Jeffrey Harmon laughs when he hears the question, "how do you create a viral marketing hit?" Harmon, who gained fame for parlaying $500 and an idea for a funny video into millions of YouTube views and the world's most popular tongue cleaner, understands it's not quite that simple. More than that, he says, most viral marketing campaigns fail.
Viral marketing is loosely defined as piece of content generated by a person or company that viewers are eager to share with their friends, colleagues, and family members. It's also defined by its high risks and high rewards. In other words, most campaigns fall flat on their face, but the ones that succeed reap huge rewards. Still, that hasn't stopped scores of small businesses and start-ups looking to create the next big hit.
"Everyone wants a 'Charlie bit my finger,' Harmon explains. "They want something that just does it for them. But they need to get out of that mindset."
So before your firms gives up on traditional advertising and plunges into the risky world of viral marketing, here a few tips on how your content just might achieve some viral success.
When launching an attempt at virality, remember: No one cares about your product.
David Meerman Scott, a marketing strategist and the best-selling author of Real-Time Marketing and PR says that perhaps the most difficult challenge companies must overcome in creating a viral hit is coming to the realization that the content usually can't be about the product or service itself.
"I define it as, 'No one cares about your products,'" Scott says. "They need to instead be thinking about what the audience cares about. Egotistical people and companies tend not to be able to create these things." Scott explains that traditional advertising relies on promoting the product or service as being superior to its competition—the old "better, cheaper, faster" mentality. But there are virtually no examples viral content that has gone viral based solely on the product's advantages, Scott says. "What that means is that the people who are trying to create [a viral hit] need to think in a very different way…much different than you would in a normal kind of promotion or advertising campaign."
Ultimately, a company can never coerce a viewer into sharing content with his or her friends and family. The marketer must understand why the audience would enjoy, share, and thereby endorse the content, Scott says.
"You need someone who's skilled at telling a story," he says, noting that journalists can often spearhead great viral marketing campaigns. "You need someone who's skilled at creating value for an audience, and not content created for the benefit of the company."
Jeffrey Harmon, now head of marketing for Orabrush, the company that manufactures the world's most popular tongue cleaner, and is based in Provo, Utah, says it's all about finding the "purple cow" for your idea—something that will stand out.
"We made a giant human tongue," Harmon notes wryly. "After people watch it, they talk about it. It's just a really memorable symbol that you're going to talk about when you're out with friends or at the dinner table."
David Meerman Scott echoes this point. "People are eager to share something that's funny or outrageous or fantastic in some way," he says.
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Going for viral? Be prepared to lose control.
A viral hit can mean incredible for the exposure for your brand, but exposure can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the viral video or content may attract new customers. But it can also mean that some current or potential customers might get turned off or confused—especially if the campaign is particularly outrageous or wacky.
"One thing that's really difficult for a lot of organizations is that it requires that you lose control of your marketing and messaging," says Scott. "That's really tough for people. There are so many organizations that have been built on controlling their messages. But as soon as you want to have something be shared by a lot of people, the only way that it will be shared is if its shared on those people's terms, not on your terms. And a lot of companies will just say 'that's not for me.'"
Still, Scott says that if there's a desire to create a viral hit within the organization—be it a financial services firm, non-profit, or even governmental agency—there's always room to craft something unique and creative. "I've seen it in so many different industries and markets and different companies that I'm absolutely convinced that anybody can do it," he says.
Russell Perry, chief executive of Keane, an advertising agency in Arizona, understands these fears from working directly with clients, many of whom are afraid to take the leap in creating something off-kilter, especially if the firm offers a more buttoned-up product or service. Still, he thinks it's always possible to explore viral options, he says, because the content is less about the company, and more about what would appeal to the audience. "Even if the viral content conflicts with company culture, if it's in line with the culture of your target audience then it's kosher," he says. "Getting past that fear is the largest challenge, because if you don't do that, it's going to become too watered down."
The content must also be culturally relevant and forward thinking, he says. "If you're doing something that's based off an idea that's currently popular, then by the time you've launched it, you're going to be behind the ball. The truly successful ideas are the ones where everyone sits around and looks and each other and says, 'Are we really going to do this? This hasn’t been done before.' There's definitely a risk."
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Experts explain how much to spend, and how to measure success.
As with any advertising campaign, you'll want to be able to measure the relative success of the content. David Meerman Scott says there are a few ways to judge whether the campaign was successful.
The first, and most obvious, is to set a benchmark of how many people have actually seen the content, tweeted about it, blogged it, or e-mailed it. These are all quantifiable variables that your firm can track as soon as the campaign goes live. Still, there's more your firm can do.
"Ultimately, you can take it further and define how it can help you with more business-oriented goals—YouTube views is not a business-oriented goal," he says.
In addition to tracking the number of views, Scott says a company should pick a few Google keywords that they're trying to target, and work them into the campaign. Google (which owns YouTube), will in turn rank a company's site higher in organic search rankings if the video has been viewed many times, Scott says.
Although it's free to upload content to YouTube, marketing experts tend to agree that at least some marketing budget in necessary to jumpstart any type of viral marketing campaign. For example, Orabrush wanted to target people searching bad breath on YouTube, so they targeted that phrase, paying a small fee for each click. Jeffrey Harmon notes that for every view that they bought, they received two more views. "It was viral enough that it was extending each one of the buys," he says.
David Meerman Scott reminds his clients that hitting a million viewers—or even a hundred thousand—isn't always so crucial in the end. In some markets, he says, even a few thousand views may suffice. "Most businesses, particularly small businesses, B2B firms, start-ups, and entrepreneurial organizations, you're not necessarily talking about millions of views or even hundreds of thousands of views," he says. "If you're in a niche market and you’re reaching a couple of thousand of the right viewers, that can be a huge hit. In a niche market, success may not mean the same thing as in a consumer market."
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Create content for the right medium.
When you're trying to make content that will be likely to go viral, especially YouTube videos, you'll want to create content that's been optimized for the viewer to make it easy for him or her to watch and share with family and friends.
For example, Jeffrey Harmon recommends that the 15-to-30-second rule that applies in television commercials has no bearing on YouTube postings. Harmon points out that out of the top 100 YouTube videos of all time, fewer than five are less than 30 seconds long.
In addition to the length of the video, Harmon notes that the creator needs to optimize content for the smallest screen size possible, which is often a smartphone. "If you watch popular YouTube videos, it's almost uncomfortable how close they punch in," Harmon says. "They know what they're doing because they know how small the screens are that people watch them on."
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