The Marketeter’s Cheat Sheet to Viral Video

cheatYou’re running a brand that is trying to “dip your toe” into social media and online video, and you’re facing some important questions:

  • Is my brand right for this?
  • How can I experiment without ending up as a “case study” failure?
  • Can I convince my company that we should do this?
  • What are my options for developing compelling content and distributing it widely?

Here’s a quick guide that encompasses a lot of topics we’ve covered on this blog. It’s the “least a marketer or agency needs to know” about online video, and will give you a roadmap for a good program.

  1. Step 1: Determine if your brand is right for online video. Is your brand compelling and simple, or complex and direct-response oriented? If you’re a consumer-product goods (CPG), it’s a no-brainer. If you’re in a complex, crowded, regulated and boring industry, it’s going to be more difficult.
  2. Step 2: Keep it quiet. The more senior management and attorneys you bring into a pilot, the more internal battling you’ll do before experimenting. Get some “air cover” from an executive sponsor, and avoid excessive internal scrutiny.
  3. Step 3: Let go. Your marketing message is critical to you, but if your content is driven by an advertising objective it’s at risk of being a flop. If you want to go viral, you’ve got to entertain first and promote subtly. There are countless case studies on this, and it’s an inarguable fact. If you buy media, your ads can be boring. But if you expect people to share your video, it better be entertaining, provocative, sexy, funny, outrageous or at least interesting.
  4. Step 4: Develop a creative brief. Don’t make it too narrow, but give it some focus. If you ask people to make a funny video that includes your brand, you’ll get a lot of stuff that may or may not support your objective. But if you require creators to insert a series of “unique selling propositions” then you’ll end up with ads instead of entertaining videos. With my smaller clients, I develop the brief. Larger clients often already have one, and simply need ideas or video content.
  5. Step 5: Engage creators. You have four options here.
    • Option one, you can hire your agency to create video content. This gives you control, but most agencies (advertising, online, and public relations) lack experience in social media and online video in particular. I’ve found this to be extremely expensive, and often the agencies lack the expertise to make the videos “not suck” and get the videos widely viewed and “seeded” in the right places.
    • Option two, you can hire individual amateurs. This gives you access to people that know the medium and have established audiences. Some smaller brands (and larger ones) contract directly with people like me, InvisibleEngine, Rhett & Link and Barely Political (just a few creators that are interested in building entertaining, promotional content). This keeps things safer, but requires some oversight since you’ll need to interact individually with these companies or people.
    • Option three, you can run a big, public contest. These are still quite common, but rather expensive. You’ll spend a lot on media to promote the contest (money I’d prefer to see brands use to promote the brand itself). You’ll also get a lot of lame content, but hopefully a few winners.
    • Finally, you can contract with a third party that can represent a variety of proven creators. For example, a few large brands have contracted with Xlntads to help reach a collection of experienced amateur creators (note: I consult with Xlntads, and run its creative ad board). There are probably similar brand/creator models that offer this service, but I’m less familiar with them. I see this as an evolving industry that can either contract directly to brands or via agencies. For instance, Daily Motion has brokered between certain major advertisers in France, and works from the agency’s creative brief to identify, engage, pay and leverage the presence of appropriate creators that produce content on the site.
  6. Step 6: Get the videos seen. If you want to buy media, you can run your videos as advertisements on a variety of sites. The second and third tier video sites are especially receptive to giving prominence to promotional content in fairly inexpensive media buys. If your content is good enough, you can hope it will travel “viral” style: people will share it with friends, post it on their blogs, feature it on their websites. There are three magic tricks that make this work:
    • First, your content has to be good.
    • Second, it really helps to leverage the distribution and audience of known creators. If an amateur has a popular blog or YouTube channel, this gives you a much better chance of wide distribution.
    • Thirdly, you can “seed” it yourself or have the creators, third parties or agencies do it. This “seeding” involves reaching out to appropriate online properties, channels, discussions, forums and blogs. If it’s good content and you reach out to people politely your chances increase. I’ve seen bad videos that get lots of attention, and good videos that die. So this third step is non trivial and often overlooked.
  7. Step 7: Evaluate. Did the videos get lots of views and positive feedback? What did the comments say? Did people take a measurable action after watching the video? Keep your expectations in check: few marketing videos break into the millions of views, and very few of those viewers will take an immediate action (visiting your site, and making a purchase). These videos will, however, help your rankings via Google and other search engines. So maybe the next time a prospect is searching for your brand on Google, they’ll find your brand-friendly videos instead of a competitor’s content or disgruntled customer. This is a powerful and often overlooked outcome of a good video pilot.
  8. Step 8: Scale as Appropriate. Most online-video marketing projects are simple experiments to help brands learn and “test the waters,” and few have scaled radically. However some brands have been so excited about results with online video that they return annually with programs that are hard to miss.

With a few exceptions, I haven’t yet seen many online-video pilots driving significant, immediate sales for a brand. But I have seen online-video initiatives that have increased the awareness of the brand, and changed the attributes and preference of target consumers (as measured by awareness trackers). Most of my clients have enjoyed an online presence they wouldn’t have gotten on their own and found it a good investment. A few have confided that more people watched my stupid video than visited their big, bloated agency-developed website (which contained a variety of expensive videos they produced). It’s much easier to reach people on the highway of YouTube than to hope they’ll stop at the little rest stop you create (which is usually a huge expense and a “throw away” at the end of the project).

Other suggestions? Bring ’em on. This is a blog, for crying out loud.

13 Replies to “The Marketeter’s Cheat Sheet to Viral Video”

  1. Kevin,

    Great list.

    Keep in mind, that if someone does decide to run a contest, that might necessitate involvement from legal.

    Also, if at all possible, it is always beneficial to someone direct the audience back to a website. This is a great opportunity to create a microsite to support the viral video campaign. At a minimum, try to make a landing page on your main website that supports the viral campaign. Because if an audience likes your video, beyond forwarding it virally they may actually want to visit your website.


  2. Regarding step #2:

    Guys like you who try to fly under the radar on these things are the ones who keep the people like me in business. I’m a lawyer.

    Thbhbhbhbhbhbhbhbbhbhbhbhb. Take that.

  3. Kevin:

    Great list for would-be viral video producers.

    I’m especially glad to see the brand question first. If you answer positively to this question first, it’s easier to take step 2 and 3 knowing that you’re moving in the right direction. And it gives good information for step 4.

    Without the foundation in brand that comes from step 1, step 2 and 3 can be very dangerous.


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