Everyone loves a good viral video, or in other words, a video that people heavily share and talk about. Hardly a week goes by that you aren't shown a viral video from a friend, or showing one to a friend yourself. But why do brands make them? What are the solid, measurable business objectives that can be achieved by making one? How dependable of a strategy is it?

Why Do Brands Make Viral Videos?

Sharing has recently started to become a valued and premium metric, one very difficult to drive, because it's  completely voluntary, the decision of an individual to share content can't be bought. Other than a purchase, there is no more intimate and influential metric than a social share.

Viral video agency chamber.media dug through the top 100 viral ads of all time, evaluated common content themes related to social sharing metrics and determined the following 10 elements to be most commonly present:

  1. Relatable
  2. Shocking
  3. Contrasts things that don't belong together
  4. Looks like it took a lot time and resources to make
  5. Captures reactions out of unsuspecting strangers
  6. Challenges a cultural tension in a controversial way
  7. Is outright strange and meme-oriented
  8. Uses technology in an unexpected way
  9. Features a current viral trend or figure
  10. Is a wish-fulfillment or fakes something that we wish was real

We usually make a concept for each of these elements when writing a video because they've historically resonated well with humans on the internet. In the early days of online video in 2007-2011 there were a lot of winners and losers in viral brand video, many brands tried, failed, and abandoned it as a strategy altogether. It wasn't very well understood, some videos that weren't that great were successful simply because there was lower competition on YouTube at the time and they were supported by large TV spends.

Some of the pioneering greats were Ape With AK-47 (see below), and The Cog. A few dozen brands learned from the collective industry's mistakes, or realized replicable patterns from successes, and the foremost strategy emerged, which is to cut through the clutter by dedicating smarter distribution and seeding tactics.

So why do these select few, ballsy brands do it? They do it because they often earn 5 times more from their investment than any other media, create cultural trends in a way that's otherwise impossibly expensive, can reach ad-blocking and content-sensitive millenials, and in some cases speed up or launch growth of a new product or service at an exponential rate. The brands currently doing it know how to tailor it to their overall business objectives, have the people, budget and data to pull it off, and they know how to sell it through politically across their teams and superiors as a valid, measurable, and predictable strategy.

How to Measure Viral Video Performance?

"Making a viral video" can never be your goal, because there is no standardized measure for what that entails. The term is drenched in misconception, believe me, I've had clients interrogate me suspiciously for even referencing it! There is however, very standardized measure for the afore-mentioned metrics, which are critical if you want to legitimize viral video as a strategy with your team and superiors, the key to selling through such a campaign. It's not easy to do this, because viral video is so mis-understood and many brands have been burned by chasing success with it without the right knowledge, people or tools. Viral brand videos generally come in two directions based on varying business objectives, either the modern infomercial or branded entertainment. The modern infomercial is used primarily to drive direct response sales, branded entertainment is used primarily to drive press features, social shares, and audience growth.

If the objective is to drive direct response sales, an infomercial or promotional approach is best utilized, such as Dollar Shave Club, Squatty Potty and FreshPet  which per the examples have inarguably mostly been bathroom products.  These sales-oriented videos have a very strong call to action and are usually enveloped in pungent quirkiness, pushing the hard sale just like a late-night TV infomercial would.

Dollar Shave Club's video almost single-handedly launched the now $615M valued start-up, driving 12,000 sign-ups, or $100k in the first 48 hours. Squatty Potty's video dwarfed their Shark Tank appearance, doing $15M in sales at the last time reported, with a 600% leap in online sales, 400% leap in retail sales, quadrupling the size of the company. FreshPet's video is rumored to have almost crashed the brand's website from the overwhelming traffic and it worked so well they've created a handful of more viral videos since.

What's incredible is these overtly promotional ads, which do not purely fit in the category of branded entertainment, got massively shared and featured in press; Squatty Potty with 1M+, and FreshPet with 150k+, all with dozens of press features. According to Tubular, not only did Dollar Shave Club's 'Our Blades are F***ing Great' video generate 8.3M YouTube views within 90 days of upload, it also generated nearly 600K engagements across YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter:

dollar shave club video views engagement

Dollar Shave Club 'Our Blades Are F***ing Great' Video Views and Engagement (All data via Tubular Labs)

Remember, people usually do not buy unless they are told to buy. If you want conversions, tell people to buy three times, just like the snuggie commercial does at 3am while you're shamefully stuffing your face with cheese puffs (I'll keep that between us).

Video and Audience Growth Hacking

If the objective is to drive brand awareness, branded entertainment optimized for press features, social shares or audience growth is the best route. This is typically measured by brand trackers and surveys in the traditional TV world, but less often measured in the digital world. Almost every digital marketing team has a set of goals for the year, they usually include site traffic, social followers, impressions and engagement. Viral video gives you the opportunity to more narrowly define "brand awareness" while reaching into the new (and more effective) age of public relations and the difficult-yet-sought-after metric of shares. If tens of thousands of people share your content, your message becomes a part of culture, it's being disseminated for you. The press will not usually feature a video with a heavy promotional call to action because they want to get paid for that, not give it away for free, their business runs on ad revenue. Having a brand in a video in of itself decreases likelihood for sharing, a promotional call to action decreases that likelihood significantly more.

This is why it's important to decide before you ever even have a concept whether sales or brand awareness are more important to you, doing both at once increases risk of failing at both, although there are examples where it has worked. We recently sold out the warehouse of a major apparel brand and doubled retail sales with just 250,000 views on a very narrowly targeted video campaign. Because our focus was sales, there are few social shares and no press features for the campaign, but the videos converted.

There are cases when a video can achieve both conversions and shares/press, like NordicTrack's World's Largest Treadmill Dance. The primary goal was brand awareness, which we measured by the 60k+ social shares and 150k+ press features it garnered, including the dance act being taken onto America's Got Talent. NordicTrack's goal was to make treadmills fun, less of a drudgery, thus our concept. Fortunately, the concept also converted by helping people to see themselves having fun along with an effective use of ad re-marketing.

The video has now logged seven figures in sales with a 400% ROI and continues to convert every month. It sparked 20 million views worth of dozens of user generated videos of people dancing on treadmills as a result, with one of them being featured on Ellen. The video influenced culture and created a trend that was associated positively with the NordicTrack brand and intended message. Case in point for most direct response videos, our follow-up to the treadmill dance video only has 1.2M views and few press features yet has driven comparable sales, although it has not significantly influenced culture or created a trend.

The Dove Real Beauty campaign across multiple videos garnered 1.3M shares, Old Spice's 'What Your Man Could Smell Like' 1.1M+ shares, '20th Century Fox's Devil Baby Attack', 800k+ shares, 'Volvo Trucks - Epic Split' 1.4M+ shares, and Jeff Gordon: Test Drive | Pepsi Max 600k+ shares, to name a small fraction of the hundreds (but surprisingly not thousands) of ads that have exceeded a half million shares.

Shares and press features are both ambitious metrics that your superiors might not quite understand, if they aren't getting it, set a view metric, everyone speaks the language of views. It's a beloved metric, although it usually means nothing. A million views is the magic number for most people for a video to be successful, but it's surprisingly easy to get a million views, I could buy YouTube Ads at half a cent per view in Timbuktu right now and get a million views for $5,000, but it won't do much for the brand beyond creating some social proof, a term we use that defines how viewers believe that something is viral, even if it isn't.

How Dependable a Strategy is Viral Video?

Lightning rarely strikes twice, but that doesn't mean its effects can't be replicated. Viral brand videos don't always have to be expensive, case in point,  'Always #LikeAGirl' and 'FirstKiss', which were very simple and low-budget, but just like a runner trains for a race, usually more input increases the output, or the chance of winning. Even a low-budget, simple production will require a large distribution and seeding budget to get the momentum it needs, which was the case with 'Always #LikeAGirl' and it's massive Super Bowl media spend.

The fewer resources you put towards your viral video, the less are your chances of breaking through the clutter. Online video is an increasingly competitive ecosystem, opportunities for easy breakthroughs are less common than they were back in the golden days of 2011, when my own first experiment with viral video got 10 million views and guest appearances on Good Morning America and Tosh.0. The distribution on that video was literally one Facebook post by a fellow college student. I don't think the Real Meaning of MPH would have broke through had it been released today with just one Facebook post.

The rule to follow is to always plan the budget for media spend (seeding and distribution) to be at least 3 times that of the production. Most viral concepts can be produced under $60,000 if you have lean production connections. You can do the math on what your media budget should be. There should be a plan for paid ads, influencers, video SEO and press outreach once you've crafted a concept with the most potential as possible to achieve your objective.

And finally, this is all great theory, but how can you ever know if your viral video is going to work? Test before launch, just like you do for TV. Your testing data on a viral brand video will be far more accurate than TV focus groups. Always run multiple variations of your viral video as a YouTube Ad, with different titles, thumbnails, edits that change the beginning, middle, end, varying calls to actions and b roll clips switched in and out. This will give you all the data you need to know what the highest performing version of your video will be, how it will convert, how engagement will be. If performance is low on the most optimized version, then you will need to go do some re-shoots in order to repair what is lacking. The creators behind some of the best videos of all time literally wrote and tested more than 100 title variations alone. This pre-launch testing is a phenomenal way of silencing office politics as well; data doesn't lie. You no longer have to listen to two high-minded creatives argue over how a line is delivered or how a scene is set, let the data decide and throw the guessing out the door.

There you have it, if done right, viral brand video can be even more predictable and measurable a strategy than your common TV spot if you have the right people, budget, tools and testing in place. Shift some of the TV budget over to web video! You and your brand could be the star of the next breakout that makes headlines and/or headlines the company bottom line.