Why No One Will Watch Your Crappy Corporate "Viral" Video, And How To Fix It

Those "Will It Blend?" videos of some guy throwing an iPhone in a blender and the instantly viral Shakeweight ads have millions and millions of views. Your company's new "viral" spot has 500. Here's what separates great branded video content from the flops.

I get asked this question all the time: "How do we make our video/post/content go viral?"

The honest answer is that you can't.

You can't make something go viral. You don't decide, I don't decide, the audience does. Asking for something to go viral is almost as absurd as calling your newest launch a "viral marketing campaign." Really? Your campaign is to get people talking to other people about your company? What campaign isn't about that? Viral isn't a campaign, it's a result of a good or really bad one.

Someone recently sent me their viral video. They actually called it that. It had 2,000 views, which is more than a lot of videos out there, until you realize that they sent the video out to a subscriber base of over a million people. That's not viral; that stinks. However, that same video being emailed to 10 people and getting 2,000 views, that's something that has started to get buzz.

If you're hoping for your latest content to go viral, it has to do one thing: evoke strong emotion. Key word there is "strong". If someone lightly laughs at something, or is slightly inspired, that doesn't make them jump to the "share" button. It has to be to the level of awesome. Awesomely funny, upsetting, uplifting, offensive, whatever the emotion is—it has to hit it hard. P&G's Olympics ad is doing that—to the tune of 5.4 million views. Your latest blog post on why you like your company's product isn't doing that.

If you hit one or more of those emotions, that's when the spread starts. The key to long-lasting viral is to reach the Third Circle.

In the middle is you or your brand. When you push out content, it always hits a good percentage of your First Circle. That's your brand fans on Facebook, your followers on Twitter, the creepy people still on MySpace. It can also be personal friends and family. A percentage of those in the First Circle will always share your stuff for a multitude of reasons. They know you, so there is more reason to find an inside joke funny, they think you're attractive (that's a hot logo you got there!) so they always "Like" whatever you share. That means your content can always easily reach the Second Circle. It's getting the content to spread past that circle that is the difference between viral and spiral.

That Second Circle have little to no brand attachment or relationship to you. They will spread the content based on its own content merits. Once they start sharing it with no brand umbilical cord attached, you know you've got a good one on your hands.

When we made Reflections Of Motherhood the goal was simple: to make moms smile, cry, and share. You'll notice in the video itself there is no branding for the client, Nummies Nursing Bras, up until the very end when the owner of Nummies, Alison Kramer, is holding up the last sign, thanking everyone. After we launched this video and it went viral, many brands tried to replicate it but, among other reasons, they don't go viral because they make it a commercial right out of the gate. It opens with a logo, their logo is plastered throughout, just to remind you that "this feeling is brought to you by us!" People don't share commercials, they share emotions. With over 700,000 views of the video, her company has been written about on every major parenting site online and received the equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars in publicity. Would those numbers change if every sign the mom's held up had a "Nummies Nursing Bra" stamped on it? The best commercials are sometimes not commercials at all.

The video spread organically versus artificially. Artificial viral is when you bribe or tell people to share something with condition. I can get 1,000 likes on a Facebook status if I promise to raffle off an iPad. Heck, people would hack into their mom's account to get a chance for an iPad. That's not viral, it's artificial. It won't reach the third circle, but it will tick them off. People have only so much social currency with their friends/followers and if they plead weekly for votes to meaningless contests or invites to apps, eventually their friends tune them out, block their feed, or unfriend them.

The problem with viral is when it spreads for the wrong reason. Once it starts to go, you can't really put that toothpaste back in the tube. One of the case studies in the Book Of Business Awesome/UnAwesome started off terrible—and ended up making the brand look pretty good. In a viral nutshell, a FedEx employee was seen on video chucking a delivery over a fence and walking away. Worse for FedEx, the package contained a new monitor. Do you know who orders monitors? Geeks.

Geeks like me. If you want one takeaway from reading this: never upset the geek. They will mess your brand up. So the video of the monitor chucker was uploaded by the geek customer, since it was done right in front of the apartment camera (seriously, the FedEx truck was lined up in the frame so perfectly, it's like UPS parked it). It was uploaded and started catching viral fire like nothing we've seen in a while. It had all the elements of a geekalanche: a geek being wronged, a big corporation not caring, and a perfect exposé video. And it took off. Then FedEx did something amazing. It owned up to it.

Quickly. They came out with a blog post—Absolutely, Positively, Unacceptable—where the VP of North American Operations owned up to the mistake made by their delivery person. Then they did something to show even further that they cared about listening to their customers—they left the blog comments open. They weren't afraid to hear from their customers, even when feedback was going to be negative.

The benefit of them acting quickly and apologetically is when the news of the video hit the mainstream blogs and TV, it came with the apology attached and allowed FedEx to save some skin.

Reactions are measured by minutes and hours online, not days. Whether the response is negative or positive, the brand has nothing to hide behind. It's time to be awesome. Third Circle awesome.

—Got a favorite viral video or ad? Tell us why you like it and drop a link in the comments below. 

Scott Stratten is the President of UnMarketing.com, a company that combines efforts in viral, social, and authentic marketing. He has guided companies such as PepsiCo, Adobe, Red Cross, and Saks Fifth Avenue through the viral/social media and relationship marketing landscape. His Book of Business Awesome / The Book of Business UnAwesome arrives on August 21.

[Image: Flickr user Geomangio]

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  • MarkHurricane

    As any good client knows simply including the words 'viral video' in the subject line of the email which contains the brief is usually sufficient to make it go viral. "We want a really dry corporate promo film, discussing a topic we've gone over to the point of nausea in the past, delivered in line with our brand guidelines, but obviously it's a 'viral' so we don't have much budget, and certainly won't be throwing any money at seeding, or anything which could actually give the campaign some wings. We'll just put it out on Facebook and await the millions of views to quickly amass. How many more call centre staff should we take on to handle the additional demand?"

  • Darragh Mulryan

    But don't you have to ask your first circle to get it out there in the first place? I wrote a post about this today in my marketing blog which you can see here, I figure why should companies try and create videos, something that is hard to do, when they could just go to the people who are already doing it well?

  • Janetcaterina

    Manipulation is the antithesis to what you're describing above. Best captured by the comments of ANONYMOUS, the desire to make art becomes a spontaneous creative event and that is what will succeed in the original idea and reality bite that will make for a successful impact.

  • Cdashnaw

    I love this ad. I even talked about it at work. But I could not have told you what it was selling, and I wonder how many others could. Does the fact that something goes viral mean that it's accomplished something for the brand? I'm not so sure.
    - Cindy Dashnaw

  • Fastcompany

    Seriously, this is spot on! Well said. Been tasked with making a viral video before and laughed really hard out loud. (Ooops?) Now it's an on-going joke among some colleagues and I... ;)

  • Kara Hoisington

    This article perfectly articulates what so many of us feel. I worked for a creative agency for years and got asked this question all...the...time. Was especially annoying when it was by B2B companies or for products that weren't meant to reach a large audience. Is it "cool" to go viral, sure. But does it meet you end growth goals? Will it lead to sales? 

    I completely agree P&G has done an amazing job with this in their "Thank You Mom" campaign, but what is most important is that they really thought about the potential customers they were trying to reach. Notice there is no "Thank You Dad" campaign simultaneously running.

    Great article!

  • Erin Schulte

    I read a lot about branded content and how to make it compelling--I think the story behind this viral video by Ultimat Vodka shows how much work, planning, and ingenuity really goes into these things if you're going to delight your audience. It's not as easy as catching a toddler playing with an iPad or stupid dog tricks. 


  • Mike Dawson

    An anonymous commenter on the P&G Olympics ad said it all, "This is manipulation perfected," but once perfected and utilized can it be replicated, and could it be damaging to the brand in the long term? The emotional manipulation of "Reflections of Motherhood:" surely the audience will not be so stupid to accept that as sharing fodder in the future? Or maybe I overestimate the intelligence of an audience who want to feel, want to feel anything, whether good or bad - Correct, in viral it is not the entertainment value of the video itself that is being shared, but the emotion - I'm sure this article will trigger a multitude of attempts to manipulate emotional response through video and increase sharing as a result, but humans know when they are being manipulated, or moreover after the manipulation has occurred the realization dawns - When a human realizes they are being emotionally manipulated by a friend, there is more often than not a backlash - If a friend can be lost as a result of it, then what is to protect a brand promise pushed via the emotional manipulation means from suffering a backlash? Make them laugh, not cry.
    Mike Dawson of:  sollylabs.blogspot.cm