What do you do when someone you like and respect writes something that you think is way off base? Jim Louderback wrote a pretty interesting article over at AdAge yesterday, and it's the kind of thing I have to weigh in on. In a piece entitled, "There, I said it: Screw Viral Videos," Jim argues that the pursuit of viral success is dragging down the whole industry (not sure what industry he means, but I think it's the "online video" industry). Instead of chasing viral success, he suggests we should focus on long-form episodic content and Internet series that keep audiences connected and engaged.
I want to start things off by saying that I don't completely disagree, at least with the notion that we should focus more on episodic content than we currently are. But that's sort of where Louderback and I start to veer off on different paths. So I thought I'd point out his article to you—it's very well written—and then explain why I think you should take it with a grain of salt.
First… how are we defining "viral?" Because pretty much the entire article hinges on your definition of the word. Louderback seems to define viral as any non-episodic piece of marketing or advertising video. Or videos that are one-offs, that are intended to get a spike of millions of views in a short period of time. I may be putting words in his mouth, because I honestly can't quite tell what his definition of "viral" is, so I'll give you mine:
Any video that is spread organically from person to person, though social media, email, word of mouth, or any other means, and grows to a large view total, whether or not it was intended to get popular from the start.
Under my definition, David After Dentist would count as a viral success. It got millions and millions of views because people couldn't stop sharing it with their friends. But it was never intended for that. It was just supposed to be for friends and family. Similarly, Eminem and Rhianna's new music video has more views than you can fathom, and set out to get those views get popular. Both are examples of viral videos under my definition.
Louderback also believes viral videos are leading us to be more like copycats than we should be—he says the 27th keyboard cat or the 12th dancing baby is just plain boring, and he's totally right. But then he says that "David Goes to the Proctologist won't be as successful as his trip to the dentist.” Wait a minute… wouldn't David Goes to the Proctologist be a sequel to David After Dentist? Wouldn't that make it… episodic content, the very thing Louderback is advocating?
He bemoans the Old Spice copycats that have already sprung up—pointing out that Old Spice themselves didn't target "viral" as a destination, but instead started that campaign with a Super Bowl commercial, which he says is "hardly the norm for a viral-focused campaign.” And I have to just completely disagree with him on this. I think brands frequently use Super Bowl commercials with the intent of spurring an online viral surge. I think that brands care a great deal about what commercials get the most attention online in the weeks after the game. I think that the Super Bowl commercials of the 80's and 90's are the early ancestors of viral videos. In recent years, brands like Doritos have leveraged the online video creator community to unearth new talented directors and help craft their eventual Super Bowl spot. They post the videos online for voting, and some go viral, only to then become a Super Bowl commercial… that then goes viral again online the next day.
Oh, and the Old Spice commercial did not even air during the Super Bowl, as many think it did. It debuted after the game… online… and referred to itself as a Super Bowl commercial in a cheeky attempt to drive up interest. So this particular example actually started as a web video, one that its creators probably hoped would go viral. In fact, if you think about it, these Old Spice ads are both viral videos and the very kind of episodic content Louderback is advocating. He uses them as an example to prove that episodic trumps viral—I use them as an example that one doesn't have to preclude the other. Is his definition of viral tied to whether or not the video is part of a series?
Which brings me to my next point: there's an awful lot of content that I would call both "viral" and "episodic.” How about the Annoying Orange? How about Merton's PianoImprov videos? The videos of Rhett and Link