a topic that's been popular for about as long as online video has been viable. Most any agency that does online video will tell you they do "viral videos". And when you speak to brand marketers, it's easy to understand why. Unless the video is meant to live only on a particular website or serve a very narrow purpose, just about every brand and agency wants their video to go viral. But wanting something to go viral and making it so are two different things. And if you want to have any hope of making it viral, it's a good idea to ask yourself, What do you really mean when you say viral video?

What your agency thinks when you say viral
For a term that gets used all the time, viral video is surprisingly amorphous. For some people, the term simply means a successful -- read popular -- video. For others, it means a popular video that achieved widespread reach through organic sharing, rather than a conventional media buy. And for other people, the word "viral" has become inextricably linked with the term "video" without any real explanation at all.

But when I asked several agencies that regularly do this kind of work, what they think when a client asks for a viral video, I got some surprising responses.

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Viral means outside the box (if that expression wasn't such cliché)

"We think [viral] means [the brand is] creative and brave and wants to connect with their consumers on a different level, and perhaps surprise them," says Ryan O'Hara Theisen, Co-Founder and film director at Lucky Branded Entertainment.  "Unlike more traditional forms of advertising strategy, viral strategy pulls the most exciting bits from a brand or a product's DNA and works from there, rather than a more thought out message. But with that said, you need to be willing to really free yourself from standard brand guidelines and restrictions and play to what the audience wants -- entertainment." 

Viral means the agency has some serious explaining to do

"It means that we need to lead with client education," says David Rollo, 22squared's director of digital and social media strategy. "Viral is not a strategy, it's an outcome."

Viral means they may have put the cart before the horse

"'Oh boy,'" is my first thought [when a client mentions viral]," says Josh Beane, national creative director at Band Digital. "The good thing is that they're thinking big. But I would rather focus on the authenticity of the story and, after deciding what that story is, figure out if it can be shaped into something that could go viral without compromising its integrity."

Viral is shorthand for engaging

"Like most agencies, we prefer to call them online films, web films or content,'" says Brian Smego, SVP director of integrated production at Y&R Chicago. "There is a lot of inherent pressure in setting out to create a viral video. You create content with the hope that it will go viral. That said, we all know what a client means when they ask for a viral video. The goal is to create an engaging piece of content that will garner a million-plus views in a short period of time and have consumers talking about their brand at home, at the office, on their personal Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. No problem, right?"

So can you really create a viral video?
Here's an exercise. Think of your favorite viral video.

I'll go with a somewhat recent entry from the ongoing "Will it blend?" campaign, which has been around for a few years.

The above video has more than 10 million YouTube views (clearly a hit). It's also share-worthy (you probably had at least a few friends send you the link to the iPhone in the blender). In a nutshell, the above video is "viral."

But ask yourself this: What was the pitch meeting like?

Sure, people probably laughed at the idea of blending a valuable piece of consumer electronics. And probably some people in the room thought the idea was a little zany, perhaps even bizarre, or arguably stupid. But could anyone in the room have really predicted -- with a straight face and without being carted off to the loony bin -- that millions of people would adore this strange video? That seems unlikely.

"I don't believe you can necessarily create a viral video, but you can certainly stack the deck in your favor," says Smego, who advises clients to think long and hard about their goals and who they're trying to reach. "It sounds simple but, in order for something to spread among your target audience, you need to create content that suits their tastes and then put it where they can find it. Too often clients spend time and money to create content, then upload it on YouTube with little or no strategy."

Stacking the deck in your favor also means coming up with a distribution strategy -- and yes, says Mickey Taylor, Partner at G&M Plumbing, that usually means some sort of media buy.

"The most common myth we've encountered when talking to clients about viral videos is that it's free -- it's not," says Taylor. "While in rare cases, video and/ or TV spots from marketers do become viral, most of the time there's some significant marketing dollars to push it out onto the web. In fact, there are agencies that specialize in 'seeding' [a] brand's videos, and depending on the objective, [that] can cost into the six figures."

But the costs aren't just on the distribution end, according to Beane.

"In most cases people choose to watch viral videos," Beane explains. "It's not a forced pre-roll or television commercial experience. So it's even harder to create the viral experience. The audience is getting smarter too. They don't want to be fooled or have you wasting their time."

But you have to have a viral video, even if you don't really know why, right?
If you don't know why your brand needs a viral video, it's almost certainly a really bad idea to put your marketing dollars into making one. But even if you have a clear objective, it doesn't necessarily follow that you need a viral video. Or, put another way: Just because everyone else is jumping off a cliff, it doesn't mean that you have to.

"A lot of brands seem to feel that they have to have a viral video to be relevant, but it's clearly not necessary or right for all," says Smego. "There are certain brands that are better suited for online engagement than others. Usually when you see that a brand has stretched and gotten out of [its] comfort zone to create a video with the goal of being funny or shocking, the results make you cringe."

Instead, Smego suggests that brands focus on their own situation. "At some point you need to step back and ask, 'Is anyone really going to care about this?' Will this be engaging to the target audience? Will it spark conversations and sharing?"

So what's a good goal for a viral video?
According to Taylor, most brands don't ever get beyond the goal of simply having a viral video.

"It's purely a reach tactic," Taylor says. "But I feel strongly that there needs to be a larger strategic reason to want to become viral. Will it make the brand sexier, hipper, cooler? Will it demonstrate an understanding of its consumer?"

While Taylor stresses those fundamental questions, he also cautions that achieving reach doesn't necessarily mean that the brand's qualitative goals -- sexier, hipper, cooler -- have been met. In fact, a video that sends the wrong message can still achieve tremendous reach, according to Taylor.

And that double-edged sword highlights one area where viral videos really excel -- they connect with users on a very emotional level.

"A successful online film can do things that can't be done in any other medium," says Smego. "You can create something that leaves consumers wanting to spend time with your brand and then share it with their friends. You can change perception and change consideration. You can introduce a new generation to your brand that may not even know you exist."

Just don't rely on a viral video as a long-term proposition.

"A viral video is best used to incite interest or curiosity in a product or a brand and to generate buzz," says Theisen. "Viral videos are great for making a big splash, but they aren't what you'd go to for a long term messaging approach."

For Theisen, that means viral videos are ideal product launches. But unlike with 30-second spots, Theisen cautions against expecting too much on the product feature front.

"It's unrealistic to think that a viral video will play off product features in the ways that a standard commercial can," says Theisen. "You're asking for people's free time, unlike paying for it with a commercial so it cannot reek of advertising. So you need to give them something -- a laugh, a scare, a burning curiosity. If there isn't something in it for the consumer, you're going to do more damage than good for your brand."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

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Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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