10 Lessons for Marketers Using Viral Videos

In this Adage article, Kevin Nalts, explains how you can help your brand thrive online.

Online video is changing the way we market, and it requires skill sets they don't teach in business school (at least they didn't a decade ago, but now I'm dating myself). On one hand we have marketers believing their "unique selling proposition" is as interesting as the "Numa Numa" kid. On the other, we have today's ADHD-prone video viewers demanding short entertainment whether it is promotional or not. So the rules are fairly simple: Keep your promotion short, interesting, edgy and give us a surprise that makes us want to forward your clip. After all, it's not a "viral video" if nobody wants to share it.

Lesson one: Tap into the video community
We online-video creators and watchers are a community that's not shrinking and not growing slowly. Your customers are among us unless you're targeting the maybe 10%-20% of people that haven't watched an online video. We'll watch your advertising and even spread it for you -- unless you promote gratuitously, insult us or, worse yet, bore us. Some of us amateurs have built audiences, and when they entertain or market, each video is guaranteed to get 10,000-100,000 views. That's not a huge number relative to TV's reach, but try getting that many views with a video you upload yourself to YouTube. And here's the best kept secret. Some of us will promote a brand for a modest fee. While some YouTubers are certifiably nuts, others can be your spokesperson and a way to connect with large audiences. And some video creators will make a promotional video for less than your agency bills you for that lunch meeting; others will do it for free product samples. Although the scalability of these programs is currently limited (unless you create one of the extremely rare viral sensations), the return on investment is often better than paid search.

Lesson two: Quality of the video is not what determines its popularity
My most popular videos are far from my best. Almost every day my videos rank in the "highest rated" section of the comedy category, and yet I'm far from the funniest creator on YouTube. When I featured a 14-year-old using a fart machine in a public library, I never dreamed "Farting in Public" would get nearly 4 million views. Though popular videos tend to be short, funny and shocking, there are other variables that have as much influence on getting the video seen. Many second and third-tier sites will give entertaining sponsored videos preferred placement for relatively small amounts of media spend. Got $10,000? Use the money to help get a clever sponsored video seen instead of pouring it into a black hole of unseen banner ads.

Lesson three: A video of a dog skateboarding can get 3 million views, but that doesn't mean your commercial will
While some clever advertisements (with surprise endings, humor or sex) do become viral, most ads don't translate online, and it's a rare promotional video that gets millions of views. The smarter play is to sponsor popular video creators to create entertainment with product placement. This requires brands to let go of overt marketing messages and trust the instincts of creators to please their audiences.

Lesson four: Online-video marketing is not just about contests
While contests are pervasive tools to engage online video creators and audiences, they're just one tactic of many. Smarter brands are connecting directly with prominent viral video creators. These folks have huge subscriber bases and fans, and are often delighted to get paid relatively small amounts for a sponsored video. I'm perplexed why some of the "most subscribed" video creators on YouTube don't have sponsors breaking their doors down. I have seen brands pay well into the six figures for videos that get fewer views than some of these creators get each time they post a video.

Lesson five: "Tagging" your video with keywords doesn't get them seen
Keywords may get your video to rank in searches, but there are far more effective ways to get your videos seen, such as title and thumbnail. A short funny video with a surprise ending will be exponentially more viral. That said, well-tagged videos can help brands in search. Do a Google search for "Healies" (a misspelling of the shoe called "Heely's) and you'll find my "Poor Man's Healies" videos near the top of the results page. Meanwhile, Zappos and Dick's Sporting Goods are bidding against the keyword and paying for each click.

Lesson six: Consumers might see your video, but that doesn't mean they'll visit your site and buy
I learned this the hard way. The conversion rate from viewing a video to visiting your site is not much better than the low-single digits of direct response. That means you either need metrics for the "worth" of a view or hope your video is seen millions of times so the direct-response metrics aren't embarrassing.

Lesson seven: Paying for a well-produced video won't necessarily increase your brand's ROI
A $250,000 production cost makes a return on investment difficult. Since fewer than 2% of people will visit a website after a video, a good ROI requires a low production cost and the highest number of views possible.

Lesson eight: Not all video portals are created equal
The vast majority of online viewing occurs on YouTube. Putting your videos on a bloated-product.com site is the online equivalent to running television commercials on a kiosk hidden in an abandoned cemetery.

Lesson nine: You may be a conservative organization, but don't let that keep you from this medium
Conservative legal and public-relations policies have prevented many marketers from entering into a dialogue with prominent video creators. Most marketers have seen at least a few videos that mention their own brands or those of competitors, but some brands remain squeamish about something as simple as an online-video contest. Doritos, Dove, Heinz and Mr. Clean were just a few of the brands that invited consumers to submit to contests to win cash, prizes, fame or a chance to be on TV.

Some brands fear running a contest because they don't want to be ridiculed. But brands will be bashed by disgruntled consumers via online video whether or not their companies dabble in the space. Quietly watching from the sidelines is no insurance policy and certainly won't grow revenue. So refraining from online video in fear is no smarter than those companies that were afraid to market online back in 1998.

Lesson 10: This medium will become measurable
As it matures, it will become as measurable as search. But for the time being, the most controllable variables are cost of production and total views. I've had sponsors beg for their URL to appear pervasively through a video, but that tends to alienate viewers and reduce the total views. And the rate of viewers that visit the website is a difficult variable to change (unless there's a provocative reason for the viewer to interrupt their online-viewing experience).

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Experts have talked about this before. How many times have you read about the importance of ‘adding value’ for your audience? How many times have you read about ‘building trust’ with your readers/prospects?
Many, many times. You know it well. Every marketing guru has spoken about this topic. I’m sick of hearing it. But it STILL bears repeating.

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