Viral videos are hit or miss, right? Nobody can predict what works and what doesn’t. But Dr. Brent Coker can -- or he says he can.
The University of Melbourne lecturer conducted a study to figure out the formula for viral videos. Here's his formula: Viral videos have "congruency, emotive strength, network-involvement ratio, and paired meme synergy."
It's simpler than it sounds. Congruency is when a video is in harmony with what the public already thinks about the brand. For example, an ad for Apple gadgets that pretends the brand is all about bargain-basement prices lacks congruency.
Emotive strength includes humor, nostalgia, and other emotions, which boost our memory.
The network-involvement ratio refers to the idea that messaging must be targeted at the kinds of people who share messages virally. For example, an ad that speaks to young technology fans is more likely to go viral than one targeting older people who don't like technology.
Finally, we get to the most important, surprising, and interesting factor: paired meme synergy. Brent has categorized video memes into 14 distinct types. His theory or observation is that the most viral videos combine at least two of these meme types.
Coker has given these meme types the following goofy names: Cutsie Wootsie, Impromptu, Disruption Destruction, Performance, Anticipation, Simulation Trigger, Skill Bill, Vigilante Justice, Eyes Surprise, Baby Love, Nostalgic Bubblegum, Voyeur, Rose Glasses, and Comedy Side Split. He found that not all these meme types work well together. But massively viral marketing videos share at least two.
For example, a hugely successful campaign promoting L’Oréal’s Dermablend brand combined the memes Voyeur and Eyes Surprise, according to the blog Branding Insider. In the campaign, a bald young man sits down and cleans his skin with makeup remover. Underneath, we learn, he is the most tattooed man in the world. Every inch of his skin is covered in dark tattoos. The viewer is curious, horrified, and finally amazed that makeup was able to cover such dark tattoos so convincingly.
It's a perfect campaign, according to Coker's formula. It succeeds with congruency, since the ad is a straight-forward use of makeup. It has emotive strength -- shock and horror when he appears to wipe his skin off. It nails the network-involvement ratio by appealing to young people familiar with tattoo culture. And it combines two memes successfully.
Of course, it's easy to start with a viral video campaign and work back to a formula. The trick is to start with a formula and use it to create a viral campaign.
Coker's research is interesting but does not take into consideration the quality of the video-making, the cultural ripeness for an idea, the degree of originality, and the desirability of the brand itself. Even more importantly, it does not and cannot address appropriateness to marketing objective.
In some cases, as in the L’Oréal video, the product can be demonstrated. In others, such as an Old Spice campaign, it cannot. And a viral campaign that fails to meet marketing objectives such as brand positioning or sales may not be worth the trouble, even if it succeeds.
In developing your own formula, it's important to start with clear objectives. Is it product demonstration, like L’Oréal, or brand positioning and word of mouth, like Old Spice? Or something else? Next, you need to pick the right emotional tone based on those objectives. Is humor appropriate? Shock? Nostalgia? What other "meme types" can be added to the mashup? Can the campaign be targeted at a community of viral sharers? Finally, how can you put it all together with skill, brevity, and audio-visual mastery? The right viral video ultimately has a unity of purpose among objective, tone, audience, and delivery.
Formulas can serve as a good starting point for crafting a viral video. But what the Cokers of the world cannot tell you is what's right for your brand, company, and product. The right formula starts with the marketing objective and should be built from there. Seek to entertain, thrill, and move. But don't forget to position, inform, or sell. The best viral videos do it all.
— Mike Elgan is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker, and blogger.
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Good points! If the "best video" isn't going to attract people to it then it is going to die with relatively no chance for survival. And if the crappiest video out there goes viral then it is proof in point that the content is not necessarily the key factor to what makes a hit.
Absolutely right for several reasons, I think: for one thing, traditional media validates the social media, so that the people reposting and sharing have a sense that "this is important." For another, in something like the Parable of the Seed, the best way to make sure some of your social messages find a place where they can grow is to scatter them widely, and traditional media is still best at that. And then there's the matter of structure: traditional media has genres and forms that help people make sense of content. When the Texas kid-beating judge was just a sub-epidemic viral video, mostly people were looking at that big goon hitting his daughter and thinking, "Geez, ugh, yuk, that's awful" -- and sometimes passing it on because it was just so awful. Traditional media production shaped it into a message -- "this s.o.b. is a JUDGE! We have to do something!" -- that fit the genre of "horrible things done by public figures who think no one is watching them" -- and that made it go full-on viral, I suspect, because now people knew why they were sending it to each other, and what they hoped to accomplish by forwarding it. (All top of head interpretation, of course ... unsupported by actual serious study of the case, just assuming it's close to cases that have been studied).
I think we can probably say that in the foreseeable future trying to do just traditional or just social media will turn out to be like rowing with one oar: with skill, it can be done, and you can even get somewhere, but it's not efficient and too much work. Much better to have both oars in the water.
Leading back, perhaps, to the always scary point that content matters. A terrific video with all the right elements about something that almost no one is interested in is going to die; the "best available" video -- even if that's quite poor quality -- on a hot topic that everyone needs to know about now is going to go viral. In between the extremes of very dull and absolutely necessary content, presentation undoubtedly matters, but there's a point where the sow's ear just isn't close enough to the silk purse no matter how smart you are about your sewing.
Mike - your post presents some compelling new insights for a company's video marketing and effectively spotlights the must-haves for viral success. The importance of matching the media to the target can't be overstated. That being accomplished, strong videos are great at generating excitement around acquisitions, product introduction, or awareness for little known and new products.
I'd add one additional point. In the end, no matter the viral success, videos still play only a supporting role in a company's overall brand or product marketing. You might want to take a look at Jeff Nef's piece in AdAge, Dermablend's 'Zombie Boy' Viral Shows Big-Budget L'Oreal Can Think Small http://adage.com/article/special-report-media-evolved/dermablend-s-zombie-boy-viral-shows-big-budget-l-oreal-small/231013/ (if you haven't already). In it, he highlights remarks at a recent AdAge conference by L'Oreal USA CMO, Marc Speicher, about the relationship between digital and traditional marketing in a brand's product marketing. Speaking to Dermablend's recent breakthrough video, Speicher says, "Traditional media becomes that amplifier and springboard for the digital work." He goes on to add, " to get that breakthrough, traditional media remain very important."
Dr. Coker does provide a good analytical viewpoint regarding the qualities that make a hit viral video. But as part of his study, did he actually use his formula to generate a viral video himself and test his own conclusions? Was he able to ascertain that his theory was accurate and proven from that aspect as well?
I could see those three being very useful components, but in the grand scheme of things it is difficult to use that as a formula towards success in a viral video. I could make an extremely useful and detailed presentation regarding a topic and it would not necessarily go viral as a result. There has to be more into the formula than meeting one of those three criteria.
And he might have been right. Or ten thousand other things could have done it. The history of entertainment arts is one long nightmare for anyone who notices how many things are there to prevent success.
Which is why I tend to take an evolutionary perspective on guides and how-tos, no matter how well done. Robert McKee, in the early 1990s, came up with a description that fit about 8 great movies; Syd Field did the same thing for about 10, at about the same time. Nowadays, 20 years later, script evaluators at some agencies and studios are still checking a box that says "McKee" or "Field", meaning that the writer appears to have been trying to write according to one formula or the other. Literally thousands of movies have been made trying to hit one or the other formula perfectly, and tens of thousands of person-hours expended on explaining why some highly successful movies that didn't fit the formula really did, and probably hundreds of thousands of unproduced scripts written to fit the formulas.
Was that the best use of time and effort in the quest for movies that would pack theaters and live in a generation's imagination? Almost certainly not. But it was the most investor-reassuring way to do it.
Similarly, the potential gains from a viral video are now so huge that the formula-devisers are at work (and you could pretty much argue they always have been -- Aristotle's Poetics could be read as a formula for tragedy). In five or ten years, there will be 1-3 formulas for viral videos -- which won't necessarily produce viral videos, but will reassure the people paying for them.
Hmm. So the most profitable thing a person could actually produce might not be the thing itself, but the plausible formula for it ... 'scuse me, I have to get to work on something...
@John, your reference to writing guides remind me of what a fellow adjunct once told me about the one book he had published. He said he had been assured it had all the signs of a bestseller, but it wasn't. He blamed his agent/publisher for their lack of efforts in marketing it.
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