This Isn’t a How-To Guide: A How-To Guide for Viral Video

A popular video is not a viral video. A viral video is passed through social media and word of mouth. It’s the break in the workday, when an IM is preceded by stifled laughter on the other side of the cubicle wall. It’s the tail end of the party, when we gather around the computer to ensure our hangovers are well fed as we watch that amazing, terrifying, ridiculous moment immortalized on YouTube by unsteady hands.

For a marketing professional, the desire to harness the power of viral video is the sure path to madness. You want to manufacture something organic. You want to plan something spontaneous. You want to script something unexpected. You’re taking all of the wrong ingredients and hoping to make something delicious, which means you have a good chance of ending up with spam.

You can’t make a viral video. You can make a video, and it can go viral, but you can’t make a viral video. A video going viral is an unpredictable outcome. Your video might get millions of views, but if all of your views are coming from an online article or your social media (i.e., your stalwart marketing team), then it’s not viral. Some of the most popular videos online are not viral—people watch them because they deliver some value, but they don’t have the emotional volume or give us that moment of surprise that will inspire us to share them. A video is not viral until it takes on a life of its own.

There are ways to increase the chances that you’ll create something worth sharing, but your content needs to be capable of standing on its own. Someone should enjoy the experience of watching your video without any knowledge of your brand, your product, or your goals. That’s lesson 1.

 Lesson 1: Focus on the value of the video content, not your brand message.

The merit of your video’s content is the single most important gene in this living body that you are trying to construct; it’s what will give it the breath of life. Abandon brand merit in favor of content merit. I know it’s difficult to forget your mission statement when your life revolves around promoting a brand, but abandon your “message.” Abandon your “call to action.” Abandon your marketing “narrative.” In fact, if you can put it in quotes because the term can be business jargon, chuck it. I’m not trying to make villains out of marketers—marketing, after all, is most of what I do—but in the guise of a marketer, you are the antithesis of the progenitor or propagator of viral content. Get out of your marketing head, go have a beer, and talk about things that matter to people. Strong emotion is what will inspire people to share your video. That’s lesson 2.

Lesson 2: Make something that inspires a strong emotional reaction.

There are two primary categories of viral video: spontaneous and deliberate. Any company attempting to make a viral video will be making a deliberate video, but they sometimes try to disguise it as a spontaneous video. I don’t recommend this direction.

The purists will tell you that you can’t compose the informal, impulsive nature of a spontaneous viral video. There might be another Andy Kaufman out there somewhere, but I’ve never seen a false spontaneous video done well. Either the brand positioning is too overt (or nonexistent, and you do need some kind of subtle connection) or the audience can tell that you’re trying to deceive them.

The spontaneous viral video gets its power from being both familiar and unexpected (or by making the familiar into the unexpected). The informal nature of these videos is what makes them familiar and comfortable. The viewer can make a personal connection with some quality, such as the shaking hand, the poor audio quality, or the normal looking people. Once you try to formalize the informal, you corrupt it. Most of the time, people can tell when they’re looking at an actor or when an emotion lacks authenticity.

A deliberate video doesn’t try to fool anyone, but you should still throw out anything that can be constricted by quotes (a buzz word is a dead word). Let the audience know who you are, but focus on the content of the video and, again, not your brand identity. Think of the Volkswagen commercial with the Darth Vader kid. That went viral. The car was the centerpiece, and they did show off the remote start feature, but they weren’t telling you that you should buy their car because of the remote start (or because you can scare children with it). They were telling you a story, and it was adorable.

Another great example is the Dollar Shave Club. Their video didn’t come to me from their marketing division. I got a link in an email from a co-worker, and he’d gotten it from Facebook. I’m not the target demographic of the Dollar Shave Club, but I showed their video to friends, because it was funny and unusual. They were confident and ridiculous. They juxtaposed reason with non sequiturs. The traditional arguments were delivered in a non-traditional manner, so it was both familiar and surprising while retaining the honesty of blatant product promotion.

It also doesn’t hurt to make a video that’s easy to mimic. When people get involved and start making parodies of your video, you’ve inspired them (or really, really embarrassed yourself). Participation is the soul of the internet, so encourage it and welcome it. The Old Spice commercials have inspired many parodies, and there have been countless iterations of the Harlem Shake. That’s lesson 3.

Lesson 3: Make your video participation friendly.

It’s possible to fail at a deliberate video and still go viral (ahem… Rebecca Black), but you’ll do less damage than the false spontaneous variety. People will forgive ineptitude before dishonesty.

Finally, while the Volkswagen and Old Spice commercials were pretty safe, most viral videos are taking a chance. You need to accept that you might anger some people. For proof, just read the comments on YouTube for any viral video… On second thought, don’t. Never read the comments.

Great viral videos have more edge than hilt, so you won’t come out unscathed. You need to be brave if you’re going to succeed at brilliant video, let alone achieve virulence. Being brave doesn’t mean using trashy humor or deferring to social stereotypes or bully tactics for shock value. It means the opposite; it means venturing into new territory and being willing to make yourself a target. That’s lesson 4.

Lesson 4: Proceed without fear.

You might notice that there aren’t many lessons here: focus on the content, inspire strong emotion, be open to creative interpretation, and don’t be afraid of doing something new. There are a lot of other things that can help your video go viral, like ensuring that it’s in a sharable format, pushing it on your social media, and giving it some paid support to jump-start the campaign (the zombie plague may spread bite by bite, but it still needs a well-connected patient zero). These steps are important, but they are logistics, and they make for easy advice. The hard work will be the paradoxical process of liberating your creative energy from the strong grip of your brand.

I was going to conclude this article with a list of some of the most viral videos, but in order to do so, I would need to include quite a few that may not be safe for some work environments (the people and businesses that made them did not proceed with fear). I’ll just leave it up to you and Google to find the move viral videos.