What makes a great viral?
Firstly, let’s be clear: viral is an effect. I’ve been asked to ‘do something viral’ in the past, and in explaining this I’ve had to say that really, anything and everything we do should be viral. That is, it should be a powerful enough message that impels sufficient people to spread it.
Problem is, you’re at the mercy of opposing dynamics: on the one hand people will only forward something that is important enough to them or their immediate contacts to do so; while on the other you need to hit enough buttons for the thing to pick up critical mass. In other words, you need to satisfy most of the people most of the time.
However, it is possible to identify certain characteristics of material that tends to ‘go viral’. It’s usually short enough for people to enjoy without getting bored. It’s usually video. It’s usually something they can build on then pass along (making it truly viral in that it changes). But these are all ‘usually’, and there are exceptions.
In the past I’ve said that viral is (usually) interactive, funny, useful, controversial, clever or cool. I would love to be able to turn this into a snappy acronym but all I get is ifuccc which is simple to remember but I would never say in front of clients.
Of course, all of these categories are subjective – as I said earlier, that’s the problem with viral. What is controversial for me might not be for you. What makes you laugh might pass me by. I would also say that often viral is only effective when it isn’t harnessed to some big brand. People like to be ‘in on the secret’ and a secret is rarely web-wide.
I’m fairly confident that most of you will agree that the Obama CNNBC video is the greatest viral ever. It ticks all the boxes I’m about to list, and then some. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back after the event and class this as a viral that actually helped Obama to win.
(I can’t actually embed this video on my WordPress.com-hosted blog – which is perhaps its only viral failing – so just click below to see it. And if you think I’m being a bit narcissistic showcasing the version with my own name in it, then, when you’ve watched it, simply edit it to put yours in. It’s so cool.):
Way to go Obama.
Here are some more examples that I think fit these categories. Some might span multiple categories, and others, I fully accept, aren’t really designed to push a message at all, they’re just things that have gone viral – but that still means we can learn something off them, right?
Interactive. Games are interactive, and games across social networks are particularly so. Scrabulous is (or was) probably your object lesson in an interactive viral that simply spread across Facebook like wildfire. It’s also a case study in how not to handle intellectual copyright infringement. Mattel and Hasbro threatened the makers of Scrabulous with Chinese burns and deadlegs if they failed to cease and desist – that is, to extinguish a MASSIVE userbase that it could quite easily have worked with instead – and released its own version that by some accounts was, well, crap. Meanwhile the makers of Scrabulous have simply released a version that is different enough from Scrabble to remain legal, and which is doing very nicely thank you.
Funny. I still think Beardyman is one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen. If only someone could harness that talent and use it to help a brand.
The closest you could probably come to this is ‘Will it blend?‘, the series put together for Blendtec. Wikipedia tells the Blendtec story well. Suffice to say, the company never looked back and continues to blend. ‘Will It Blend?’ is all over YouTube but here is my favourite – with the iPod.
Useful. We all like to ‘discover’ tools, utilities and widgets. For some time I really liked the ‘How much is your blog worth’ page, and I’m sure the ‘blogworth’ page has done Dane Carlson absolutely no harm whatsoever in terms of his web visibility. It’s debateable how useful my PR Friendly Index is – I certainly haven’t had time to update it for a while anyway – but it has been by far my most successful post series, and I think this is perhaps because people find it useful to have this repository of PR blogs.
Clever. Was Cheddarvision clever? At first I wasn’t sure. It didn’t quite seem to make sense just to stream a video of cheese maturing online. But the more I thought about it, the cleverer I thought it was. Also, the more I thought about it, the higher the viewing numbers went. By late March 2007 Cheddarvision viewing figures were over half a million. It ended with over 1.5 million views. At the time I said, “It’s a brilliant, brilliant PR move. This isn’t just cheese, it is now Famous Cheese, and everyone will want a bite. They’ll do for West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers what Wallace and Gromit did for Wensleydale”, and it inspired me to dream up my own viral equivalent which, of course, never saw light of day. Cheddarvision eventually won that year’s PR Week award for best consumer marketing communications campaign. Here you can see a time-lapse of it maturing over 12 months:
Controversial. I have to admit that, for this category, I did have to do some searching because I couldn’t think of anything off the top of my head that I’d seen. The first hit for ‘controversial viral campaign’ is Virgin Media’s Mangina movie. Doesn’t look so controversial to me:
Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that simply by labelling something ‘controversial’, you get attention. I also find it strange that it no longer appears on the originator’s site. Is this part of the controversy? Whatever, I know that controversial works because I tried it myself when I posted about ghost blogging. I also know that you need to be careful because it can damage your brand. In many ways, I wished I hadn’t written the ghostblogging post even though it did get a lot of attention. And I’m sure Quechup wished they hadn’t confused viral with spam.
Cool. The coolest thing I’ve seen for quite some time has been, and continues to be, Photosynth. I’m convinced this is an absolutely prime candidate for someone to use in a cool way to promote a product. The drawback is, I guess, that you need to download client software.
You certainly didn’t for the Experience Wii advert I saw on YouTube recently. It was a jaw-droppingly cool idea and one I definitely forwarded to a number of people. The idea was that the screen actually shook and disintegrated before your eyes, and slotted beautifully into the Wii ‘experience’ concept. So it’s incredibly frustrating to me that it no longer seems to be online. Why do people do this? Why do they remove things that could continue to get them great publicity simply by leaving them online? Why? The Experience Wii page did exist – really it did. I’m sure I didn’t dream it.
I also really like the Connected Ventures Flagpole Sitta video. It’s the greatest promotional video ever, and not just because amandalynferri is cute. The story goes that they just threw this together in an idle moment, it leaked onto the web, and now they have talent knocking at the door to be let in. I’m not so sure of the truth behind the provenance here, but I can certainly believe the result. When I saw the video, I wanted to work there. Come to think of it, I still do: