The Viral Myth: How to Create Content That Gets Shared

In the digital era, every company would love to create a video that goes viral. Millions of impressions — at a fraction of the cost of television advertising — is an alluring prospect, fueled by examples like the massive success of the "Will It Blend" videos by Blendtec, a Utah-based middle market company.

 

But most companies do it all wrong, says online video expert Tim Street, digital show runner for Ape Digital. "People fail at creating viral videos because they create by committee, don't know the ingredients, don't have a launch plan, and don't know how to care for a video once it's released," he says. Just as sure-thing Hollywood blockbusters sometimes falter, you can never guarantee that a video will explode. Savvy middle market companies recognize they have less leeway to fail than major movie studios, so here are Street's tips for creating compelling content that's likely to hit the mark.

Empower a director. "In order to create a video that will be shared and shared again, you need to play with spectacle, story, and move multiple emotions," says Street. No way a corporate committee can master those nuances. Instead, hire an experienced video creator and empower that person (or a very small team) to make editorial decisions. Of course, you should supervise to ensure they're maintaining the integrity of your brand. But when it comes to stirring emotions, they're the experts. "You need passion," says Street, "and you don't get passion at a conference table with [a] Power Point presentation of bullet points."

Plan for success. Some companies take a "throw spaghetti at the wall" approach to video creation: Make a bunch of low-budget entries and see if they stick. With that approach, says Street, it's likely that none of them will. "Companies are obsessed with going viral because they think that viral videos just magically happen, don't cost money, and they can just get some kid to do it for them," he says. The most successful middle market companies understand that when it comes to online video, you need to plan for success, and that means putting thought, effort, and funds behind your project, rather than spreading your resources too thin.

Work with a partner. If you're just starting to explore the world of online videos, Street suggests that one possibility to consider is partnering with an experienced content creator that already has a conduit to your target audience. "You might want to look into connecting with top YouTubers and Members of the International Academy of Web Television to see if there's a web series that's already reaching the people you want to reach," he says, citing examples like Emma Approved, an online series that's a modern adaptation of the Jane Austen novel and has been successful reaching a female audience.

Analyze past successes. "If you're serious about creating a popular video, you should find previous videos on YouTube that reach the audience you want to reach," says Street, and ask a few key questions:

A. What demographic does this video appeal to?

B. What emotions does this video move? Is there a brand associated with the video and, if so, do people remember the brand or do they just remember the video?

C. Is there a call to action in the video, and how does it fit the target community?

D. What engagement is there in the comments, and is that the type of conversation your product, service, or company wants?

E. Where did the video get shared? Was it shared by and to the audience you want to reach?

F. Did it move the needle for the brand?

Understanding these strategic questions will enable you to create a far better, more targeted video.

Overall, says Street, the most successful videos have a few common ingredients. They involve spectacle, a story, and move multiple emotions. And, most importantly, "It has to be great and make people say, 'OMG, you have to see this.'" Unlike 30-second television ads of yore, which provided passive entertainment, a successful online video has to make people want to take action and show others. If you have that, you just might have a winner on your hands.

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor and a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter. Circle her on Google+.