Seven Deadly Sins of Advertising Via Viral Video

sins.jpgShow me a marketer without “viral” on her marketing plan and I’ll show you an online video site that’s profitable. Advertising offline is getting harder with time-shifted television and declining viewership, and online advertising is getting more complex with paid-search prices rising and banner click-thru’s dropping. Given the low variable cost of viral, it’s natural that advertisers would want to experiment with it. “I want a piece of Web 2.0,” they say.
Advertisers beware. Getting people to promote your product by forwarding a viral video is not as easy as it appears. Save you and your clients some money and consider the “7 Deadly Sins of Advertising Via Viral Video.”

1. Make a white and brown cow. Seth Godin has a term called “Purple Cow,” which refers to marketing that is “remarkable” and worth paying attention to and talking about. Your viral video better be Technicolor Purple if you actually expect it to break through an increasingly crowded space. What is remarkable? Take a look at the Volkswagen “Fast” series featuring Jim Meskimen. (Jim is a comedian and impersonator, and you’ve heard him as the voice of Messing With Sasquatch” series. Would you view this content more than once, and show it to a co-worker or forward it to a friend? I would, and have.
2. Pretend you’re not advertising. Nothing quite irrates a consumer like being secretly persuaded. “Al Gore’s Penguin Army” is a classic example of a “funny video” that was exposed as having a PR agenda. Transparency is a ticket in the viral video door, friends. No ticket, no ride.

3. Spend a fortune on production. It pains me to see companies throw around huge production budgets on online video. I’ve seen it payoff only once. Here’s Smirnoff’s Ice Tea Partay (which was featured yesterday as one of YouTube’s top 3 on Good Morning America). Clearly this cost north of $300K to produce. But even if you pay that much, you might be better off giving it a “rough around the edges” look. Improv acting, sloppy camera moves and poor production can actually give your video that “consumer generated video” feel. There’s going to be a huge market for individual directors that can shoot viral videos for around $20-$50K, and it makes it much easier to get an ROI on viral video when you’re not having to recoup a big fixed-cost investment in production. When Yahoo featured on its homepage my “Lay Me Off” video (which I’ve temporarily pulled down at the request of some of the actors), I got a number of e-mails from people asking how much I’d charge for a viral video for their clients. Since I have a day job and I do videos as a hobby, I declined. But they’ll find someone who is quite happy to take a low fee for a video that’s powerful. Of course an advertising agency will probably mark up the director’s fees by 500%.
4. Tell consumers instead of engage them. Don’t think of your viral video as an adaptation of a 60-second spot. Obviously it’s got to be irreverent, weird, funny and different. But more importantly, the web has the ability to make the viral event a dialogue. Contests are a good example. There have been plenty of online video contests, but Mentos Geyser Contest is already shaping to be one of the most successful. Check out all of the consumers creating buzz around a candy that was a 7-11 relic 6 months ago. Seventy to date! Production costs for Mentos on those videos? Zero. (By the way, vote this Mentos Jet Pack one 5 stars and I’ll send you some cheese). BarterBee’s contest created buzzz for a CD and DVD exchange. The CEO wore a bee suit to promote it. Brave.

5. Do a video contest because everyone else is. This online-video “contest fad” will continue, and it will become more difficult to activate consumers to promote your product. Do a search for “video contest” on Google and you’ll see four or five different ads for contests. The David Chappelle video contest is a good example of a nice idea with some executional flaws. First, it didn’t initially promote the contest on its own website because it wanted to focus people on buying the DVD. Second, it petered out. Contest winners weren’t announced and insufficient media budget promoted the contest. To give you an idea of how abused contests are getting, there was a summer promotion for a mayonnaise manufacturer looking for videos about may recipes.

6. Set unrealstic conversion metrics. After someone watches your video, what do you think they’ll do? Will 30% come to your site? Will 10% buy your brand in two months? Give me a break. Viral video is one of the most difficult-to-measure parts of your marketing mix. Sure you can count views. But none of the online video sites are yet able to track the viewers so you can conduct your DynamicLogic unaided recall and awareness study. And very f people will take an immediate and measurable action. Sorry to sober you.

7. Throw in the towel and decide to just advertise around viral videos. Please don’t give up and decide that it’s easier to simply advertise around videos. There are certainly products and services that can do well through this, but it’s the lazy way to approach online video. The online video sites are mostly new, and there is an unlimited possibility for creative partnerships. Even YouTube (which has been slow to embrace commercial interests) has a homepage advertising feature for advertisers. As I write, it’s a trailer for Beerfest. Yesterday it was Paris Hilton. Revver has run a few contests, and has married EepyBird to Mentos in probably the best case study for viral video marketing yet. For best results, don’t think you have to decide between getting your videos seen on sites for free OR advertising on them. Do both in partnership.

53 Replies to “Seven Deadly Sins of Advertising Via Viral Video”

  1. Oh- you’re so right. I should have attached each one to a real deadly sin. That post actually took and hour to write this morning- unlike my typical 20 second post.

  2. Great points. We’re using cheaply made videos with a humor (hopefully) factor, but we’re not trying to really “sell” them, they’re just there as a part of our overall site experience.

    We’ve found that the best videos are the ones we do in one take, fast and aren’t planned. You can see our creations here:

  3. Jim- I want to be awesome but I’m afraid of the “truth in advertising” thing.

    Mark- funny you should mention that. I couldn’t decide if the brand was trying to appeal to the masses by spoofing preppies or try to go after the high brow market. But it cost a lot to produce and YouTube/GMA featured it. So you’ll buy the Spirnoff tea and LIKE it.

  4. nalts – It’s ok, you don’t have to be really awesome. Our (fake) research has shown that there are only 1 million really awesome people, places or things on the Internets.

    Obviously, you’re just not one of them I suppose! 🙂

    I like your site, you have a new reader.

  5. I gag every time I see a terrible attempt at a viral video… and it’s becoming more often.

    Only a few sites (YouTube,, MySpace) actually have a big enough audience to make sure a viral video is even SEEN enough to become passed around at any impressive rate from my experience in planning these things out.

  6. Matt- I want to agree with your gag comment, and challenge your second. While it’s true that YouTube and MySpace DOMINATE share, it’s wayyyyyyy more easy to get a video seen on a 2nd tier site. Sure the BoobTube gets 10 zillion viewers a day. But there are eleventy gazillion videos completing for mindshare, and the viewers only look at the really popular stuff. Try submitting to the smaller sites and you’ll be surprised how much more traffic you get.

  7. Matt, in response to your first comment. Nalts and I have debated that point before. I think the production value will improve over time as we get better at it. If you look at blogs, while there are more of them, they are more focused. I don’t see too many that are “I woke up today. watered my plant.”

    Nalts thinks they will get worse before they get better.

  8. I heard about your list on “Across the Sound.” Great work. That Tea partay video is a nod to Lazy Sunday, right? It basically copies Lazy Sunday’s entire premise, don’t you think?

    “…Improv acting, sloppy camera moves and poor production can actually give your video that “consumer generated video” feel.”

    This statement caught me off guard, as it kind of is at odds with #2 a little. If you’re a huge company and you try to get “that consumer generated video feel” won’t that smack of falseness? Your thoughts?

  9. Actually that’s a really good point I hadn’t considered. I suppose if you spend a lot of money trying to make it look like you didn’t, it is a bit deceptive. For the time being, my feeling would be “when in Rome do what the Romans do.” Keep them low budget and fun- and they’ll blend. Candid camera stuff is particularly underexploited to date. Eventually all of this will tire and be as awkward as those intentially bumpy camera commercials we saw in the 1990s- remember those?

    True that Lazy Sunday did probably “inspire” the “Tea Partay.” Immitation… or rip off?

  10. I tend to disagree. The point of advertising is to be different. If you blend in too much you get lost. Successful viral advertising doesn’t copy pop culture it creates it.

    You guys might think “Tea Partay” had an over inflated budget but lets face it, it’s gotten national exposure without paying for network airtime. That’s a huge expenditure cut from the budget. Not to mention, that it has created a ton of PR for a brand that is still being tested in limited markets.

    Branding is bigger than immediate ROI. What viral videos do–when they are successful-is create an emotional connection between the consumer and your brand. If you can develop a relationship with your consumers eventually you will have brand loyalist who will increase your ROI for you.

  11. I like Shannon’s points and take issue w/Mr. Baratelli: I see no contradiction, as he does, between Sins #2 & #3. This key is this excellent point Nalts makes: “Transparency is a ticket in the viral video door, friends.”

    Transparency saves the DIY/faux-home-grown shill (but it’s also essential in any social medium, isn’t it?).

    To wit: Ted Fergusen, Bud Light Daredevil; a totally consumer generated look — that worked not because of the “rough around the edges” style, but because there was an actual idea there.

    Exhibit B: the new OK GO video — the freakin’ definition of “rough around the edges.” You think they made that for the sheer joy of viral? Their “A Million Ways” video put them on the map; this one puts them over the top. They’re moving product, brethren, and growing a commercial brand — no doubt to the delight of Capitol Records.

    Both were transparent. Both sold without pretending not to sell. Both worked because the content/concepts/executions were brilliant. So I find Sins 2 & 3 perfectly compatible. Great convo; thanks for stirring the pot.

  12. This is not the first time anyone tries to tell someone how to do something in this business. And everytime this happens, creative solutions proves otherwise.

    Never underestimate a genuinly good idea.

    Whats next ? “Viral videos for dummys” ?

  13. After reading your article I know I am in the dark ages when it comes to advertising. I am so lost these days with everything on the internet I feel old and I am still only in my thirties,

  14. All good points. You need to simply keep in mind when you’re doing viral videos everything that you should be keeping in mind when you do everything in your business. Tell a consistent story, be authentic.

  15. The visitors after viewing numbers are closer to 1 visitor in 1000 views, conversion is pretty lame too. The people viewing dozens of online videos every night are simply looking for the entertainment value.

    Do I make sales when I post a video at the popular hosting sites….yes. But, for the time it takes to create and upload a video to the top 20 sites I could write 2 articles and software submitt them to the top 20 directories.

    Sales results, needless to say, are far greater from the articles for the same amount of effort.

  16. Mr. Veerman has the most plausible explanation. The reason the low-budget stuff is associated with funny/brilliant/fresh is because it tends to be idea-driven stuff, on the whole… as in not profit-driven.

    Nobody sits around dreaming up a cool new video or spoof ad wondering how they can sell a product with it (uh, except us).

    It’s wonderful to have a strategic anchor that somehow actually sells the product too… but diffusion of mind yields diffusion of idea = ehh.

    I actually think Smirnoff blended the two fairly well. But they have some legendary minds at the helm.

    P.S. But does their target audience even realize Smirnoff is a bottom-shelf liquor? Me thinks not. So… props on a big score.

  17. The Taxcut video’s that were done in a rap fashion seemed to do pretty well. Obviously it is hard to measure if these corporate sponsored videos really add to their bottom line.

    If they are just simply “branding”… I guess it is a cheap way for them to do so. But in a situation where you need to show immediate returns and you measure that by the dollar – it is another story.

    Great site… I’ll be back often.


  18. Thanks for the data. Just started in on internet video after doing infomercials for three years. I think I’ll leave the crew at home and just set up in a half-lit basement! LOL!

    Just started helloworld and it seems that it is the saving grace for those over 35 who didn’t trade their pacifiers for a mouse and keyboard as far as making digital media. Looking forward to learning more. Anybody doing helloworld and getting great responses and sales? Love to see what you’re doing so that I can know what I’m doing.

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