I recently lead a round table discussion on viral content. There was much banter about what makes content go viral, how it can be encouraged and what the results are when it does take off. We were lucky enough to have Gregg Spiridellis, CEO of JibJab with us. He shared some of the experiences he has had in launching and creating a successful company with several viral success stories.
Let's get one thing straight: no one can make a viral video. I love it when a client asks me to create a viral video for them. There's no such thing. I can create a video that has the right characteristics to go viral, and I can make it easy to share and introduce it to the right audience, but then there's some magic that has to happen. It's got to catch on. There are several things you can do to help it catch on and that's what I will focus on in this post. Let's take a look at what we can do to encourage the viral spreading of content.
Content is King
The main ingredient for success is content that will engage the people you are trying to reach. For content to engage, it's got to be entertaining, or educational, and it's got to trigger an emotional response from the viewer. Tim Street, creator of French Maid TV believes firmly that "In order for a video to go viral it needs to move two or more emotions."
Engaging also involves knowing your audience and what they are willing to devote their attention to. Gregg Spiridellis filled me in on the story behind "This Land" the cornerstone for JibJab's continued success. Gregg and his brother Evan had been running JibJab since 1999. They created their first hit in 2000 with a Bush/Gore rap battle that streamed 5 million times, which is successful even by today's standards, and seriously impressive when you think about the total online population and proliferation of broadband at that time. In 2004 JibJab released "This Land" and things really took off for them. He mentioned the fact that an election is the biggest new story in the US, and you can plan for it in advance, you know it's going to happen. It's also a topic that many people are passionate about. Gregg also makes sure to note that from the get go they consistently remained as connected to their audience as possible, building an email list of 130,000 registered members in the process. 130,000 people who were loyal enough to the brand to register. Those 130,000 brand loyalists sparked a chain reaction that ended with 80 million streams, appearances on the Tonight Show and continued success to follow. Gregg also believes firmly that in order to continue to be successful you can't just be a one-trick-pony. You need to continue to innovate, he says "you can never stand still." JibJab has gone on to produce new and innovative content, including their "Starting You" series which lets users put themselves into the videos.
Another great example of awesome content is Blendtec's "Will It Blend" videos. The story behind the videos is the stuff legends are made of. I wrote a guest post for Mashable on the subject. Here's an excerpt, click here for the full story.
George [Wright, Marketing Direct at Blendtec] was smart enough to recognize this gem and turned it into the widely acclaimed “Will It Blend” series of videos. He simply unveiled the face that the company had all along. The videos were distributed online and Blentec employees reached out to their personal networks to let them know. Word spread and “Will It Blend” became a viral phenomenon, garnering of 100 million views in total. Blendtec’s marketing now serves as a profit center for the company, the videos have made over $50,000 in ad revenue from Revver.
Another thing to take into consideration is, it's not just about number of views, but who's watching. I often say that I would rather be addressing 100 people who I knew were interested in what I have to say, than 1,000 people who may or may not be. I'll give you an example: I work with a major technology company, they wanted to "do a viral video" that Web 2.0 startups would respond to. They pointed out several videos on YouTube that were getting 500,000 to 1,000,000 views. I then asked them how big their audience was. They estimated there might be 10,000 Web 2.0 startups in the US. Assuming we needed at least five people in each of those companies to watch the video, that's 50,000 views. But it's 50,000 of the right views. And simply tossing a video up on YouTube was not going to guarantee that the right people saw it. Instead, we needed to come up with a distribution strategy for the video that would reach THOSE 50,000 people. So it's not necessarily all about huge numbers. In many cases it's more about reaching the right people. Another great example of this is South Park. If you aren't familiar with the story, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park made their first video, Jesus vs. Santa and sent it as a VHS Christmas card to a few studio execs. Before they knew it, the execs had made copies of the VHS tape and sent it to their friends, their friends sent it to their friends and so on. Next thing they knew, they were in production for South Park. They presented content that was so engaging and entertaining that people were willing to go through all of that trouble just to pass it on. How many people saw it? Maybe 200, 300? But it was the RIGHT 2 or 3 hundred people.
Remove Hurdles and Wax the Lanes
The recipe so far: killer content that appeals to your audience, a clear idea about who your audience is and how to reach them, and a clear definition of success. There's only one thing left to do: make it easy to share. Everything you do should have sharing links to any service that your audience might be using to propagate information. And these days there are a lot of them. Include embed tags, links to social bookmarking sites, social networks, micro-blogging sites and life streaming sites like: StumbleUpon, Digg, Del.icio.us, Ma.gnolia, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, FriendFeed and blogs such as Wordpress, Blogger and Typepad. Oh, and don't forget good old email! I like to use ShareThis, an example of which is at the bottom of this post, but there are several services out there.
To summarize: start with KILLER content, know your audience, define success and make it easy to share! (Oh, and the examples cited here are videos, but much of this holds true for other forms of content as well.)
If you've got more examples of viral success stories, and some insights into what makes them successful I'd love to hear it, please drop me a comment.