Video Essentials

The New Rules of Viral Video

How do you grab a viewer’s attention? If you think it’s just about filming the most provocative stunt you can imagine, think again. While that used to define the field, viral sensations have gotten more sophisticated as online video has taken off.

A viral video is one that viewers want to pass along to their friends, leading to perhaps millions of views. That pass-along quality is why virals are so effective for marketing: individuals are doing the selling for you, and they’re doing it one person at a time.

To talk about how viral video has changed, we spoke to our favorite viral expert, Joseph Matsushima of Denizen Company. While Matsushima made his name as the minister of propaganda for The Viral Factory, he’s now a co-founder at Santa Monica-based Denizen Company. The Viral Factory closed its U.S. office, and so Matsushima and other Viral Factory veterans opened Denizen Company just a few weeks ago.

The New Rules

  1. To stand out, you need a clever idea.
    Didn’t you always? you might ask. Well, in the past physical humor could take you pretty far. A well-placed shot to a sensitive part of the male anatomy was enough to get you many views. Now it takes more than that to stand out, says Matsushima. You need something captivating to grab people’s attention and stick out from the clutter.
  2. Play to a broad audience.
    In the early days of viral video, the audience was primarily male and techie. Testosterone-fueled videos full of action, blood, and risqué humor used to score big numbers.
    Now the audience has broadened, and viewers appreciate videos that everyone can latch onto. The current Old Spice campaign is a good example of this, says Matsushima. It’s not edgy; it’s just clever with a simple format. Viewers will reward positive videos that everyone can enjoy.
  3. Show a tight connection between the video and the brand.
    While viral videos often used to hide their brand affiliation, that now makes people feel tricked. If you try to pass your video off as user-generated content, you’re going to offend the viewer. Instead, be upfront about it.
    The relationship between the video and the viewer needs to be an open and honest handshake, says Matsushima. People are happy to be entertained by your work and to pass it along, but they want you to be honest with them. Consider this video, called Diesel SWF XXX, which Matsushima worked on. Right from the start viewers know who it’s from and what it’s supposed to be. It got 2 million views in its first 24 hours, says Matsushima.
    For the wrong approach, says Matsushima, consider this KFC video about a shark attack in an Amsterdam canal. It wasn’t clearly branded and came off as fake instead of entertaining.
  4. Seed your videos.
    Rather than going with traditional methods of advertising your video campaigns, such as banner ads or search term ads, Matsushima says video seeding is more effective. Seeding means placing your videos into the editorial content of blogs that appeal to your target viewer. This is a critical step, says Matsushima, who notes that every successful campaign nowadays is due to seeding.
  5. Don’t limit your campaign to viral video.
    Video is just one tool in an effective campaign, nowadays. It doesn’t have to be the starting point, either. You can create a viral sensation on Twitter or Facebook. When you do, expand to other areas. Create a video page that ties in with your Twitter account, for example. Keep the conversation going. There’s no way of knowing how long your momentum will last, says Matsushima, so keep the audience entertained and keep it going as long as you can.


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  1. Obvious advice is obvious.

    Posted by Kelly Lamb | August 10, 2010, 2:11 pm
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