Creating media that can "go viral" is a lot like becoming a successful stand-up comic.
I had to laugh this morning when I read the headline to this article on MarketingVox. "Want Your Video To Go Viral?" it asked, "Make it Funny or Focus on Sports."
Oh sure! That's all there is to it! Not.
Observing that "all" you have to do to make something go viral is "make it funny" or "focus on sports" is sort of like saying that "all" you have to do to become a famous standup comic is "get on stage" and "tell jokes." Unfortunately for lots of would-be stand-up comics, it's much more complicated than that…though the success of Larry The Cable Guy might be the exception that proves the rule.
If you've ever ventured into the wild world of viral media, I'm sure that you know that creating successful viral content is tough. It's not enough to create something that you think is funny…it has to appeal to enough people to get them to make the effort to pass it along to their friends. And that ain't easy: a Jupiter study from several years ago found that most viral media achieved a paltry 15 percent pass-along rate. Granted, the study is a few years old and came out before the explosion in social media over the past few years, but based on the detritus littering YouTube, it's pretty obvious that making viral media that people pass around is really hard.
So what works? One way to find out is to take a look at a list of the Top 10 Viral Ads by Unique Views just published by Advertising Age and Visible Measures:
Before you go on, go refresh your memory by watching the videos. Don't feel guilty…you're doing research.
OK. So now that you're back, what do these videos have in common? Sure, "funny" and "sports" (loosely defined) do seem to be pretty prevalent, but there's a lot more there. In fact, I'd say that there are 10 main characteristics we can pull out of the list that can serve as guidelines to creating great social media content:
Wow! All of these videos do one thing really well: they surprise us. Whether it's the shock of seeing rollerskating babies (Live Young), mind-blowing new tech (Xbox Project Natal), pop stars as hot gladiators (Gladiator), an iPad getting ripped to shreds (Will it Blend), or even talking abs (Odor Blocker), great viral media shocks us with the unexpected.
Yowza! A cardinal rule of advertising is that sex sells. And many of these top 10 videos use sex in one way or another to grab us and make us pay attention. There's the obvious appeal of sexy singers grinding in skimpy gladiatorial garb (Gladiator) and the just as obvious appeal of handsome buff men talking to us from their showers (Responses, Odor Blocker). But it's also hard to ignore a beautiful woman being made more beautiful (Evolution) or the raw sex appeal of hot cars (Gymkhana Two). Humor and sports are somewhat universal…sex touches everyone.
Pow! It also seems that destroying things touches all of us in some ways. Will It Blend is the obvious example (and it has got the views to prove it) and Gymkhana Two's orgy of destruction makes it hard to look away. But even subtler (or campier) acts of destruction (Odor Blocker) or implied violence (the incongruous chain saw in the hand of the guy in the Responses spot) makes us keep watching.
Groove! Music, like sex, can be another way to broaden the appeal of a viral ad. While some spots have no music (Responses, Odor Blocker) and others use music for irony (Will it Blend), there's no denying the power of well-known, catchy music to keep your audiences' attention. Spots like Gladiator and particularly T-Mobile Dance show the power of great, universally-appealing music as a way to grab a hold of your attention and not let go.
Ooooh! Spots that include fantastic elements that astound us and stimulate our sense of wonder also work well. It can be of the "unh-uh…no he didn't" variety (Will it Blend), the "holy schmoley!" variety (Project Natal), or the "hot da*n! That's amazing!" variety demonstrated in the driving that's the center of Gymkhana Two. Combine "astounding" with "babies" and you'll pretty much always have a hit: just see "Live Young."
Touch. A common element of great drama or comedy is its ability to connect with you, the viewer, because of your ability to picture yourself in that same situation. Walt Disney was a great believer in this, counseling his animators that "comedy, to be appreciated, must have contact with the audience…there must be a familiar, sub-conscious association." We laugh or cry at things on the screen because those things connect with us by stirring up emotions we've already felt. Great viral media does the same thing by making us feel connected to the action on the screen. In this regard, the Old Spice Guy is the master.
Nudge nudge, wink wink. Maybe it's just a product of our postmodern era but successful viral media is self-aware. It doesn't try to be something it's not: it lets us in on the joke. Will it Blend, Live Young, and both Old Spice spots are very conscious of themselves as "advertising objects."
Peek. People love to see "behind the scenes." That's the major appeal of spots like Dove's "Evolution" that give us a glimpse at how technology, lighting, and makeup can make models even more "super." The Old Spice spots, with their very conscious "yeah, it's a set" look and their "accidental" inclusion of elements like dipping mic booms also draw us in. Sometimes the "behind the scenes" stuff can even become a part of the spot itself: witness the "making of" segment at the end of Gymkhana Two. Give people a peek behind the curtain to get them hooked.
Ooooohhhh! Spectacle sells. Bigger is usually better. Doing something huge, something that nobody could do in their homes is a great way of grabbing attention. It may be an obvious spectacle (like the arena in Gladiator) or a more subtle technological spectacle (like that in Project Natal). A big part of the appeal of "flash mob" spots like T-Mobile Dance is that they're so big, so spectacular that it becomes a memorable event for the spectators and the viewers alike. Even the over-the-top spectacle of a guy falling out of a Doritos-filled (and TV-equipped) coffin in front of a big crowd of "mourners" (Crash the Super Bowl) gets its appeal from being so over-the-top.
Awwwwww! Finally, one element that imbues almost all of these spots (with the exception of Gladiator) is the kindness with which they treat their subjects and their audiences. While "people being idiots and grievously injuring themselves" videos do have their appeal, that appeal is limited to a relatively small segment of the population. While the Blendtec guy obviously revels in frappe-ing an iPad, the spot wouldn't be quite as effective if he wasn't wincing a bit, too, at the prospect of destroying a beautiful piece of electronics. We can relate to him in a way that we couldn't relate to someone who's obviously sociopathic enough to enjoy smashing things just for the sake of smashing them. And while the babies in Live Young are pretty darn cute, it's obvious that even as CGI creations they're being treated well and having fun. Double "awwwwww!"
One final note: this list covers creating viral media…the strategy for getting it out there is another thing. For a great (and quick) overview of the five strategic principles for launching your creations to the world, check out viral meister Jonah Peretti's "Awesome Viral Media" presentation.
Sean is off today. This column was originally published on Sept.13, 2010 on ClickZ.
Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.