I have been thinking a lot about this topic ever since I read about how poor the sales have been for OK Go following the band's latest viral video hit, the music video for "This Too Shall Pass.” You could argue that their original hit, the video for "Here It Goes Again" (AKA, "the treadmill video”) was one of the videos that made the phrase "going viral" a household term. How do the kings of viral video release something as extravagant, entertaining, and popular as "This Too Shall Pass" (the Rube Goldberg version) without any bit of that attention trickling down to the band in the form of album sales?
Even after the new video surpassed 8 million views, the band had still only sold about 25,000 records in the U.S. That is a very small number in the world of major-label bands. It might also help explain why EMI put up no fuss at all when the band ditched them. In fact, the band's dismal sales numbers probably give us all the background information we need in order to better understand why EMI forbade the band from making the first "This Too Shall Pass" video embeddable on YouTube—a decision the label says was about making as much money as possible (the label, according to some of the promotional deals they made, would have lost out on credit for views that occurred on embedded versions, and therefore wanted every view to come from the root YouTube page).
And I'm not here to referee between the band and the label. Plenty of blogs are already doing that. What I want to know is this: If OK Go can't take a viral hit and turn it into profit… then who can? Name another band that gets almost zero radio airplay but still has two music videos online with a combined total of views over 60 million views? I'll be here when you're done thinking, but we can skip to the end if you want and just agree that there isn't one. Every other band or musical artist that has even come close to OK Go's view counts on YouTube is a major label star with serious airplay across the nation.
Then I read this article in Adweek, which states that Evian's "Roller Babies" video reached over 100 million views, and yet the company lost market share in the U.S. that year. Oops.
And all this has caused me to ponder another, larger question: can viral video even convert?
The short answer is… of course it can. But maybe not in traditional ways.
Of course, viral hits can convert to straight sales… just look at Blendtech, the company behind the popular Will It Blend video series on YouTube. They make industrial-strength blenders—something that I did not know existed and could not see a need for. And yet, the company's videos have been seen more than 80 million times, which led to five times the sales they were used to—and that sales figure is two years old.
There are countless other examples of viral videos that have boosted sales for the companies involved—just as there are countless examples of hugely popular branded videos that have led to absolutely nothing.
So if viral can convert, then what is it that triggers the conversion over the other viral offerings? Is there a detachment for the viewers, many of whom are simply killing time while at work and therefore aren't fully invested in what they're watching? That's certainly plausible. In the case of OK Go, is it possible that the video content is simply more entertaining to viewers than the audio track it accompanies?
Sure. It's possible.
But I think the mistake most big brands and small businesses alike are making with viral video is related to goal-setting. They're putting the cart before the horse, as my father would say. They begin with the notion of creating a video that will achieve millions of views (or thousands, for small companies), and in the process of crafting that piece of content they lose all track of their goals, if they even had any to begin with. Because I can promise you this… a million YouTube views are pretty pointless if you don't have some intended plan for those views. If you can't convert them into sales, downloads, or fans… then what have you really accomplished that Tay Zonday hasn't? Similarly, if you only get one view on your video, but that viewer buys your entire inventory after watching, is that video a success?
What are some goals a viral producer might have (beyond views)? Let's take OK Go as an example. I would presume they hoped their latest viral effort would help them sell more records. It hasn't. But what if they don't care at all about record sales? What if their conversion of choice is to add touring dates, sell concert tickets, or add new fans to the band's fan club? If that's how they're measuring conversions, then the lack of album sales is no concern to them. Who are we to suggest that their viral videos don't convert if we have no idea what their goals were?
Remember, conversions and sales are not the same thing. It's alarming how frequently I have to remind clients of that fact. Yes, sales are almost always the endgame. But there are a host of conversion actions your video or website can solicit that have nothing to do with money—even as those very conversions are designed to lead to sales down the road.
I think most major brands would tell you the goal of their viral effort is brand awareness, which I think is often just a buzz-phrase or a cop out. Yes, massive viral hits will improve your company's brand awareness and your "top of mind.” Good for you. But if you're a major brand, you've got to have some secondary plan in place to take advantage of that brand awareness, right? Some kind of secondary campaign to actually drive sales?
Maybe SEO is a consideration, right? Major brands create viral videos in the hopes of putting their flag in the ground atop the rankings for the core industry keywords. That's a valid conversion goal as well.
Whatever your goals are, you should know them inside and out before moving forward. You might be trying to increase sales. Maybe you're after email addresses for your e-newsletter. Perhaps you're hoping people will download a form or click on a link. Conversation goals can be any action you want the video's viewer to perform after seeing the video. It could be simply that you want the viewer to stand at their computer and do a freaking jumping jack, for Pete's sake. The conversion itself isn't nearly as important to me as is the fact that you have one—or a series of them. Decide what you want your viewers to do, and then plan the video around that, from script to production to editing to overlays. Everything should feed that higher purpose of whatever goals you have set.
Creating viral content without goals is like hopping on the interstate and driving for 20 hours before deciding where you want to go... you'll almost always be disappointed with the results.
The very first stage of viral video production should be the same as the first stage of website development: What are your goals? If you can't answer that question, you have no business moving forward with the project, unless you're in business to waste money and creative effort. People who fail to set goals have no measure of their own success whatsoever.