Why any brand can create a viral video

Under the right circumstances, viral videos can be game-changers. The right piece can permeate popular culture, drive millions of dollars of free media, and crystallize or re-energize a brand.

By now, most brands realize that this kind of success does not come easily or inexpensively. The vast majority of viral hits are the products of sophisticated and well-funded programs, not random bolts from the blue. They frequently rely on celebrities, intricate production, and significant amounts of paid media. Even with all this support, there is no guarantee of success.

Still, for the right brand, viral video can deliver big results. But what if you’re not selling a lifestyle? What if your brand has a limited budget or a specific target audience? Fortunately, for these types of brands, a rapidly maturing video marketplace has brought a number of options -- and advertisers are taking advantage.

Our company recently conducted a study of 10.2 million video views across desktops, tablets, and mobile devices. We saw that the use of viral video-style humor or shock was down 17 percent compared to the same time last year (21 percent of videos in 2013 versus 38 percent of videos in 2012). We also saw that the use of a celebrity in a video was also down for the same time period (19 percent in 2013 versus 22 percent in 2012.)

So if brands aren’t swinging for the fences, how are they achieving success? Here are some observations from the research.

Made-for-web vs. repurposed

When advertisers first dip their toes into online video, their instinct is frequently to reuse existing TV content. This cautious approach might save money and provide some learning, but our research suggests that it is not an effective way to impact consumers. In fact, repurposed video drives significantly less engagement than video that’s made specifically for the web (2.5 percent of users took an action after viewing reused content vs. 3.3. percent engagement with made-for-web, according to our study).

Stay on target at scale

Just about any brand could benefit from the top-of-mind attention that comes from a successful viral video. But given the choice, most advertisers would rather reach the group of people who are most likely to buy their product or services. New targeting methods, such as prequalification screening and the use of first-party data, enable advertisers to reach the right audiences, at scale, without depending on cookies and tracking pixels. The benefits of accurate targeting are intuitive, and our research bears them out. In our study, users that were pre-qualified with a question, such as, "do you own a pet," delivered engagement rates twice as high as users who were not screened (5.5 percent vs. 2.8 percent).

Mobile delivers

Popular opinion holds that the Web delivers better engagement metrics than mobile devices. Perhaps one of the most counterintuitive findings in our study proves that the opposite is true. Users watching mobile videos are actually more likely to visit a web site or go to the advertiser’s Facebook page after watching a video. In fact, 5 percent of viewers in our study clicked after watching a mobile video compared to 2.4 percent who clicked after watching a video on the web. Although screens are smaller, mobile devices deliver video without competition from multiple tabs and windows, and calls to action occupy a far greater portion of the screen.

Going long

Another industry standard saying is, "shorter is better," especially on mobile devices where flaky connections and slow download speeds frequently define the experience. Our research indicates that brands are having success with longer videos on mobile. Thirty-second spots are by far the most desired by brands (54 percent), followed by 90-second spots (32 percent). Reasons for this include faster processors, increasing use of Wi-Fi, better data plans, and improving network speeds. 

In many ways, online video is like the music business. Every year a few big viral stars rise to the top, while thousands of others languish on the sidelines. Fortunately, as the medium matures, technology will continue to provide advertisers with the tools they need to spend effectively and engage their most prized consumers on their own terms.

Mitchell Reichgut is founder and CEO of Jun Group.

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