What is a proper “viral video”?

Many companies are intending to undertake viral video marketing campaigns.

This should come as no surprise, since video is undoubtedly the most effective content on the Web: “People are about twice as likely to play a video, or replay one that started automatically, than they are to click through standard JPG or GIF image ads.”

Even Techcrunch has a thing for dodgy viral video advertising approaches.

The definition of a “viral video” is however not quite clear.

Wikipedia defines “viral video” as “video clip content which gains widespread popularity through the process of Internet sharing, typically through email or IM messages, blogs and other media sharing websites.” This describes more the process through which viral videos are created rather then what a viral video actually is.

I tried to analyze the types of viral videos around to understand what a viral video really is. I found that there are three different types and would like to provide a list of descriptive features of each (leave a comment if you disagree with the types or want to suggest more).

The reason for this separation of types is that if you are a company and want to create a viral video advertising campaign, you need to decide what type of viral video you want to create and choose the appropriate approach and infrastructure to allow for that type of viral video to be successful.

Here are the three types of viral videos that I could distinguish:

popular video

A video that has a high view count (in the millions) – possibly emerged over a longer time frame – is viral because in order to get such a high view count, many people must have been told about it and been directed to go to it and watch it.

A prime example of such a video is the “Hahaha” video of a baby laughing, which is currently at position 10 of YouTube’s Most Viewed of All Time page. I would also put the “Evolution of Dance” video into this category, which alone on YouTube has seen over 81M page view and has therefore the top rank on the Most Viewed of All Time videos on YouTube. This video has some aspects that make it a cult, but I don’t think they are strong enough.

The features of videos in this category are as follows:

  • high page view count
  • not subject to fashion or short-term fads
  • interest for many audiences
  • hasn’t spawned an active community

The reason for the last feature is that a popular video is simply a video that is a “must see” for everybody, but it doesn’t instill in people an urge to “become involved”. This is a bit of black-and-white painting of course – see also how many people created copies of the “Evolution of Dance” – but it is a general feature that applies to most of the audience.

cult video

Videos that become “cult” are not necessarily videos that achieve the highest view counts. They will however achieve a high visibility and almost 100% coverage in a certain sub-community. Such videos are regarded as viral since they virally spread within their target community. Sometimes they even create a community – their fan club.

The main aim of these videos is not a high view count on a single video, but an active community that is highly motivated to have the video be part of their culture.

A typical example is the “Diet Coke and Mentos” phenomenon. I would not be able to point to a single video on this phenomenon but there is a whole cult that has emerged around it with people doing their own experiments, posting videos, discussing it on forums, helping each other on IM etc. There are even fan clubs on Facebook.

The features of videos in this category are as follows:

  • many videos have been created on the same topic, in particular UCG
  • often, it is not clear which was the originating video that started the phenomenon
  • there is a substantial view count on the individual videos
  • not subject to fashion or short-term fads
  • interest for a sub-community mostly
  • has spawned an active community, possibly with their own website

I would use the “Ask a Ninja” series of vodcasts as another example of a cult video. It has a central website and a very active community of fans around it.

trendy video

The term “Internet meme” has been coined for the videos in this category. They are essentially videos that create a high amount of activity around the Internet for a short time, but then people lose interest and move on. They are trendy for a limited amount of time.

A typical example in this category is the “Dramatic Chipmunk” with more than 7M views on YouTube on this one video, and further millions of views on the diverse mash-ups that were created. At one point, it was a “must see” and you had to have mashed it up to be “in”. Now it has been replaced by Rick Rolling – the activity of pointing people to a URL of something but then falsely directing them to Rick Astley’s video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” on YouTube with more than 9M page views.

The features of videos in this category are as follows:

  • videos achieve high page view in a short amount of time
  • audience interest vanishes after a limited time
  • often consists of funny, shocking, embarrassing, bizarre, or slanderous content
  • there is a substantial view count on the video(s) related to the phenomenon
  • creates high user activity for a short time e.g. through mash-ups, remixes, or parodies

Now that we have defined the different types of viral videos there are the lessons for viral video marketing campaigns.

If you want to create a popular video, create a beautiful, time-less video like the Sony Bravia Bunnies ad that everybody just has to have seen. Then make sure to release it on the Internet before you release it on TV by uploading to YouTube and a set of other social video hosting sites. Feel free to complement that with your own Website for the video. Start the viral spread through emailing your employees, friends, social networks, etc and rely on the cool-ness of the video to spread.

Typical Australian ads that have achieved popular video status are Carlton Draught’sBig Ad” and the more recent VBStubby Symphony” ad.

If you want to create a cult video, you should create something that will excite a sub-community and provide the opportunities for the community to emerge. Blendtec did this very well with their “Will it Blend?” videos and website. I actually believe, they should open that Website even further an allow discussion forums to emerge. They could pull all those blender communities at Facebook into their site. OTOH they could just be involved in the social networks that build elsewhere around their brand to make the most from their fan base.

If your video ad is however just meant to create a high audience activity for a short time, you might consider doing a shocking video like the one Unicef created with the Smurfs. Or something a little less extreme like the funny German Coastguard video created by the Berlitz Language Institute.

3 thoughts on “What is a proper “viral video”?

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