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? Fred? How about the Toyota Sienna videos—a series starring the same "family?”
Louderback also feels viral videos are bad for advertisers. Because of their one-off nature, viral clips that brands place ads on deliver less impact than ads placed on episodic content. But wait… what about when the advertiser is the video creator, such as Old Spice? I don't think Old Spice gives a darn about other companies placing ads on and around their videos… the video is the ad. So getting millions of views is getting millions of ad impressions.
There are other points he makes that I actually kind of agree with, and I would be remiss in leaving those out. For instance, he says that some video sites are easy to game, and that view counts aren't trustworthy. I agree… but it's universal. I'm not sure there's a video site out there that has a guaranteed way to ensure accurate view counts, which leaves episodic videos at risk to the same danger. As long as there are brands aiming for a particular conversion there will be marketers and consultants finding ways to game the system. It's not a valid criticism of viral videos as a genre.
The ultimate conclusion he reaches is fairly straightforward. He says,
"There's one area, though, where viral can be worthwhile: when you use one to build a sustainable audience for a well planned out video series.”
I wonder why episodic content is so important in the eyes of this author, that he would continue to return to the topic and even base his definition of the word "viral" on it. Could it have anything to do with the fact that he's the CEO of Revision3, which is a video site exclusively for episodic web content?
I really wish he'd just written an open letter to video creators calling for more episodic content, and used his company's findings on viewer engagement from such content as his selling point. Because that's an article I could get on board with and would have trumpeted as gospel. We need more episodic web video content. 100% yes. No argument from me.
Or call for more quality content in general—whether in episodes or one-off videos, there's too many rip-offs out there for sure. The problem is not with viral video or with episodic video (and I still say the two aren't mutually exclusive)… it's with the content itself.
But the way he goes about making his argument causes him to lose my support. From the linkbait headline to the odd definition of "viral video," to the way his personal bias kind of peeks through… he lost me a bit. I also think it's easy to talk about engagement and conversions and "juicing views" when there aren't any numbers involved. I'm not suggesting people don't juice views, but I'd like to have some statistics to put that behavior in context, rather than dismiss all of viral video because we can't trust the views. That's like dismissing all of Wikipedia because we found an article with inaccuracies.
Maybe viral video isn't what we want it to be. Maybe we want it to convert more immediately. But what if viral video is more about brand recognition and staying top-of-mind? What if it's more of a long term and indirect gain? Sure, it might be harder to measure that, or prove success, but that doesn't mean there's no merit to viral success. He wrote his article—with eye-catching headline—to share his opinion, but also because he knew it would get people talking about online video and Revision3, which is the same kind of long term branding goal I would argue viral video aims for and often achieves.
Finally, keep this in mind: Jim Louderback is a respected CEO of a successful online video company and someone we highly respect at ReelSEO and within the industry. I'm a video blogger. So take my words with as many grains of salt as you do his, and probably a lot more. He's got the experience in the field and has more than earned the right to share his opinions. But that doesn't mean that he's right.
There, I said it: Jim Louderback is kinda wrong on this one.