Why do viral video marketing projects fail?

Client: “We’re thinking we’d like to do a viral video… like “Will it Blend” except instead of blenders, we’d feature our product”
Me: “Will Network Policy Enforcement Software blend?”
Client: Oh… Okay, how about the “I’m a Mac thing? I know a guy in the lab who would be perfect to play the Mac guy… no, the PC guy, he’s the bad one right?”
Me: “A skit?”
Client: “Exactly! We want it to spread virally to millions of people.”
Me: “Who is the target audience for this video?”
Client: ” Senior Network Managers in mid-sized health services companies.  That’s our sweet-spot.”
Me: “There’s millions of them?”
Client: Well, there’s about 400 of them in North America. The other views would come from YouTube I suppose.”
Me: Do you have a budget for this?
Client: “Viral is free, right? We can grab a couple thousand from our cleaning budget to cover the production costs if we really have to.”


Unlike most other forms of marketing, viral video makes a claim that it can almost never live up to:
Your video will be so compelling that people will want to share it.
Seriously. So compelling that people, lot’s of people will want to share it.

That’s quite a claim.

The term ‘viral’ means different things to different people. In theory any video has the potential to be viral as long as you can reference it and/or share it online. The challenge is getting people to share it. Some say you can’t call a video ‘viral’ until it hits the ‘million view’ mark. Others simply call a video ‘viral’ because it is intended to be shared virally – much like calling a video ‘amazing’ because it was intended to be ‘amazing’. Whatever your definition of ‘viral’ is, there are many factors that can cause your virally-intended video marketing project to go off the rails:

Great Expectations: Creating a hit viral video is like creating a hit record. It’s really, really difficult. Of the hundreds/thousands of viral-intended videos created every year for businesses only a handful truly go viral. Unfortunately these are the ones we hear about and therefore these are the ones that clients reference. Will it Blend?, T-Mobile Dance, or The Evian Roller Babies are all incredible but it is highly unlikely that anything you do will come close to this level of success.

Viral video is free and easy! No it’s not. It takes time, expertise/talent and facilities/equipment to develop a good viral video. Having more is always preferred in all three of these production resource categories (in spite of the ‘do less with more’ mantra.) ‘More’ costs more, always has, always will – just ask James Cameron. This comment from an article in Inc. Magazine says it all: “Even a company on a shoestring budget, using just a basic camera and simple editing software, can produce an entertaining demo that reaches thousands of prospective customers.” It’s just that easy!

Viral videos promote themselves! No, usually they don’t – they need help. ‘Video seeding’  is a common practice now for large scale viral videos where companies will help seed the market with videos by encouraging or paying influential bloggers, PR outlets and other influencers to promote a viral video. There are a growing number of companies that offer this service. Most popular corporate viral videos had a significant seeding component that contributed to their success.

Viral video is risk free, right? Just grab a cell phone, capture some quick clips and start posting your video online, right?  What if your video is bad, or really stupid or embarrassing and it goes viral anyway? Would Apple or Coke or Nike allow this to happen? Does how you present your company to the world matter?

It’s all about the views! Is 167,000 YouTube views a success? Are any of those viewers your audience? Did the people watching your video associate anything in your video, in a positive way, with your brand? Will that video affect their behavior or attitude towards your brand? Did they actually view the video or did it auto-load at the bottom of a high traffic ‘Celebrity Caught-in-the-act’ site. Can you measure any of this?

All videos should be ‘viral’ “…and we’d like the video you’re going to create for us to be viral as well.” I hear this quite often now. Clients want any video they do, regardless of the market, message and purpose to have a “viral component.” The way to create a successful viral video project is to start with that purpose in mind – the video is so compelling that people will want to share it. You can’t throw in ‘viral’ as an add-on to the project. Not only will the video not be viral, you may take away from the primary purpose of the video by trying to amuse, shock or bewilder people.

All web-based videos are ‘viral’ I have read a number of recent articles that interchange the terms ‘web video’ and ‘viral video’ as if they refer to the same thing. A web video is any video (here are 42 examples of web videos) that is consumed on the web. Viral video is a specific type of video that is intended to be so entertaining, or remarkable, or shocking that people will be inclined to share it with their friends and colleagues.

This video is really entertaining! If no one remembers or associates your brand with the video then you’ve wasted your money. Conversely, if the video looks like a two minute product demo no one is going to share it. A great example – Coke does a nice job (as usual) in straddling that fine line between promoting the product – the whole video is about a Coke Machine!, and entertaining – brilliant.

Viral isn’t that difficult. There is extra pressure on viral videos to be really entertaining, or shocking or… something. Some of them are great and some of them are just plain awful. A viral video has to great in order to spread virally. Good usually isn’t good enough. The advantage of promotion through disruptive advertising (TV) is that your television commercial can be absolute crap and people will still watch it.


4 Responses

    1. Thanks for that Alex. The airplane ad is really well done and fun to watch but I have to question whether I would want to associate my brand with what is being portrayed in the video. I understand what they are saying – they are asked to do the impossible, but I’d bet that some people just associate the craziness of the visual with the brand – not a good thing.

  1. Excellent article – I gave a talk on “viral” video the other day and I wish I’d read your blog first. Fortunately I think I covered most of it but you have nailed the business issues really well here. One thing that puzzles and amuses me in equal measure is why certain “amateur” videos outstrip most professional efforts by a country mile on Youtube (as measured virally).

    1. Thanks Dave. You raise an interesting point about ‘amateur’ versus ‘professional’ views. Web video is new and changing and I think you’ll see more professional looking ‘amateur’ work and also more ‘amateur’ looking professional work. Hard to say which, if either, will dominate. YouTube is still the wild west for most companies. The fact that I can buy 100,000 views for under $1,000 brings into question the validity of any stats.

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