What is a viral?

We’re often asked to consider ‘viral’ as part of our integrated approach to campaigns. But viral isn’t a channel, it’s an effect. It’s just easier to refer to it in that way.

And it’s simple and cheap right?  Just film a movie, stick it on YouTube and watch it spread all over the world, easy. Well not exactly…
YouTube has become so popular it’s often assumed that video = viral, but this is far from the case. These days ‘viral’ can be pretty much anything, form videos to twitter competitions to augmented reality to “20% of booze vouchers”.

…and because it can be anything that’s why an integrated approach is best.

These days the easiest way to pass any content on from one person to another, or preferably to many, is through digital channels, most notably by email. But that doesn’t mean that digital folk are necessarily the best people to come up with the original idea. In fact you’re probably going to get a more jaded response to an average idea because we tend to have more exposure to these channels and therefore see more viral work than the rest of you. It’s just the way we are.

Take the T-Mobile dancing in the station. Your average Digital person would probably have said they’d seen flash mobs a hundred times before. Been there, done that. I think it originated in New York and the first was in a carpet shop much to the displeasure of bemused sales assistants. It was nothing to do with a brand or product, just a bunch of pranksters having a laugh. Then there were the singers in the airport advertising the theatre. And and and….). However, with the backing of a TV campaign the Liverpool Street dance has achieved nearly 14m views on YouTube. Now that’s impressive!

But it’s not a digital idea and indeed so often is the case that the best “virals” tend not to be. In fact nearly every successful video viral is a good piece of film-making rather than a great piece of digital. The power of viral is usually in the digital method by which it’s passed on.

As with any campaign a mix of channels works best. While I’m no fan of the advertising Oasis, it did push the boat out with the Cactus Kid. There was a website to vote on your preferred ending to the advertising series. It also had Facebook and MySpace pages for the characters, behind the scenes making of content, even a fake find the kid campaign site. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but then again I’m not the target audience. But I’m not sure they got it either.

It’s not always about video. Websites can be viral too.
Swedish Armed Forces is a spin off the traditional game route, presenting intriguing tests in such a creative and cool way that you want to send it on, well I did anyway.

And SAS Globe of Fortune is a clever hook up with your friends on social networks to win a free flight.

When you start to mix video content with creative Digital technologies that’s when things can really hot up.

Amongst the first to start customising video content online and sending it on were Audi (with their DNA campaign) and Mini with this viral classic produced by Glue.

Now this has spread to include video content and even voice overs. Have a look at this from the Know the Signs Campaign from Heineken

or this from ICO

So what makes a successful viral? It really comes down to two key things, content and exposure.

The general rules are your viral needs to be;

• interactive (challenge your friend game)
• shocking (VW Polo suicide bomber or Diesel safe for work porn)
• sexy (Kylie for Agent Provocateur)
funny (Old Spice)
cool (Quicksilver)
inquisitive (TFL)
or the latest trend, to have a feel good factor (Evian)
Sounds easy but it’s harder than it seems. It’s difficult getting one of these that works hard in a way that your client’s brand will be happy with. And it’s always easier with B2C. It’s got to have “standout”. So if you’re going for comedy then make sure it’s funny.

If you are Nike then you’re likely to have a database of customers and the traffic to your website to get your viral passed on. Nike didn’t even need to release their Kobe LeBron adverts online, their fans did it for them, and then they parodied the ads so even more exposure. Then again a good script, two megastars and a few Henson creations go a long way.

If you’re a lesser known brand an are looking for impact then you have to seed your content. And it’s definitely worth working with seeding specialists rather than trying to join in the conversation cold. Your target blog will see right through any impostors and the damage you inflict could go more viral than your intended content.

Remember you can’t control viral. it might spread around the world to audiences you never expected. With both positive and negative effects!

To sum up, always ask yourself, would you forward it to a friend or colleague? Would your target audience?
If the answer’s no then it’s not going to go viral. Easy 🙂

This last example ticks a number of boxes. It’s a topical, clever, shocking, interactive video from the Metropolitan Police. Brilliant. If you’re only going to click on one link in this post make it this one.

Barnaby Ellis, UK Head of Digital at b2b agency, gyro