What makes a video go viral?

June 1, 2016 03:50 PM

It took less than a year into his job as brand manager at TigerDirect for Steven Leeds to grow frustrated with the brand’s marketing strategy which—at the time, in 2013—largely revolved around newspaper print ads that highlighted the electronics retailer’s sales.

“Our ads weren’t reaching the type of audience we wanted,” says Leeds, who is now senior vice president of marketing at TigerDirect’s former parent company Systemax Inc. (Systemax sold TigerDirect last November.) Given newspaper readership demographics, the ads were largely reaching consumers older than the 18- to 32-year-old technology fanatics who are the retailer’s target customers. He believed that even if the retailer’s target customers saw those ads, the content of the ads wouldn’t excite younger consumers and turn them into brand advocates.

Leeds had a different idea: Create a funny online video showcasing a TigerDirect store with the hope that it would take off online.

For $50,000, roughly the same amount the retailer spent on one week of newspaper ads, Leeds developed a video he called “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek.” The video featured two YouTube stars, Rhett and Link, battling to check out at a TigerDirect store. As the two seek to convince the clerk to check them out, they cheekily sort out the differences between “bookworm” nerds and “hipster wannabe” geeks who, the video says, have “got brains and a personality.”

The video attracted more than 12 million views in its first two months, which helped the retailer build brand recognition and showcase its physical stores.

TigerDirect’s experience shows that with the right message, online videos that take off can produce results. Viral videos have helped a retailer like Dollar Shave Club build its brand and others, like American Greetings and TigerDirect, garner millions of dollars in free media coverage and build connections with their target audiences.

Although most videos retailers post online don’t go viral, when retailers and marketing experts examine the commonalities among those that take off and produce significant results, they find several recurring threads: The videos spark an emotional response, they’re finely tailored to the merchant’s targeted demographic and they’re often accompanied by a concerted effort—via ads or a well-organized public relations push—to ensure the video gets seen. In the case of “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek,” for example, the contract Leeds signed with Rhett and Link guaranteed the video would receive 1 million views from Rhett and Link-related YouTube channels.

When an online video takes off online, the retailer can reap rewards for years; roughly two and a half years after TigerDirect posted “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek” the video has attracted more than 30 million views, with 18 million of those views coming after the initial two-month push. That’s why Leeds believes in the marketing power of web video. “When you advertise in the newspaper, that paper ends up in the recycling bin the day your ad runs,” he says. “When you run a commercial on TV, your ad only lives as long as you’re paying for the spots. But a video can live forever online.”

Industry estimates suggest that there are around 500 hours of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute. With so much competition for consumers’ attention, most online videos garner few views.

When Leeds got the go-ahead to test an online video, he was determined to avoid that fate. But he wasn’t sure how. He only had the vague idea that the video should help more consumers learn that TigerDirect operated physical stores.

The first thing he did was identify who he wanted to reach: 18- to 32-year-old men who identify with the “gamer lifestyle.” Because those consumers spend their time on websites like technology news site Engadget, design and technology blog Gizmodo and media site Mashable, Leeds spent hours examining the target sites’ content to gather a clear sense of what types of content they feature and what topics their readers click and share.

“Rather than pay for ad space on the sites, we wanted to see what types of content they typically pick up,” he says. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we get on their sites for free and get distribution beyond our own site.’”

The analysis found the sites posted several rap parodies and regularly featured “nerdy” and “geeky”-themed content. As he pored over the stars of the videos featured on the sites time and again he saw the same comedic duo: Rhett and Link, the so-called “Internetainer” pair whose daily morning YouTube talk show, funny music videos and sketches have attracted more than 14 million subscribers to their two YouTube channels (at the time, the duo only had about 1 million subscribers). After watching several of their videos, Leeds decided he wanted them in the video.

TigerDirect spent roughly $50,000 for Rhett and Link to create “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek” with the guarantee the video would get 1 million views. The hope was that the guaranteed views would give the video a push to get it started.

Almost as soon as the video appeared on YouTube it caught on, and a number of sites picked it up. The majority of viewers, 69%, watched all of the nearly four minute-long video. And even without a clear call to action—a misstep Leeds addressed in a subsequent online video that went viral—”Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek” drove about 800,000 direct clicks from YouTube to within the first two months, Leeds says.

For a retailer, a view or click is only worthwhile if it ultimately leads to sales. But driving that sale requires a retailer to not only entertain, but to incorporate an “essential truth” about a brand into their online videos, says Mitchell Reichgut, CEO of video advertising vendor Jun Group, which has helped create a number of videos that went viral.

“An online video will only deliver results if it is true to what the brand is about,” he says. “Brands have to figure out what they’re passionate about and how they can communicate that message.”

That’s what Dollar Shave Club did when it used its $4,500 budget to produce “Our Blades are F**king Great,” the video it posted to YouTube in 2012 that helped launch its brand. Within the video’s first nine seconds, Dollar Shave Club’s founder and CEO Michael Dubin explains the brand’s value proposition. “What is” he asks. “Well for $1 a month we send you high-quality razors right to your door.” At the same time, the video doesn’t take itself seriously. Dubin explains that the blades are “f**king great.”

By necessity, the video had a makeshift look and feel to it. Dubin had a tiny budget and wrote, produced and starred in the video. And he shot it in the retailer’s warehouse.

While Dollar Shave Club lacked the budget to pay to promote the video, it made a concerted effort to get media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Fast Company to write about the campaign. The campaign helped Dollar Shave Club’s video spread, and online sales followed. Dollar Shave Club sold about 12,000 of the 15,000 razors it had in stock within 48 hours of posting the video. It sold the remaining 3,000 soon after that, which forced the retailer to email subscribers to let them know they’d receive their orders within two months. 

“The video resonated with guys because we’d tackled the issues that men experience when buying razors at the drugstore,” Dubin says. “There are a lot of funny videos on the Internet, but this one had a real purpose, a real story and a real solution to a big problem that a lot of men were having.”

Academic research suggests humor played an important role in the success of both the TigerDirect and Dollar Shave Club videos. A 2013 article “What makes a video go viral?: An analysis of emotional contagion and Internet memes” in the journal Computers in Human Behavior finds that consumers are only likely to share videos that provoke a strong “affective response.”

“Since the people to whom we are forwarding the information are likely friends and acquaintances, we are more likely to forward positively-valenced information because we want our friends to experience the same vicarious pleasure that we did,” write the authors, Rosanna Guadagno, Daniel Rempala, Shannon Murphy and Bradley Okdie.

But a video doesn’t have to be funny to go viral. American Greetings in 2014 sought to provoke a heartfelt reaction from consumers with its video “World’s Toughest Job.” The video, produced with its ad agency MullenLowe, sought to prove that motherhood is the world’s toughest job.

The agency posted job listings online for a “director of operations” position at a company called Rehtom Inc. The online job posting received 2.7 million impressions, but supposedly received only 24 applicants who inquired to learn more. The agency then conducted video interviews with those applicants that described the job’s requirements—135 to 168 hours a week, no breaks, excellent negotiation skills and the ability to work in chaotic situations for no pay. It then pieced together the applicants’ interviews in the video before the big reveal that there are billions of moms filling the position every day. The video ends with the suggestion that “This Mother’s Day you might want to make her a card,” followed by the hashtag #WorldsToughestJob and the URL

Three key media placements—in Adweek, the Huffington Post and the “Today Show”—helped the video take off, says Alex Ho, the retailer’s executive director of marketing. Those spots helped consumers and other media outlets discover the video. It then built on that attention to generate even more buzz.

“While the world was falling in love with the video we were bolstering the campaign by launching newly constructed blogs and landing pages, creating new assets and content, reaching out to media outlets to secure coverage and engaging with the public on multiple social platforms,” she says.

American Greetings says the video ultimately garnered millions of dollars worth of exposure in the form of coverage on TV shows like “The View” and “Good Morning America,” and in the Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, and USA Today. The video was also featured in the trending topics sections on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It also helped boost engagement with the brand on social networks and contributed to year-over-year gains in site visits and online revenue, she says. 

As the American Greetings video demonstrates, however, most brands don’t just stumble into a video that millions of consumers want to share with friends. Viral videos are typically the result of sophisticated, well-planned marketing programs, Jun Group’s Reichgut says.

“Some companies serendipitously shoot a video, stick it up on YouTube or Facebook and it goes viral,” he says. “But that’s rare. Most of the times a lot of smart people spend a lot of time thinking hard about their audience, the medium and the product they’re trying to sell. That doesn’t come inexpensively. It takes time, talent, soft starts and trial and error.” And even with all that effort and support, there’s no guarantee a video a will take off.

Still, retailers can increase the odds a video will go viral by following a few basic marketing rules: identify the target audience, know their interests and develop a message that suits that audience while, at the same time, communicating something important about the brand. “There’s no secret formula,” Leeds says. “It takes a lot of work.”




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