Five Inconvenient Truths of ‘Viral Video’

Let me make a confession first. I get a headache whenever a client requests to produce a ‘viral video’. To make matters worse, most marketers have so much fantasy about ‘viral video’ as if it is a cool online thing where media cost is virtually zero and production is supposed to be low budget. I am no expert in producing viral videos, but our agency did produce a handful of good, bad, and ugly Web videos for clients. Just like others, our goal is always about engaging our target audience and maximising the chance of the video being shared. But I am skeptical of the above perception what viral video is about.

Before getting over-excited for those award-winning cases you have seen on YouTube, let me share some realities I learned from my viral video experience.

1. It’s harder to draw views via YouTube than TV. YouTube claimed that for every minute, there are over 35 hours of new videos uploaded to the site. Most people know YouTube or other video-sharing sites such as Youku and Tudou in China as a popular video-sharing channel, but don’t realise how competitive its media environment is. If your video is only another TVC or a behind-the-scenes trailer, don’t expect it will become an online sensation overnight just because it is on YouTube. Your Web-audiences are mostly jaded. As there are more and more marketers like you fighting for their attention on the Web, it will only get harder and harder to make them click a ‘like’ button, leave a message, or share your video. Being quirky is not good enough. A viral video that can draw immediate attention usually has a controversial or outrageous X-factor. But the problem is, can your brand afford to do so?

2. Not all brands can afford to be outrageous. I need to jump straight to this second point. A lot of marketers understand that in order to create online buzz, we must instill a ‘wow’ factor into the video. But let’s face it, if you are managing a brand that can’t afford to be too outrageous and the approval process in your company is so bureaucratic; you shouldn’t bother requesting your ad agency to produce a viral video. Once a Web video is being fine-tuned, the magical power of it being viral will diminish. In most cases, it’s better to be extremely outrageous or extremely boring so that you are either loved or hated. The worst scenario is to be stuck in between and be forgettable.

3. No, you are not funny. “OMG… this video is soooo funny, let me share it with my friend”. It might be true that funny guys usually get more attention from girls. But don’t confuse humour as the only way to grab attention in Web video. The good news is, if your brand doesn’t have the ‘fun’ DNA, you shouldn’t try too hard to be funny. In fact, not all Web videos are meant to be funny, quirky, or even outrageous. If you are marketing a high-involved product/service/category, you should be able to find numerous interesting angles to produce a product demo video. Bottom line is, “It’s not about what you want people to know, it’s about what people want to know”.  You are better off doing some research on forums or blogs to see what your target audiences are already discussing before producing the video. Your video might not have the explosive effect like other viral videos, but if you can capture some angles to provide useful information that your target audiences are keen to learn, producing a less entertaining video still works. If the content is not time sensitive, your video might even have a long tail effect.

4. You can’t stay anonymous. Many creative agencies might persuade you (marketer) that only an un-branded viral video works, or you could wait and see the results first before deciding to claim credit if nothing goes wrong. However, first you should never think you could really stay anonymous in the online world. There are thousands of online enthusiasts who would find ways to uncover your identity if they bother to do so (given that your video is interesting or controversial enough). You should always come up with an exit plan when and how to make the connection between your Web video and other marketing efforts. Traditional or online PR is one way. A thorough seeding plan is crucial. If your video is interesting enough, showing your brand in the video in the last second is even better. My final advice to the big brands is, don’t be a coward. Step forward and tell them “I have done it”.

5. You don’t have all the time in the world. Don’t be fooled if someone tells you something like “It doesn’t really matter how long a Web video is, air time on those social video sharing sites is free anyway. Let’s make it as long as we want”. It is true that airtime on the Web is virtually free, but the attention you borrow from your audience is priceless. Without considering media cost and assuming you have a great ad to show, drawing audience attention for a three-minute clip can still be a challenge. In fact, most TVCs are broken down into 15 or 30 seconds for a reason, as it is based on the attention span of TV viewers during commercial breaks. If possible, I usually recommend clients to make the video short and concise at around 20 seconds or within one minute. The shorter it is, the more it will be shared.

I hope the above inconvenient truths will not stop you from producing your next Web sensation – be it a viral video, Web video, or branded online entertainment. The fact is people are spending more time watching videos online, therefore, I believe there is an opportunity for marketers. It is an art but also a science to produce and distribute online video content. To perfect your skills, the best way is not to copy winning formulas from others, but learn from the realities of your failures. And be prepared; sometimes reality hurts.

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