October 31, 2008 Phil

Online video – What’s viral?

If you haven’t heard about You Tube yet chances are you been living on the moon eating cheese for the past 5 years. This incredible little jewel in Google’s crown may not drag in the revenue that Adwords does for the big G, but it’s certainly shaking up the traditional advertising world. Like all great social media sites these days, You Tube has a huge following of young eyeballs. They hunt through the video search engine looking for a nugget of cool content. My 12-year-old daughter lives on the site glued to the screen searching for her T-Pain virals or Orlando Bloom cameos (yeah, she’s 12 and it scares me to death!). In some cases You Tube is her school textbook. If she’s at all like the rest of the world’s youth it’s no surprise why 70% of the 40 top ad agencies in the US said they plan to spend more in 2009 on online video.

It’s a pretty bold move for these agencies given the economic climate in the US and the fact there isn’t a benchmark for measuring the success of an online video campaign. Most of the agencies polled admitted they haven’t defined success outside the number of video views. Much like You Tube, they’re no quite sure how to translate their social success into a return on investment. What they do know is that their audiences are no longer watching a lot of network television so spending money on GPA isn’t going to work.

Everyone wants to create “viral videos”. The Dove Evolution and Sunsilk Wigout viral success stories have created a highly contagious virus of viral videos rapidly spreading across online channels. Everyone wants to go viral, but no one seems to know how to define when a video becomes “viral”. Sure you could judge it on the number of views it gets on You Tube, but is that really a measure of viral or just a popularity contest?

At the end of the day I think all marketers would be happy with a million plus views on You Tube, whether they are the result of pass-around or direct traffic. The nature of the web would suggest that if a video reached a million plus views there would have to have been viral activity. The question then becomes was it the viral activity or was it a news article, a movie star, a talk show or an online community of enthusiasts that lead to its success? Or was it a combination of both?

According to Rob Master, Director of New Media for Unilever, Dove’s Evolution video was a combination of all these elements. On launch day Unilever had a list of planned media including a spot on Ellen, the National News and press releases in all major online news sites including CNN, New York Times an many others. They called everyone who they believed would have an interest in the video. Eventually Unilever began to receive a wave of enquiries from all kinds of different media sources wanting to discuss the video. They had a viral success in media interest before they had even posted the video for public review. Because of all this critical mass the video literally went viral out of the gates and within 3 days had over a million views.

I’m sure there are many reasons why Dove’s Evolution video hit viral status so quickly, but probably the most important element was its content. Unilever touched an emotional chord with a broad audience. They were able to influence human behaviour through this connection. It probably didn’t hurt that this connection was with the gender known to be the more social (no, I’m not sexist!).

Someone once said to me that a good viral video has to be sexy, gory or comical in order to work. There is some truth to this because all three things appeal to basic human behavioural instincts. They intuitively create reactions. Stick a sexy model on a billboard or hire Jerry Seinfeld to do a commercial and you definitely increase your chances of it being a success (Microsoft might not agree with me). For marketers shock, sex and comedy have long been attention grabbers used to turn a head, but quite often their use has had no relationship to the brand. They have been the easy way out when you can’t find that specific connection as Dove has with Evolution, that resonates exclusively with your target audience and mirrors the emotions you want associated with your brand.

Viral video is gaining acceptance and momentum because when it’s right it connects on the appropriate emotional plain. Its ability to tell stories makes it easy to deliver a message that can create a teardrop or a spontaneous laugh. People are overwhelmed by messages and have developed a filter for most things that are irrelevant to their needs and desires. Creating content that is based on insight and connects with the target audience is now a requirement in order to achieve success.

For those who need to connect with youth, breaking through can be a challenge. The young audience has incredibly refined filtering mechanisms for clutter. They can do 4-5 things simultaneously and only key in to the items they have programmed as important. My 15 year old can’t do his homework without music, MSN and the odd round of “World of Warcraft” to take the edge of the studying. Capturing his attention requires insight into his behaviour. When you do connect the engagement inevitably leads to some form of conversation on MSN or Facebook.

Viral videos are a form of word-of-mouth(WOM) marketing pimped online. Now thanks to Facebook, MySpace and thousands of online forums, its being pushed to the forefront by brands. WOM has many instruments for measuring success, but probably one of the most important is conversation or buzz. Online video is a WOM tactic; hence, it should be measured in a similar fashion. The number of people who are engaged in a WOM tactic are not its only measure of success. If it were many off-line WOM campaigns would never have made it to the boardroom table. WOM is about the buzz, the conversation and measuring its impact on the audience. The same should be the case for online videos. Measuring connection isn’t about the number of people who view a video; it’s about the numbers that talk about what they have viewed.

A video view is the new website visit while a conversation is the new usability study. It’s great to have a million hits on a website. Big numbers always look good on paper, but if no one can find what they’re looking for on the site hits won’t translate into ROI. In the case of viral videos the same stands true. Millions of views are nice, but really mean nothing if the viewer isn’t engaged enough to talk about it or send it to a friend.

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