Posted to Leigh Carver's blog on January 25th, 2013

Viral Video: The Catch-22 of Content Marketing


you can't just create a viral video

Lessons from Gangnam: dream big and then film it. Image from Gangnam Style music video.
When I think of really powerful viral videos, I sometimes feel as though I've passed through the looking glass into a dreamlike world of imagination and fun. In the wake of 2012, I've thought a lot about what makes content go viral, and I've come to the following conclusion: if you build something for the sole purpose of going viral, it probably won't.
The whole concept of content going viral only if you don't really intend for it to do so is a Catch-22 that quick-fix marketers certainly aren't happy to hear. Unless you work for Dollar Shave Club or happen to have a massive budget (like Red Bull or Old Spice), chances are your own attempts at going viral have thus far fallen flat. That's okay-- there are still things that your business can do to get noticed on the social net. But when you're building your content, remember: virality for virality's sake should not be your end goal. If it is, there's a 99.9% chance that you're going to be disappointed.
What follows are my own opinions and observations about viral content, and especially how to build your brand and encourage your video content to go viral in 2013.
Just about every "What to Expect In 2013" article I've read has cited video as a major heavyweight in marketing for the upcoming year. I agree, but to this statement I add a caveat: Just because you're producing daily or weekly videos and stuffing them into a YouTube channel doesn't mean that you're producing the right kind of video. As with any kind of content, you shouldn't be creating vast amounts of low-quality link bait; Google's increasingly-intelligent algorithms are getting better and better at recognizing spam. Your focus should be on what I like to think of as the "Three Es" of content: Educate, Entertain, and Excite your target audience. But what does that mean?
Educate: By consuming your content, your target audience will learn something. This can be something about your brand, something about the world, or something about themselves.
Entertain: There's no such thing as a "boring" viral video; content that goes viral captures the audience's attention, entertains them, and is highly shareable for this reason.
Excite: Generate some excitement. Stoke the passions of your audience and capture their imaginations. Take some risks and have fun. If you're not afraid to show your customers that you're human, they'll respond wonderfully. There's plenty of entertaining educational material out there; adding excitement amplifies the impact that your video will have on viewers.
You can still be professional while showing the soul of your organization: just think of any number of successful campaigns from Bodyform, TNT, P&G, and more. The Three E's all lend themselves towards a memorable video. Ask yourself, Does your audience gain something from watching your video? Do they come away with a lasting impression, and does your content stay with them long after they've shut off their monitors? It’s key to know your target audience well, and if you can create a piece of content that resonates with that audience, you're golden.
In 2013, everyone will be doing video, which is why it's so important for you to make your brand stand out from the crowd. When you're creating content, think about your target audience, and how you want this video to inspire them. Ask yourself:
  • What are your target audience’s interests? 
  • How should you speak to them? 
  • What sort of tone, verbiage, lights, colors, music, or story will grab and retain their attention? 
  • What's something unexpected and fun you can throw in? 
Don't be afraid to generate excitement-- being bland is a death knell for any video's virality. Take risks. Like I said above, if you create a piece of content just to go viral, chances are your audience will see right through it. People aren't stupid and know when someone is trying to dupe them. Instead, when you create content, focus on being genuine about your company and generous with your knowledge sharing. Focus on tapping into the deepest, most human facets of your company-- the funny, the sad, the hopeful. And whatever you do, don't expect any reward (such as "likes" or purchases) from your audience in return. Such expectations should never enter in to your content creation process-- they'll show.
Here are a few examples of really notable viral campaigns from 2012. Note that these are campaigns with broad audiences. However, these same techniques will work your brand’s target audience, when employed carefully.:
1. Bodyform's "The Truth"
Bodyform, a women's sanitary products maker in the UK, received an entertaining (and mocking) rant that on their Facebook wall. A disgruntled boyfriend called out the company for "misleading" him about women's "joyous adventurous time of the month." The comment instantly went viral, attracting more than 86,000 likes and 3,600 comments in under 24 hours. Within a week, Bodyform had crafted a clever response video that neatly addressed the three E's. Here it is below:
What did this video do?
  1. Educate: Though this video didn't necessarily convey new knowledge or facts, it still teaches viewers several important things about the company: that they don't take themselves seriously, that they aren't afraid to laugh at themselves, and yes, that they are listening to what's being said about them.
  2. Entertain: By setting industry standards on their heads (having the CEO drink the blue "absorbency demo" water), the Bodyform response makes for a number of unexpected laughs.
  3. Excite: I had never heard of Bodyform before this, but I must say, I've come away impressed. I'll likely continue to remember and recognize this brand for quite a while, making it much more likely that I will purchase their product in the future. 
2. TNT's "Dramatic Surprise On A Quiet Square"
According to TNT, "To launch the high quality TV channel TNT in Belgium we placed a big red push button on an average Flemish square of an average Flemish town. A sign with the text "Push to add drama" invited people to use the button. And then we waited."
What did this video do?
  1. Educate: This hammers home the message that TNT has drama, and they're coming. Period.
  2. Entertain: What makes this video so entertaining is the absurdity of it all. It's an absurd premise (ambulance/gunfight/football players) in an even more absurd setting. 
  3. Excite: We've all been socialized to want nothing more than to push the big red button. That in and of itself is pretty exciting-- and watching what comes after only amplifies that excitement. The video is fun and doesn't take itself too seriously, but is still incredibly memorable.
3. P&G's "Thank You Mom"
This campaign ran during the Olympics and not only honored Olympians, but also the families who raised them. The campaign, which occurred across video and social platforms, was widely stated to be moving and heartwarming. Here's one of the commercials below:
What did this video do?
  1. Educate: This video is a lesson in gratitude. In this particular commercial, viewers watch Olympians through the eyes of their parents, encouraging empathy and gratitude towards the parents who raised these athletes. Gratitude and empathy are encouraged in other "Thank You Mom" commercials that portray the difficulties of raising an Olympian.
  2. Entertain: From the first frame, as a viewer you are sucked in to this commercial: seeing children performing the tasks of adults sparks curiosity, and viewers are carried along by fascination throughout the commercial. The closing shot of the child/Olympian's mother explains the premise of the commercial, and touches the heartstrings of viewers. 
  3. Excite: This commercial is moving and genuine, and sticks out in viewer's minds. Even after watching this video for the umpteenth time, I want to share it with the people around me and say, "look at how great this commercial is."
Most businesses will never have a campaign as universally effective and viral as P&G, TNT, or Bodyform; that doesn't mean, however, that you can't create genuine, engaging, entertaining video that resonates with your customers and invites new ones in the door. And even if your content doesn't go viral, having content on your website has a number of really excellent benefits, such as: 
  • Lots of good, informative content will position your site as a resource. 
  • From a technical standpoint, lots of high quality content is great for SEO. Landing pages with video have higher SEO value, and great content gets linked to from all over the web-- also increasing SEO.
  • And perhaps most importantly, great content builds trust and loyalty around your brand-- as a buyer, I am more likely to purchase the product from the transparent company who has supplied me with information and entertainment than the company that sullenly demands my money. This also applies towards loyalty after purchase.
If you still aren't sure where to begin, look at some of the videos and campaigns that went viral in 2012: the Queen's Olympic skydiving stunt, the Gangnam Style and Call Me Maybe, the Curiosity Rover's incredible landing on Mars, and the eager panic surrounding the so-called Mayan Apocalypse. Check out this article on Mashable about the most memorable campaigns of 2012, and watch the most viral videos of 2012 . Watch as many of them as you can and think about what you like (and don't like) in each video. What captures your attention, even after the video has finished playing? Once you've determined what speaks to you, it will be that much easier for you to create content that likewise speaks to your clients.