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What are viral videos and is there a formula to make one?

  • 2 March 2015

Here's a pet peeve of mine. Imagine this fairly common scene: we're here in our lovely video production office and receive an email with a video brief. It contains the usual stuff, the aims, the audience, an idea of the format, maybe even a budget. It also contains this line.

quoteIdeally the video should have viral possibility.quote

The video industry has become obsessed with the word viral. The over use of words with no agreed definition isn't uncommon. 'Craft' in the beer industry, 'entrepreneurial' in large multinationals, 'fair' in banking and 'innovative' in every organisation ever created.

Let's have a quick look at definitions

Gangnam Style

Viral comes from the medical term associated with a virus infecting others. Naturally the marketing world spotted that and wanted to make it their own; viral marketing was born to describe when people pass on media to other people (thanks social media). Less harmful than a virus like Ebola, although some might argue otherwise with this guy.

Many would say Gangnam Style has gone viral, it's the most watched video on YouTube with over 2.2 billion views. Fair enough. I'd argue that it was a viral video and is now just surfing the wave.

More recently Rob Whitworth's Dubai Flow Motion hit around 1 million views in the first 4 days. Views are now slowing (the 2nd million took 2 weeks), although it's likely to have other peaks when other large media sources discover it.

The thing is, a virus can hang around for different lengths of time. Fewer Ebola cases are being reported and likewise, over 2 years later, Gangnam Style seems to finally be reaching a plateau. It will be interesting to see how much staying power the Dubai video has.

But these video's are rare and many can be more luck than judgement. If there was a perfect formula for a video going viral then everyone would do it. In medicine you don't want a virus spreading so everything possible is done to stop it starting, the whole point is that it's almost impossible to predict it.

A peak here, a peak there

More realistically a video might be widely shared within an interest group, geographically or seasonally. 75% of the 9000+ views of our Manchester Time Lapse are, predictably, from the UK, the graph below also shows the classic peaks and troughs of what might be called a viral video; someone has picked it up and thrown it around a bit before leaving it on the floor for someone else to hopefully find.

Stats Graph

Target not Viral

If you're looking for a marketing video, be realistic. Having a video so crazy that it goes worldwide doesn't mean you're guaranteed to increase sales. Yes, more people will see it, they might even like it but few will buy your product or service. The 2014 John Lewis Christmas advert was very successful, so successful that lots of parodies were made. Remember the one where the guy dressed up in a penguin outfit? Maybe. Remember the company it was advertising? I doubt it. They got 150,000+ views, that's great for a small business and I'm sure they got a few sales on the back of it but you need long term sustainability, not just a one hit wonder.

Every company and industry is different. A video should be aimed at your target market, they're the ones that will pay for your goods/services. Word of mouth and social media can then help it spread amongst other similar people who might also give you some money, like a virus spreading between friends. If others outside this target see it too, great, but that's secondary.

We care about our work and so every video we make is the best video we can make, a video we think everyone would like to watch. Asking us to create a video that could go viral is like asking a stockbroker to make you some money on your investment or asking the chef to make sure the meal they're cooking you is really nice. It's pointing out the obvious, some might call it an insult.

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