Viral Content

Viral Video isn’t about Advertising – it’s about Entertainment

I watched “Celebrity Apprentice” tonight – it’s a guilty pleasure.

The only reason I’m writing about it is the challenge: They were asked to make a “viral video” promoting an O’Cedar’s spray mop. If you’ve ever had to do this for your job, it had to have pissed you off too.

It seems everyone thinks the way to make a viral video is to make a commerical like you see on TV, then put it up on YouTube. From that, possibly through magic or devine intervention, people will share it around.

Ironically, I found this image for "Viral Marketing" - and outside of me calling it out for stupidity, there is nothing viral about it.

“Sheila! I just watched this commercial for a floor mop on YouTube! You have to see this!”

Only Penn Jillette seemed to understand how viral content works: You make something people WANT to share. You don’t make something you want people to share.

How many of the things you shared, “educated you on the product?” Probably none. Because that’s boring. What you likely did share were people inuring themselves, pets doing weird things, dirty jokes… things that made you laugh.

That’s not where they went on Celebrity Apprentice, though. Both groups pushed on making what were the same kinds of ads you push past with the fast forward button, thankful that you have a DVR.

I dont’ blame them entirely, though – and not just because it’s reality TV, and you can’t trust anything you see or hear on reality TV. I blame the executives of the company for not have a clear idea of what they were asking for. I’ve had those meetings with clients who said, “there’s this video that’s very popular, and I WANT THAT.” Great! Yeay!

And then, “It should tell people all about our product, and showcase all of its features, it shouldn’t  be the butt of the joke, and it should tell them why they must give us their money… but otherwise, go crazy!”

It doesn’t work that way. A viral video that promotes only carries the name of the company or the product – and  then you go crazy. What makes something viral isn’t the sell, it’s the fun.

How much milage do you think the Nintendo Wii got out of the video below?

The answer is Nintendo got a LOT of exposure out of this. I can also guarantee you the executives of Nintendo would have never approved of that video if they paid an agency to make something viral, and this is what they were presented with. That disconnect exemplifies why a company cannot make it’s own viral content if they insist on taking themselves seriously.

I remember the executive of one company explaining everything they wanted in their viral program with the exact same language about showcasing a project.

“Then I’m afraid it won’t go viral,” I told him.

“Well then what can we do to MAKE it go viral?” he asked.

“There’s only one option,” I said. “We go door-to-door with shotguns and MAKE people watch it.”

Seriously – just spending some time coming up with something people will actually want to watch takes much less work.

Quality is Viral

I’m a stickler for quality. Where people are always trying to find the secret to viral content, I point out that viral content is always good content. You can’t get millions of YouTube views by trickery, you have to get there by creating something people want to see.

Case in point: Old Spice’s “Manmercial”:

In one month it has received 4.8 million views. Yes, it’s also on TV. But how many people go to YouTube just to watch a commercial they’ve seen on TV? I worked at an agency that made several awful TV commercials, and none of them got more than 1000 views over the course of years.

No, people come to see this commercial because it’s entertaining. The reason there’s so little video that’s viral is because this takes intelligence, creativity, and a great idea.

If you’re hoping to get millions of views for your video, stop trying to game the system. Just get a good idea.

How to make a viral video

Viral video, viral content, viral media – these are the buzz phrases of two years ago, but people are still stuck on the concept of creating them for their businesses. Here’s an example of one, done by Rob Dyrdek for Carl’s Jr.:

With almost 350,000 views in three months, to the passive observer it would look like this is a viral video success. The catch is that it was produced on his MTV television show – so people knew it would be on there, went looking for it, saw it… so people found it because of mainstream media, not word of mouth. And viral content is all about word of mouth.

But so what, right? A lot of people saw the video, Carl’s Jr. got some press out of it, some burgers and fries were sold – who cares how the video was promoted?

Well, it’s a semantic point, but a pretty clear one: Real viral videos are difficult to create, because they require other people to take an interest in them. If you’re using mainstream media to promote your video, then mainstream media gets credit for the success.

For instance, the Weezer video for “Pork and Beans,” which was released first on YouTube, now has over 18,000,000 views, and got some 800,000 in its first week. That’s not viral either, as the band already had a following of millions. If your brand already has a following of millions, then you can certainly aim them all at a video and get a lot of views. But if your brand already has a following of millions, your time might be better spent aiming them at buying something. (Unless you’re a band. This has worked out great for Weezer, since the video is an advertising tool for the album anyway, right?)

A lot of business owners would look at all this and say, “Hey! Let’s make a video of our own too,” and overlook the importance of having an MTV reality show covering the story behind the video. Real viral content gets passed around over time, and succeeds because of the quality of it.

That’s a difficult hurdle for most viral content producers to get – it has to be quality. It can’t just be another piece of advertising that was produced for television and popped out onto YouTube. It’s also why there are fewer and fewer truly interesting pieces of content that get spread around like this. It still happens, but naturally. Otherwise YouTube is now a home for millions of mediocre attempts at “getting views,” and content from major media outlets: NBC, CBS, BBC… and the aforementioned MTV. This is your new competition if you’re looking to produce viral media.

Blendtec has had a lot of success producing their own content for YouTube. They obliterate products all the time with their blenders, and they get a lot of views. These kinds of videos are easily passed around, and without any other media spending, they get people to look at their blenders.



Why? Because they were scripted by an army of comedy writers or hired those incredibly creepy Cirque de Soleil acrobats? No, it’s just interesting to see. That’s all it needs to be. You can get away with getting this kind of notice on video sites easily enough if you can figure out what it is about yourself people want to see. You probably won’t get it the first time, either – you’ll have to create a bunch of videos, with several different concepts, before you hit the one that gets people’s attention, if you want it to meet the magical “viral” expectation.

So the strategy for viral content?

1) Dream up some interesting concepts
2) Shoot them all
3) Release them on YouTube, Facebook, Myspace, etc.
4) Tell your closest friends that they’re out there, and invite them to look at them. DO NOT tell everyone they’re out there, as that looks like what it is – desperation. If your friends think something you’ve done is funny, they’ll share it around.

Presto! Once one of those takes off, you’ll be Bill Gates rich. Or maybe you won’t. But you’ll have a lot of views, and that’s what you were after.


Just remember, you need to make a LOT of different productions, some of them over and over with different angles. (Not camera angles – think Blendtec killing an iphone, then a rake, then a VCR. Different angles on the same concept.) Remember, that Strange Ranger who did the “Leave Britney Alone” video was doing that for a year and a half before that one took off.

If he’d have been selling eyeliner or hair bleaching systems, he’d be rolling in cash by now!