Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Viral Virus

I want to talk to you about Viral Videos today, obviously spurred on by the "Pants on the Ground" phenomenon that has swept the country.  Video is a proven method for attracting viewers to your social media sites and groups, but how much can a viral video help your organization, and is it always the best idea to "go viral" to raise your profile?  I'll get to those questions and more in just one second, but first, a few notes.

Thank you to my friend Vivian who posted this link about NBC's handling of the Leno/Conan battle to my Facebook page as a recommendation for the blog.  While it doesn't really deal with public relations or social media exactly, it's still an interesting read for small businesses and non-profit directors. 

The fallout from the Conon vs. Leno snafu has erupted in a way that, I think, caught some at NBC very much by surprise.  Once again, though, we see social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter having a significant impact on the conversations over this fiasco.  Hundreds of groups have emerged supporting one side or the other.  So far, most of the groups I've seen have been in support of Conan early on.  However, lately I've seen a bit of a backlash against this surge of "Conanity" as the Leno camp gets it in gear.  It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out, as Letterman, and Ferguson and the other late night combatants spew their video jokes all over the internet.  Regardless of how it turns out, it certainly has been entertaining to watch.

Also, here are a few link regarding yesterdays entry on social media and how it impacts business to business ventures.

The first link is a list of the top 10 social networks for entrepreneurs.  It's from the Mashable Social Media Guide website, which has tons of great information for anyone interested in learning more about social media, how it works and what tools are out there for you to use. 

The second link is from the Listorious website and is a listing of the top entrepreneur Twitter lists.  Both are very informative links and both sites offer a great deal of information for small business owners and non-profits.  Checking in with entrepreneurs on a regular basis is a great way to round up new business and donors and sponsors.  These aren't just listings of startups, but individuals who are out there every day doing the same things you are.  Once again, social media proves an effective method to help build business partnerships.

Today's Topic: Viral Video

Today I wanted to discuss the concept of "Viral".  What is it?  How does it work?  How can you get in on the fun? 

First, something that goes viral is something that is let loose into the public domain and, very quickly, becomes an overnight phenomenon.  Within a short time, people are talking about it around watercoolers, in bars, at home.  What makes it viral is the fact that there is very little promotion involved in its success and little to no news coverage.  Think of it as gossip in a small town.  Something happens.  One person tells two people, those two people tell two people and those people tell more people and on and on until the entire town knows about the event in question.  Kind of like an idea pyramid scheme, with a little game of telephone thrown in.

Viral campaigns have been around a long time, long before the internet.  Companies would create a buzz around a product or service by pouring money into finely crafted commercial campaigns.  Clever jingles were some of the first "viral" campaigns.  The Oscar Meyer song, the Dr. Pepper jingle, the "I'd Like to buy the World a Coke" commercial, all great examples of how a company used video, music and a great idea to create buzz.  And that's really what viral is all about; creating "buzz".  Movie studios used to do something similar with their trailers.  Get people talking about you, your product or service.  That was the whole idea behind something going "viral", although it wasn't called viral back then, just good marketing.

Then the internet hit, social media began to emerge and going viral became something new.  Anyone could go viral.  Comedian Dane Cook used the internet and social media to grow a huge following among college students around the country.  Almost overnight, he went from obscure funny man to nationally known star.

That's one example of viral really having a positive impact on a career or business.  But when you think viral, it's likely you think of something that rarely has anything to do with small businesses or non-profits.  You think funny videos.  Off the top of my head, I can rattle off about a hundred viral videos that have reached near legendary status.  The Light Saber Kid, the Surprised Kitty, athletes jumping out of a swimming pool.

The one thing that remains a constant to those pre-internet days is video.  Today, in order to go viral, you HAVE to use video.  Most of the time, we even call it, "Viral Video".  Just as with everything else regarding the internet and social media, it took a little while, but viral video is starting to make real headway in terms of economic viability.

Not only can it help raise the profile of a company, it can also negatively impact the bottom line of a company.  Kobe Bryan jumping over a car was a viral video, which then became a popular television commercial.  Movies such as Sector 9 and Avatar, though both on complete different spectrums of budget and fanfare, both used integrated social media and online access to help create a buzz around the release dates.  The 2009 movie, Paranormal Activity, also used a vast viral video campaign, as well as an organized social media drive to ultimately grow a following and expand its art-theater showings to a national multi-plex appearances.

The dark side of going Viral:

But all is not good news with viral videos.  One just has to look at the Dominoe's Pizza video, showing a couple of employees doing some really nasty stuff to the food, to know that that was one viral video Dominoe's wishes had never been released.  It didn't take long for people to see that video and send it to their friends, who sent it to their friends and so on until it nearly sunk the national pizza chain.  Imagine that.  A couple of bored teens nearly destroyed an established multi-billion dollar company.  Now just imagine if that had been your company. 

Let's take another look at a more recent viral video.  The "Pants on the Ground" song that has seemingly taken the U.S. by storm.  At first glance, it might seems like just a stupid song, performed by a less than stellar singer.  So why, you might ask has it become the unofficial theme song for January, 2010?  One word; entertainment.

You see, viral videos aren't much different than the news industry or entertainment industry or even your small business or non-profit.  In the end, the video MUST provide viewers with something they want to see.  Not something they are forced to see, but something that is so interesting, so quirky, so different, they just MUST see it.  Something they will go out of their way to search for and watch.

The song in question provides this.  First, like the song or not (and for the record, I'm not a big fan of it) it is catchy.  It has rythm, and a memorable little tune, such as it is.  The words may not make sense, but it's simple and repetitive.

Second, the performer is unique.  Not flashy, not smooth, but normal, like you or me.  He's just a guy off the street who seems a little crazy.  Like a car accident you HAVE to look when you see the video.  It's funny and painful all at the same time, which makes it intriguing. 

So let's see, we have a few common factors for viral videos that we can easily list:

1.  Simple
2.  Unique/Quirky
3.  Repetitive
4.  Relatively short
5.  Relatable
6.  Interesting/funny/painful...either way you put it, it's intriguing.

You may look at this list and think to yourself.  "I can make a viral video," and maybe you can.  But be careful, because the list of people who have actively gone out with the purpose of making a viral video is long.  The list of people who have succeeded is pretty short.  And this includes major corporations.  Companies with money and time at their disposal. 

For instance, here is a video launched by Toyota as part of their "Yourotheryou" campaign.  Take a look at it:

This video was meant to be the start of something viral.  Unfortunately, being pranked for five straight days borders on stalking, and, of course, a lawsuit soon followed.  Not surprisingly, the campaign has been discontinued. 

This is a great example of a company trying something unique, and funny and even relatable (who hasn't pranked a friend).  But it wasn't simple enough, short enough and it reeked of creepiness.  Creepy isn't necessarily viral video gold.

And yet, another series of viral videos involves pranks and has been viewed so often, the two men involved scored a sponsorship deal from AXE.  You might have seen the videos, on Collegehumor.com, under "Prank War".  Here is one of them in case you haven't seen any of them.

So why is THIS prank video so popular, whereas the Toyota viral video not only failed miserably, but led to at least one lawsuit?  The most obvious answer is that the prank war only involves two people, friends, who are aware that at some point they will be pranked.  You might feel a little bad for the one getting pranked, but you know it's all in fun and you, as the viewer get the thrill of watching, like a voyeur, from afar. 

Second, the concept is simple and fairly repetitive.  You know a single prank will be played, the prankster explains breifly what will happen and then it happens.  You watch, you laugh, you share.  The viewer doesn't have to contact anyone, do anything, think something up.  They simply have to click play and enjoy.  Unlike the Toyota video which relies on viewer participation. 

Third, there is a level of intrigue with the prank war.  The viewer will come back again and again to see how the next prank will one-up the previous prank.  How do you best a prank where you thought you might die?  Tune in, come back and see!

This same technique holds true for other viral series such as Gossip girl, where viewers would come back again and again to follow up on the life of a, seemingly, real girl as she told about all the crazy things that went on in her life. 

There are even viral video sites now, such as collegehumor.com, funnyordie.com and failblog.com where everyday folks post their videos and photos in an attempt to gain some notariety for their work.

Your Viral Effort:

So how can you use viral video to promote your business or raise the profile of your non-profit?  Honestly, in some cases, you probably won't be able to.  BUT, you can use video in your social media efforts to help attract viewers to your group, site, blog, etc. 

A couple of things to keep in mind as you move forward with this. 

1.  You don't need a high end video camera to do this - Nearly any of today's mid-range video cameras will give you the video you want.  You can even shoot it on a videophone if you choose, although the sound and video isn't great, it's video, which will always draw more eyes to your site.

2.  You don't need high end editing equipment either - I use Final Cut Pro, which can be expensive.  But you can get away with iMovie, which comes free with new macs, or any number of very cheap editing programs for PC's.  These are pretty easy to learn and within a day you can start posting video to your sites.

3.  Shoot short videos - You want to give the viewer something worth viewing, but not too long that they'll get bored.  Anywhere between 30-seconds and 3 minutes is probably your target.  Less than 30 seconds, and it's probably too short.  More than 3 minutes and you're starting to lose the viewer.  Remember, people want something they can watch quickly, enjoy, share and move on.  One of the most amazing videos I've ever seens involves a beat boxing flute player, as well as a dancing marionette on a beach in Brazil.  I loved them.  But I didn't share them, because they were simply too long for most of my friends to sit through.  Sad but true.  Shorter is often better.

4.  Make sure what you shoot is interesting - This doesn't mean you have to shoot people doing crazy things.  Simply shooting what your company does can be interesting depending on the audience.  I love a show called "How It's Made" which is basically video of factories making all kinds of things with a simple voiceover.  It's fascintaing to watch because it gives me an insight into something I didn't know.  It doesn't always have to be funny, but it always has to be interesting.

This last tip is sometimes hard to define.  What is interesting?  Again, just like when you're creating and pitching a story for pr purposes, you have to know your audience.  If you know what they'll like, then it will be easier for you to create something they'll find interesting.

One final tip:  Don't go out looking to shoot something that will go viral.  Focus on quality and create something that you like and enjoy and want others to see.  Because the problem with viral is that while it often creates huge buzz for a short period of time, it is also quickly forgotten.  Gauranteed that within a month, the "Pants on the Ground" fad will be gone, replaced by something equally silly. 

But if you consistently create videos that you are proud of, and do it regularly, then you will attract viewers that will stick around and potentially positively impact your organization.  While viral is great, you're looking for something with more lasting power that speaks well of your organization.  Hopefully one of the videos you produce goes viral.  But if not, at least you'll be using video effectively and growing your organization intelligently.  And that beats being a flash in the pan any day of the week.

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