Piano-playing cats, finger-biting babies, the Star Wars kid -- we've all seen these viral videos on YouTube, laughed and then shared with everyone we know. And that's exactly the response marketers have wanted from consumers for years. Now, more and more small businesses are learning that making a catchy video and watching it go viral just might be the cheapest, most effective marketing they can engage in.
The notion of viral marketing dates back to the mid-1990s when marketers sought to create viral slogans that would be passed on via word of mouth and "infect" consumers, according to Kevin Nalty, the author of Beyond Viral and founder of Nalts Consulting in Doylestown, Pa., who is perhaps best known as "Nalts" on YouTube. He says viral videos were a natural evolution once online video became a popular medium and were easily shared via e-mail and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
But defining a viral video is much easier than making one. In fact, Nalty says he's posted the same video twice and seen one go viral, but not the other, leading him to conclude that "you never know" what will resonate with viewers. While some viral videos are just silly home videos captured on a Flip camera, viral video production can be part of an concerted marketing campaign. Take Old Spice, whose "Old Spice Guy" campaign (which included both social media and TV commercials) helped the brand generate tens of millions of views on YouTube and increased sales by 107 percent.
Still not convinced? Here are some findings from Nalty that might compel you to add video content to your marketing campaign:
- Online video is the only advertising medium with a growth rate of 40 to 60 percent per year. More traditional media, like television and print, have flat or declining growth rates.
- Online video viewing is increasing across all demographics. A bigger video audience means you can target more viewers and potentially turn them into customers.
- The ROI of getting in front of customer eyeballs through online video is typically high, because of low production and distribution costs.
- A video by topic is about 10 times more likely to end up in the top 10 search results than a text piece of the same topic, since search engines try to diversify the results. In short, videos get preferential treatment, and there's a better clickthrough rate than with text pieces because videos show up with a hard-to-miss thumbnail.
- Video is the most visceral and interactive form of social media, which makes it the most effective and persuasive marketing tool. People remember video more than, say, a banner ad.
So we know viral videos can be effective, but how exactly do you make one? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Make them laugh.. or cry. The best way to compel someone to send a video to friends and family is to stir up emotion, whether it's laughing or crying. Aside from emotion, Nalty says there are some common traits among the most viral videos -- "music, dancing, attractive women, Candid Camera-style pranks, children and topical and political references." It's important to note that online video is a very different medium from a television commercial, and what works in a great Super Bowl commercial does not translate online. "Piano-playing cats is another story," Nalty says.
But for a business using video as a marketing tool, you really have to understand your target audience and what would be viral and worth sharing with them, according to Peter Corbett, founder and CEO of iStrategy Labs, an experiential marketing agency based in Washington, D.C.
"It needs to be very clever and enhance the digital space, rather than just disrupt it," and that's often done with comedy or shock value, says Doug Akin, a New York-based digital marketing guru. The real litmus test, he adds, is whether people outside your organization would want to share it. Your video shouldn't be an inside joke -- it should have relatively universal appeal.
Predicting what will go viral is nearly impossible, but virality can usually be attributed to "quirkiness," says Scott Lamb, managing editor at viral and meme site Buzzfeed in New York. There needs to be "some sort of social imperative, some reason that the average person is moved to share it" in the same excited way he or she would forward an e-mail or tell a friend about a new TV show. He cites Blendtec's "Will It Blend?" series -- where founder Tom Dickson chops up iPhones, glow sticks and other objects to demonstrate the power of his blenders -- as a perfect example, because it appeals to geeks and showcases a great product in a very subtle and funny way. And subtlety is key. People will click away if your video is overtly promotional, so you need to give them a reason to stay. The brand or product can be in the video, but it can't be front and center in an unnecessary way.
While some argue that the timing of a video is important, Evan Gregory of the Gregory Brothers, a viral video production group in Brooklyn, N.Y., says, "The purest viral videos owe nothing to timing and everything to personality." He cites the Antoine Dodson news story (the inspiration for his own Bed Intruder Song video), the JK Wedding Dance and Double Rainbow as examples -- these videos would have gone viral regardless of when they were released.
2. Keep it short and snappy. A video needs to be easily "consumed by a multitasking generation" -- viewers shouldn't have to watch a long-form video to get the joke. "Keep your clip or video short, interesting, edgy and give us a surprise that makes us want to forward it to our friends," Nalty says. When you're targeting an impatient audience that has its cursor on the X, you need to keep them engaged. Nalty says it's best to compel them early, be entertaining, not overly promotional and don't leave your marketing message at the end because they'll have clicked away by then. Gregory says there is a sweet spot for video length: 2:08. Nalty prefers shorter hits, ranging from 30 to 90 seconds, and Akin says there are "no set rules" for length, but it should be "fairly short."
3. Don't spend a lot of time or money. Gregory says it took "two days and zero dollars" to produce the Bed Intruder Song video, which has more than 66 million views to date. The more money you spend producing a video, the more viral it must become for you to get a return on your investment. So keep it cheap. Corbett recommends hitting up the videography department at a local art school and hiring a team of students to make your video.
"My most popular videos are far from my best, and they succeed in a way that is inversely related to the time I put into them," says Nalty (see "Farting in Public," which shows up on page one when you Google "farts" -- assuming you would ever Google that). Nalty says another way of guaranteeing views is to partner with a "professional YouTuber" who has a significant following. They'll charge much less than a professional-grade video and will likely yield a decent number of hits. Viral videos are those with low production cost and high-volume traffic, like the aforementioned piano-playing cat.
Also consider releasing several videos, so you don't put all your eggs in one basket. Akin suggests testing out a variety of content, releasing it on a weekly basis and making sure it's "cross-pollinated." The goal is to create a deeper connection with consumers through engaging content, rather than bang them over the head with overt hard sales tactics.
4. Spread the word. Once you have the video, you have to distribute it. Nalty says Friday at noon is the key time slot to blast a video -- people are just back from lunch and if your video is one of the most recent additions, "you're likely to get critical mass." You can "seed" it to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where sharing videos is both easy and expected.
The Gregory Brothers found success by only using YouTube, and you should try to get as much organic distribution as you can, since it's free (and make sure it has a thumbnail), but you can also use paid distribution channels. Corbett recommends ads.youtube, Facebook Social ads, Google Ad Words and Digg. A small business may not be able to afford much of the paid distribution channels, the fees for which are based on a cost-per-click (CPC) or cost-per-thousand (CPM) fee, but they are available and effective. Although costs vary, CPCs tend to be pricey (about $1 or more per click, according to an analysis by D. Steven White, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth), since the viewer is engaged and actually clicks through, while CPMs cost a fraction of that (about 9 cents).
And don't forget that a viral video also provides a perfect opportunity to make a lasting impression at a bar, conference, business meeting or trade show -- just whip out your iPad and show people how fun and quirky and hip your company is. It's a great conversation piece that can be a huge asset for your company, Corbett says.
5. Remember, going viral doesn't always bring in the bucks. Nalty says "an impression isn't an impression unless it makes one," meaning a video could be watched by 5 million teenagers, but if the product is for seniors, the views may not translate to actual sales. It's an example of quantity versus quality -- 100,000 views from the target demographic could be way more valuable than millions of views, and it all boils down to whether the video actually persuades a consumer to change his behavior or buying habits. Also, a viral video may not do much for a geographically specific startup -- viral videos tend to transcend location, and video views in Florida won't do much to help sales for a small business in Colorado.
Want more information? Here are five additional "rules" for viral videos, courtesy of Jonah Peretti, the CEO of Buzzfeed.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 1/30/11.