Video Essentials

Viral Video Marketing Rule Number 1: Be Honest

Looking to make a viral video splash? Who better to teach success than the Coke and Mentos guys? Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe have just written The Viral Video Manifesto. We’re pleased to present this excerpt.

We shouldn’t have to say this, but we do. Be honest.

You’re developing a cool new video for your brand, one that shows how your brand is hip and how well you relate to your customers. Wouldn’t it be great if someone else “spontaneously” uploaded it to YouTube without you? Better yet, they could upload it to a video contest you’re sponsoring and announce: look at what we just posted without the company’s knowledge! That would further all your goals but have no appearance of brand involvement. That would look unplanned and authentic.

We were once asked to do exactly that. We declined.

We have always tried to be honest in acknowledging our sponsors. They make our videos possible, and that’s great for everyone. There is every reason to embrace that.

And we’ve always tried to be clear that we don’t work from scripts that ensure that all the brand messages are delivered as they would be in a television commercial. We create true events and capture honest reactions. Your brand can do that too. In the world of viral video, it’s a stronger choice.

A lot of brands want to “improve” on reality by scripting everything, using actors, and trying to conceal their involvement, as we saw with Disneyland Musical Marriage Proposal. Resist these temptations. Just be honest.

To see what it’s like when you keep it honest and do it for real, let’s look at Coca-Cola Happiness Machine (4.8 million views).

Nothing Was Scripted

HappinessMachineCoca-Cola Happiness Machine begins with a janitor loading a vending machine in a college campus lounge. Then the machine starts dispensing some surprising items. First, instead of a single bottle of soda, one student gets bottle after bottle after bottle. For another student, a hand reaches out from the machine with a bouquet of flowers. Eventually even a pizza and an enormous sandwich pop out.

And Coca-Cola made it honestly.

They created the circumstances, Candid Camera style, but from there on, everything was authentic. There were no actors, and there was no set. We see real people through real hidden cameras, and Coca-Cola was careful not to do anything to undermine that. Everything rings true.

As AJ Brustein, global senior brand manager for Coca-Cola, explained to Mashable:

Coke’s goal was to create an organic experience. Other than the janitor loading the machine, nothing was scripted. If the video had been scripted, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. The girl mouthing “Oh My God,” students helping each other lift the huge sub, hugging the Coke machine — these true moments are what gave the video life.

So Coca-Cola Happiness Machine or Disneyland Musical Marriage Proposal? Which do you want to pass along to your friends? Which creates positive emotion, the truth or the lie? Which will build a strong, ongoing relationship with your viewers, the truth or the lie?

With the Happiness Machine, there was no need to be reticent about acknowledging Coca-Cola’s involvement. Nor was there any need to script the piece with all the precise brand messaging of a television spot. Coke found something even better—and more viral—by keeping it true.

Be honest. Guard your authenticity every step of the way. It’s important currency in the world of viral video.

Trying to Keep a Secret

A cautionary tale of a company trying and failing to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes comes from the blogging world. Its lessons apply just as strongly to sponsoring viral videos. Please don’t do what Walmart did back in 2006 (back when they were Wal-Mart, with a hyphen).

In September of that year, a couple named Jim and Laura started a blog called Wal-Marting Across America. They posted stories and photos of their trip across the country, parking their RV in Walmarts along the way. They blogged about Walmart’s environmental efforts, about how Walmart employees benefited from their health insurance, and more.

Soon, however, people started asking who was footing the bill.

In less than two weeks, it was all over.

Jim and Laura were revealed to be a photographer at the Washington Post and a freelance writer. They really had had the idea to take a trip and spend their nights in Walmart parking lots, but  “Working Families for Wal-Mart,” an organization started by Walmart’s PR firm Edelman and funded by Walmart, took the idea, expanded it, organized it, and paid for it.

ViralVideoManifestoWhat was initially going to be a short trip to visit their children became a cross-country odyssey in an RV with a Working Families for Wal-Mart logo on it.

After uncovered the truth, Wal-Marting Across America went on to make CNN Money’s list of the year’s 101 Dumbest Moments in Business. CNN Money wrote:

The stunt is especially bad news for Edelman, since it violates ethical guidelines it helped to write for the nascent Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

You would think they would have known better, particularly since this wasn’t their first problem with the blogosphere. Four months before Wal-Marting Across America, Walmart and Edelman were caught feeding pro-Walmart stories to bloggers. Alyce Lomax of the Motley Fool wrote at the time:

Wal-Mart’s strategy to repair its public image through the blogosphere has resoundingly backfired. News like this makes the company sound sneaky and underhanded, out to launch the equivalent of a corporate propaganda campaign, which of course fires up Wal-Mart’s detractors even more.

They got caught and caught again. Not the image rehabilitation that Walmart would have liked. Not the reputation you want. Not the relationship you want to build with your customers.

Mind you, no one knows what deceptive campaigns have worked and haven’t been uncovered, but it’s hard to keep a secret these days.

In a 2011 New York Times article, “Upending Anonymity: These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone,” Brian Stelter pointed out:

The collective intelligence of the Internet’s two billion users, and the digital fingerprints that so many users leave on Web sites, combine to make it more and more likely that every embarrassing video, every intimate photo, and every indelicate e-mail is attributed to its source, whether that source wants it to be or not.

During the riots in Vancouver after the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, an unidentified couple was  photographed lying on the ground kissing amid the chaos. The photo spread like wildfire, along with the question, “Who are these people?” In a matter of hours, the collective efforts of people on the Internet had pieced things together and had identified the couple. How long would it take those 2 billion users to root out who was behind a faked blog or who sponsored a bogus viral video?

Tell the Simple Truth

Why try to pull the wool over our eyes? Whatever pressure you face, don’t try to conceal things. Be  honest.

WhereTheHellIsMattYou can be involved. You can sponsor videos. Just be up front about it. Be like Office Max, ABC Family, and our other sponsors, and be straightforward in embracing your involvement. Be like Stride Gum with the Where the Hell Is Matt? videos, with a simple and strong closing title card on the video: “Thanks to Stride for making this possible.”

Like Coca-Cola did with its Happiness Machine success, don’t worry about getting every brand message perfectly delivered. Keep it real, and find something even better. As John Grant has written in his book The New Marketing Manifesto, “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged.”

You can use online video to build a strong, honest, authentic relationship with your consumers. That positive emotion isn’t just good for your brand. It’ll also help you go viral.

From The Viral Video Manifesto by Stephen Voltz & Fritz Grobe, reprinted with permission from McGraw-Hill Professional. Copyright 2013.

Giveaway: We’re giving away two copies of The Viral Video Manifesto plus two packs of Eepybird’s Diet Coke and Mentos Kit for each excerpt we run from this book. The kit includes a roll of mint Mentos, a world-record nozzle (which fits on a liter of Diet Coke), and step-by-step instructions for making your own soda geyser. To get one, be one of the first two people to post a comment below telling us what your favorite branded online video is and why. Be sure to include your email address.


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  1. My favorite branded videos are the Sonic Guys. I know they’re scripted, but sometimes a bit off the cuff I would imagine! Would love to sit in on one of those shoots.

    Posted by Travis | January 23, 2013, 4:09 pm
  2. My favourite is In Da Mix with Mount Gay Rum the national rum of Barbados. Cocktails, fun, sun and Rum, what more can you ask for.

    Shot by international awarding winning Caribbean company Caribwebcast

    Posted by james wood | January 24, 2013, 3:33 pm
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