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The Value of Viral

The viral video was the first big star of the Internet: the video that gets passed around and watched by perhaps millions of people. The idea behind the name “viral” is that people watch a video, and, if they like it, they share it with friends, who in turn share it with their friends, and it literally spreads like a virus. Another way of looking at it is like a pyramid marketing scheme, because what is actually happening is people are sharing the video with their network of friends… and everyone in their network has their own network, and so the audience can grow exponentially.

As a video producer, I am asked quite often by clients to produce viral videos. At that point, I have to explain the serendipitous nature of the Internet, and how going viral is … well, hard to predict. Viral videos certainly have common characteristics. They need to be original, unusual, unexpected, funny, mysterious or sexy. Having these elements, however, does not guarantee your video will go viral. It’s no good, for example, to simply copy the latest viral phenomenon. But there are things you can do to help increase the number of views: you can pick a thumbnail image that attracts attention; you can choose a catchy title; you can optimize for keywords; and you can embed in a contextual website page which you submit as a sitemap to Google. But these things will also not guarantee a video will go viral. They just help it get found.

Why go Viral?

So the big question I ask clients is, Why? Why do you want the video to go viral? The answer, of course, is that they want lots of people to watch it to learn about their product or service. So the next thing I ask is, Who is watching? People who are watching viral videos don’t have the same agenda as a business owner or marketing director. They are not watching them to be exposed to a product or sold on a company, but rather to laugh, flinch or have some other emotional reaction. They pass it on because they want to share that experience. Consequently, most viral videos’ massive audiences consist of unqualified and uninterested prospects. This might work for a big company that needs brand exposure, but there’s no real ROI on these initiatives.

Viral Value:ROI
In most cases, a company’s reason for making a video is to get themselves in front of as many qualified prospects as possible. When those criteria are applied, it becomes less about sheer numbers and more about the type and quality of the viewers. When I explain this, I see a light go on in the business owner’s eyes, and then they ask, How do you get in front of qualified prospects? That’s where things get interesting. That’s where you research your audience and see who the bloggers are who’s engaging them, what social networks they hang out in, what Internet magazines they read. You create a video that caters to that audience, and you engage bloggers and the social networks to spread the video within that community. You can advertise the video on websites and magazines that target your particular audience, or run a YouTube paid placement program to get in front of people using your keywords. You may end up with a smaller audience than what you might consider “viral,” but you’ll reach your best prospects, and actually get some ROI. And that is a worthy goal.

Side Note:
Occasionally a product comes along that lends itself to creating a viral video while at the same time demonstrating its effectiveness and thereby driving sales. My favorite example is the “Can You Blend It?” campaign. BlendTec make industrial strength blenders. To demonstrate them, they created humorous videos where an official- looking guy in a lab coat blends things like cell phones, dolls, and household items to powder. It’s very funny, and the videos went viral, but they also demonstrate the product’s power and link to an e-commerce site where viewers can buy the product.

iphone Blendup

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