Updated January, 2011
Mmmmmm, mental viruses. Let’s create a video clip, an animation or even an email appeal that’s so compelling that people forward it around the world and do our promotional work for us. It’s basically traditional word-of-mouth leveraged across the internet, and who wouldn’t want to create The Thing That Everyone Is Talking About?
Of course, launching a successful viral campaign involves much more than just dreaming up a clever video, and for every viral campaign that claws its way to the surface of the public mind, dozens or hundreds of others sink leaving scarcely a ripple. What can you do to give your campaign the best chance of succeeding?
Let’s think first about the mechanics of the content. You’ll probably have two basic parts — the aspiring viral content itself and the promtional campaign (email, ads, blogger/Twitter/Facebook outreach) that launches it. If your content is an email alert (note: VERY rare is the email appeal that achieves viral takeoff), the message itself could be the viral content, but usually you’ll be sending people to a page or presention on the web.
One note about promoting a video via email: you could send the video file itself as an attachment, but that would be self-defeating — you want people to come to your site so you can catch ’em in a big net. Also, attachments annoy a lot of people and may be deleted as a virus risk. So, plan to have your promotional piece link to a site or page that contains your featured content, and instead of the video itself, include a still image as a teaser in your email.
What characteristics can help viral campaigns succeed?
Be relevant to your audience
Who are you trying to reach? What would fire them up? Remember that you’re going to be asking people to “vote” for your viral content by sending it to people in front of whom they want to look good — they’re trying to boost THEIR status/coolness quotient by attaching their name/reputation to YOUR content. Be sure that what you’re promoting is something that people are going to want to associate themselves with. YOU are not your audience — play to their tastes, not yours.
If at all possible, be funny!
Much of your potential audience consists of people stuck in offices during the workday and desperate for distraction. Give ’em something to make ’em laugh and you might make ’em yours. Humor’s tough, though — you have to have an idea that’s inherently funny and also well-presented (how many good jokes have died through bad telling?). Keep your pieces short — a couple of minutes is usually getting too long — and well-timed. Test, test, test! And not just on people around the office who’ve already been converted to your issue — try it on friends and ask for honest criticism.
Try to tie your piece to something topical
For instance, you could reference a holiday or some event that’s in the news.. Of course, if you’re not careful, you’ll be one of 500 Halloween-themed campaigns out there (see below).
Offer an immediate payoff
You only have a few seconds to catch someone’s attention, so don’t waste it. Try to grab viewers’ attention immediately with a strong visual (or audio) lead-in, even if your piece really builds to a crescendo later.
Offer an immediate way for your audience to act, and use it to capture names and emails
You may just want people to see the piece as an educational tool, but more likely you’re also using it to build your email list/Facebook following or to generate an action (“Write the Bilbo Gear and Sprockets company and demand that they no longer use parts made from itinerant llamas”). Make the action obvious and easy — if people can’t see it or have to jump through a bunch of hoops to take it, you just lost them.
Make your content easy to forward
Include a “send this email to a friend” link on the page and even in the viral email itself (it can’t hurt). Ask readers to send to a specific number of people (i.e., “tell five friends about this spectacular video”) — for some reason, having a specific number seems to work better.
Make your content social media-friendly
Facebook and Twitter have become one of the main routes for online viral spread over the last couple of years, so keep these platforms in mind as you’re planning your campaign. When you launch, aggressively promote your piece via social channels: feature it on your Facebook page, link to it from your Twitter account, email it to prominent bloggers, and consider bringing it to the attention of prominent voices via Twitter @replies and Direct Messages and through Facebook Wall postings. Finally, make it easy for people to share your piece once they’ve consumed it — those now-ubiquituous “Share” buttons allow easy posting on social channels, plus they often include an email-a-friend feature.
Promote it ruthlessly
Yes, some viral party invitations and such have spread around the world after being sent to only three friends, but a conflagration is much more likely to start from a bunch of little fires than from a single spark. Obviously, sending to your email list is a good start (and everyone in your office should be helping by sending to their friends and colleagues), but also consider media outreach — several PR firms specialize in “helping” your viral campaign get on local news shows and into print outlets. Also, think about blogads, blogger outreach and advertising (or free placement, if you can swing it) in newsletters that go to your potential audience.
Special Considerations for YouTube/Online Video Campaigns
YouTube and other video-sharing sites have come to be one of the main routes for spreading content virally. Sometimes campaigns are consciously trying to tap into the YouTube audience, while at other times they may also just be using the site for free hosting and relying on their own promotion to drive traffic. Most viral campaigns aim for some combination.
If you’re trying to induce content on YouTube or another video site to spread virally, try to take advantage of the extra traffic that “featured” videos generally receive — if you can steer a burst of traffic to your video piece, you might be able to get it promoted up a level and exposed to a new audience, who then can spread it if they like it and bump it even higher. Consider using your email list, online social networking outreach and blog outreach as well as social news sites like Digg or Stumbleupon to get the word out. Classic viral spread is like an avalanche — one piece dislodges another, which dislodges another, which….
Finally, a cautionary note
I hate to say it, but don’t expect too much. You may have a terrific piece, but it may fail completely for reasons that won’t even be clear. And even if it does take off and ends up in front of millions of eyeballs, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get a lot of email addresses or raise a ton of dough. A classic laugh line at conferences? “My client says they’re about to launch a ‘viral video.'” The “joke” is that what they’ve actually done is create a video that they HOPE will go viral…something that very, very few ever do.
An Example: The Climate Mash
Let’s take a look at an example. In October of 2005, NET (my old day job) and its partner Clear The Air worked on a viral campaign that succeeded quite well by some measures: the Halloween-themed Climate Mash animation. If you go to the site, you’ll see that the video follows the rules pretty well — it’s short, it’s funny, it rewards repeat viewings (lots of clever little details) and it’s designed to make it as easy as possible for people to take action (note that the action links are present on the page AND embedded at the end of the video).
We also promoted the hell out of it: we sent it to the NET and CTA lists directly, posted blogads that were seen a couple of million times, got partner organizations to send it to THEIR lists and also had a PR firm doing a monstrous (hah!) amount of outreach for a quite reasonable price. It helped that we launched far enough out from Halloween that we beat most other holiday-themed campaigns to the punch.
In the end, we had scores of media hits, both broadcast and print, many blog hits and very strong word-of-mouth response, All told, several hundred thousand people came to the site — we crashed the server! Our hosting company, whom we’d warned but who hadn’t taken it seriously enough, had to set the site up on a dedicated server for a couple of weeks to handle the traffic, before the inevitable drop-off occurred.
Was Climate Mash a success? As an educational tool, yes — lots of people saw the animation. As an action-generator? The campaign got about 4000 people to send emails to Congress, with half of them opting to join the Clear The Air list. So, our conversion rate for action was around 1% and for signups was around 0.5%. We didn’t spend an immense amount of money on Climate Mash, but if we’d viewed it solely as a list-builder, it would have been significantly cheaper to buy the names.