The 7 Rules Of Viral Videos You Probably Shouldn't Share With Your Boss

How Cisco's Tim Washer is lightening things up in social media by making a joke out of the conventional approach to marketing.

The funny thing about comedy is that it works ridiculously well with viral videos. Yet in the it-isn't-creative-unless-it-sells world of B2B marketing, humor is as rare as the one-armed paperhanger, disarming us with unexpected efficacy. Trying to sell in comedy at most B2B companies is like pushing Jell-O up a hill, a raucously sloppy affair, best left for masochists or the jauntiest of jesters.

One such jester is Tim Washer. Currently the Senior Manager of Social Media for Cisco's Service Provider division, Washer has spent the last seven years gaining guffaws where few have dared to tread. A former stand-up, Washer's approach is indeed laughable, helping him to stand out at BDI's recent B2B Social Communications Forum, where he inadvertently revealed these seven rules of viral videos.

1. Strategy is for Stooges
Washer's first big viral success happened back in 2006 while he was at IBM promoting perhaps the unfunniest of all tech products: the mainframe computer. The series called "Mainframe: The Art of Sale" which brilliantly mocks typical sales training videos, garnered hundreds of thousands of views, terabytes of press coverage and unlikely interest among college students-- a happy byproduct of this effort. Reported Washer with refreshing honesty, "I never did sit down and think okay--here's the strategy for the video."

2. There's No Point in Copy Points
"For a comedy video to be successful it needs to be inspired by some artistic idea versus you sitting down with a PowerPoint and saying, 'How do we create a video that does all this for us,'" explained Washer. Recalling the spark behind his first viral hit, which had nothing to do with copy points, Washer remembered, "One time I thought, these are million dollar machines, wouldn't it be silly if a sales person was going through the white pages, cold calling to sell the mainframes."

3. Forget About Closing the Sale
Acknowledging the long sales cycles of complex tech products, Washer is under no delusion that his viral efforts will lead directly to sales. "I don't think we are going to sell any products because of this video [but] hopefully we piqued curiosity." All kidding aside, Washer firmly believes that even in B2B sales, "you are still having a very human connection with somebody at a corporation," thus more than justifying the need for ice-breaking comedy.

4. Lower Your Expectations
Despite having created a number of viral hits for both IBM and Cisco, one thing Washer can never be accused of is over-promising. Noted a straight-faced Washer, "It is important not to burden the project with too many expectations, such as a call to action." Instead, he prescribes a more indirect approach: Driving video viewers to a companion site like a blog rather than to a product page. By continuing with the joke, the marketer increases the chances of ongoing engagement.

5. Metrics aren't Important
Despite having racked up over a million views for his B2B videos including one that remains on ComedyCentral.com, Washer is not a big fan of hard metrics. "We are much more thrilled if an analyst who follows us tweets about the video and just says something positive," he offered. This emphasis on the qualitative impact of comedy is truly what drives Washer. "One of the strongest human connections you can make is to make someone else laugh." explained the all too happy Washer.

6. Don't Take my Partner, Please.
Acknowledging the challenges of cranking out comedy on the cheap, Washer noted that his only flops were when he had to execute without his usual partner for budgetary reasons. "One thing I have learned is the importance of collaboration," noted Washer, who usually teams up with, funny enough, Scott Teems. "We always come up with something much better together. It's not just getting two funny people to work together; it's got to be chemistry, and that's tough to find."

7. Strive for Silly; Root for Ridiculous
Explaining a recent effort for Cisco, the Obsolete TV Support Group, Washer imagined a world of depressed TVs who had been abandoned as families turned to other devices for entertainment. "Being ridiculous will get you attention on YouTube and help you stand out," he added. "Social media is for telling interesting stories; it is not the place to go with a direct marketing message," offered the momentarily serious Washer.

Final Note: From this writer's perspective, creating laughs is a genuine service to humanity, one that opens the door to meaningful engagements between marketers and consumers. That said, being funny is hard and it is easy to miss the mark unless you are a professional like Washer. For more of his tips, see my extensive interview on TheDrewBlog.com.

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  • george faulkner

    I worked with Tim at IBM and he is the real deal. Our boss at IBM gave us a great deal of creative freedom and I remain thankful for that.  I agree with Tim that attempting to tell a complete product or innovation story in a short social video will squash the potential for clicks and comments.  Keep the team small, follow your gut, take a few chances.