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What Do Viral Videos Have in Common with the People’s Choice Awards?

Posted by Hal Thomas on January 20, 2010

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Last week, Rob posted about Coca-Cola's recent viral success with its Happiness Machine stunt, where Coke used a fake vending machine to dispense everything from free drinks to a six foot sub sandwich to unsuspecting college students.

Great. So why retread old ground, you ask?

It is important to point out that what made the Happiness Machine go viral is the same thing that made The Dark Knight the winner of the 2009 People's Choice Award for Favorite Movie: they were both something that people enjoyed watching so much that they felt compelled to share it with others.

You see, brands can't just create a viral video any more than a studio can just make an award-winning film. Videos go viral; films receive awards. Certainly, going viral can be a goal for brand generated content, just as winning Best Picture can be a goal for a film. Going viral happens after the fact, as does receiving awards. But in both cases, achieving either goal is byproduct of the same thing: creating compelling content that connects with people on an emotional level.

This is why I find it a bit disappointing that so many people in the advertising industry have quickly adopted the term viral with seemingly so little thought about what the word really means. (Here's a good riff on why "viral" is a terrible descriptor. Maybe we should use something more appropriate to what we hope will be the end result, like "contagious content." But the last thing we need is another buzzword, and I digress.) Even Advertising Age now has its own weekly Viral Video Chart.

Just because a brand makes a funny/wierd/cool video and posts it to YouTube does not make that video viral. The United Breaks Guitars video and its successor--those are videos that have gone viral. The Levi's Unbuttoned Films have arguably gone viral. And yes, Pants on the Ground, painful as it may be, will go down as viral phenomenon.

What all of these videos have in common is a certain x-factor; they are just outside of the mainstream, are usually not overproduced, and often have a grassroots element. These are not videos most corporate folks would have predicted to be viewed hundreds of thousands (even millions) of times. Contrast the aforementioned videos with the Evian Rollerbabies, which to date have spent 16 nonconsecutive weeks atop Advertising Age's Viral Video Chart:

Hmm, let's see. Cute little babies dancing on roller skates to non-threatening old school rap music thanks to the miracle of really expensive post production and special effects yields (as of the time of this post) over 17 million views on YouTube. A surprise? Not exactly.

So while defining exactly which videos are viral or have gone viral can be a bit ambiguous--and maybe even an exercise in futility--the one thing to take away is that, much like winning a People's Choice Award, the best way to create content that has the best chance of going viral is to create something that is authentic and connects with people on an emotional level. Surprise them in a way that they cannot help but share.

[Disclosure: Coca Cola is BFG client, but Happiness Machine is not our work. We still dig it, though!]

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