“To be or not to be,” deliberated Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare’s famous play. While the reference might be too dated for today’s digital age to pay heed to, it is something worth considering when brands decide to be “viral”, or, at least, create viral content. Fortunately – or unfortunately – they can spare themselves the dilemma simply because virality isn’t a choice. While this might seem obvious, advertising experts would have us believe otherwise with some clients still asking them for “viral videos”. “There’s no right formula or recipe; there are a few boxes you tick. Virality is not something we can guarantee. If someone could guarantee it, they would be in the place of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg,” says Fadi Khater, founder and managing partner of digital marketing agency Netizency. And if even Jobs and Zuckerberg couldn’t figure out the formula to virality, then there’s a good chance it doesn’t exist.
Wait a minute
But while brands clamor for virality, it’s probably best to take a moment to understand what the term really means. The term “viral marketing” originated way back in the ’90s and has since emerged, evolved and changed. Ema Linaker, regional director, Holler/Leo Burnett, calls virality a “loaded word” saying that what people really mean by virality is a piece of content “that a lot of people paid attention to”. For Richard Fitzgerald, regional director and head of social media at Mindshare MENA, virality is a blurry area. He reflects back to 2008 and 2009 when viral content was something that was shared through emails in offices, but today, it is “blurring the lines between paid, owned and earned media” and this balance is “crucial to virality today,” he says. As the concept of virality changes, UM’s business unit director, Antoine Challita, is losing track of what the term means. He says that virality made sense years back when social media was niche, but as social platforms become mainstream, there’s more content now than ever before – by brands, publishers and users. And as the sheer volume of content increases, it’s more and more important for brands to first make their content discoverable and then relevant to readers, just to create an opportunity for readers to share it. “So unless we’re changing the definition, virality is obsolete and we’re headed toward shareability,” he says. To further distinguish between the two concepts, he says “virality was simply the fact that we were consuming content at a massive scale.” Today, as exemplified by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, people are not just consuming content, they are also creating their own content and sharing it. “It’s no longer as passive as virality was,” he adds. So if the idea of virality has changed – by definition and function – why are we still talking about it? “Viral marketing is something that will always be talked about, mainly due to the fact that there is no magic ingredient or recipe to make it happen,” says Alexandra Maia, head of social media at TBWA’s Digital Arts Network (DAN). More importantly, the industry needs to keep talking about it because “brands and agencies need to learn and understand what it really means and that a ‘viral marketing’ stunt is not an easy way out when there are no budgets available,” she says. While there has been a change from the concept of virality to one of shareability, even the traditional idea of virality seems to be evolving. Maia says that in 2011, YouTube weblebrity Kevin Nalty, aka “Nalts”, said that a few years ago a video could be considered viral if it hits a million views but in 2014 he updated that definition to say that a “viral” video is one that gets more than five million views in a three-to seven-day period.
Interestingly, even the “Viral Video Genius” Nalty speaks of viral content in the context of videos. Why is it that when one speaks of creating a viral piece of content they naturally tend to say “viral video”? Khater explains that the reason we use the term “viral videos” is because videos are – or at least, were – the easiest way to measure success – or failure – and quantify it, and that’s how “we initially recognized it,” he says. Fitzgerald, too, agrees that’s probably the reason “viral” is associated with video, “because of the views, counts and traction. What else can be measured? A hashtag or a trend?” he questions.
As content becomes a commodity and this commodity becomes available in larger volumes, users have to choose wisely in the investment of their time, which results in the shortening of attention spans, explains Challita. However, Linaker says that the idea that we are marketing to gold fish is a misconception and that people actually like to engage with long form content that has a proper and engaging story. She goes on to say that the most viral pieces of content, especially videos, are ones that are much longer than 30 seconds, going up to five minutes even.
Another misconception associated with virality is the idea that it spreads organically. Due to the clutter and algorithms of social media platforms, for a piece of content to reach a substantial audience – who may or may not share it – there needs to be media involved in one form or another. Linaker says that having an existing online community helps, citing the example of Red Bull, but as Khater points out, Facebook posts reach a maximum of five percent of a brand’s fans and it’s usually less than one percent. Similarly, on Twitter, people usually read the last 30 tweets on their timeline. “So unless it’s advertised, it’s very difficult for people” to even discover it, let alone share it, he says. However, content is equally important, he adds, approximating the split between media and content as 30/70. Linaker does concede that paid media is what drives reach and amplification, but that’s not the only channel. “Every single strategy has to have a holistic point of view,” she says, touching on the importance of PR, influencer programs and in-store communications. Admittedly, organic reach is low, but Fitzgerald suggests that this reach is based on an algorithm that may be difficult to crack – but it’s not impossible. For instance, Virgin Atlantic has an organic reach of 60 percent on Facebook. For him, the more important thing is that a brand should build a relationship with its online communities versus pushing them every now and then to act. Fitzgerald insists on the changing definition of media. While most social networks indulge in promoted posts and native posts marketing, “media isn’t what it used to be,” he says. He further elaborates by looking at the owned media that influencer programs generate and the fact that social media platforms won’t let brands think of media as simply paid media anymore. For instance, a brand could put an ad on TV without having a channel or program, but to put an ad on Twitter, it has to have a Twitter account. So social networks are “forcing you natively to create your own media publishing. Now you need to create, curate and copywrite your own content,” Fitzgerald says.
With all of this in mind, we asked the experts to list their own tips and factors that could, or at least, should lead to a piece of content being successful, if not viral.
These three main ingredients should work “in theory” but there isn’t any guarantee. The content needs to be relevant – be it based on geography or occasion – it should be something out of the ordinary if not provocative or controversial and lastly, it has to be something people want to associate themselves with or represent – whether that’s sounding intellectual by talking about political issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, or happy and fun by making their own version of Pharrell Williams’ song Happy.
– Consumer or emotional relevance
Challita explains that first and foremost, the brand should think about the message it wants to communicate and how and if it is relevant to the consumer – irrespective of whether it’s shareable or not. “Otherwise it’s not going to benefit the brand and obviously if it’s not relevant, no one is going to pick it up,” he says. In a region where a majority of the population is under 30, it is almost obvious that people want to associate themselves with statements or activities that give them a certain status. It isn’t just about sharing content, but about sharing who they think they are.
“As humans, we like to be entertained and inspired,” says Linaker. She also says that we like to make sense of the world we live in and categorize things, which is why long-form, thoughtful content pieces and list-styled formats perform well. According to her, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge had the impact it did because “we saw people like Bill Gates in a situation that was awe-inspiring and then we saw our friends and family [in that situation] and that was hilarious”. She adds that the 1:38mn-long “Explore the Pyramids of Giza with Google Maps” video was the most downloaded video in the region in the past six months, reiterating that people like to discover new things even if it’s long-form content. And finally, she says that the content has to tell a story and drive people to take some action, whether that’s engagement or tactics-driven. “Just shoving a product is not going to do that,” she emphasizes. Linaker bets her money on these four principles that make a campaign successful: 1. Is it solving a real problem or entertaining people? 2. Does it actively tell a story that’s relevant across boundaries of age and geography? 3. Does it allow people to actively participate in it? 4. Does it have the “why would I care/why would I share?” element to it? She adds that where the region fails is in the third principle of actively allowing people to “participate in the bigger conversation”.
While Fitzgerald doesn’t really like this combination, he says the proper way to achieve virality is by planning. “Do something brilliant, genius and creative and then pay for it,” he says, suggesting stunts like what Red Bull usually does. Naturally, content plays a big role in resonating with consumers, which eventually drives virality and shareability. Fitzgerald says there are three ways of strategic planning at the moment: fixed, fluid and agile. Out of this, the most important is probably agile because agile planning is “planning for virality in a way,” he says. For instance, when the black and blue/gold and white dress went “viral” over one weekend in February, “our newsfeeds were full, but there were no brands on it,” he says. The dress began trending in the US on a Thursday evening, which is the beginning of the weekend in the Middle East, so by the time brands could pick it up, it was too late. However, Nissan’s global team created assets around it immediately. The Nissan Juke campaign was on at the time and went by the slogan “Take a Stand,” which happened to fit in almost perfectly with the theme of the dress. The US team sent the message to the UAE team and it was posted on Twitter on Friday evening, right on time, says Fitzgerald. Another such instance was the sandstorm in April, during which car brands could have promoted their car shields. Then there are some recurring events, such as the Dubai World Cup, so banks could do something around ambition.
Another aspect is using social data to know what consumers like and hence create content that resonates with them. He cites the examples of department store chain John Lewis in the UK that makes beautiful Christmas TVCs people actually look forward to every year. “[John Lewis] know they need to create something magical but they also know that it needs to resonate with this new social media audience,” he says. For instance, if a brand knows its audience likes football, it will weave its story around that insight and show a child walking through a football field versus a park. And it’s these intrinsic subtleties that could make all the difference.
– Bring your product into the real world
– Take your product to the extremes
– Reward customers
– Team up with unlikely alliances
For Maia, it all starts with defining the objective. Once this is clear she suggests following the above tips. Elaborating on what it means to bring your product to life, she cites the example of TNT’s “Drama Button” campaign in the Netherlands. The TVC shows people on an ice-cold day asked to push a “drama button” for, well, some drama. What ensues is chaos and violence, at the end of which the message “Your Daily Dose of Drama” comes up. Posted in 2013, the YouTube video has since garnered 15,019,415 views. Teaming up with unlikely alliances allows users to look at the brand in a different light and captures their attention. For example, TV show The Walking Dead teamed up with University of California, Irvine, to create an open online course on what a zombie apocalypse would be like. “Zombie lovers ate it up like free brains,” she quips.
What’s been trending?
In theory, we have the stage set, it seems, but Communicate, in association with Clique Communications Group, went back and analyzed the most viral events of the last one and a half year.
1. Ellen’s Oscar Selfie
At the 2013 Oscars, host Ellen DeGeneres asked Meryl Streep to take a selfie with her that’d as monumental as Streep’s 18 Oscar nominations. Clicked with a Samsung Galazy, the selfie ended up being probably even more monumental than Streep’s nominations as other stars gathered around to take a picture that ended up crashing Twitter, due to the unprecedented high activity. The tweet went on to become the most popular tweet of all time with 3.35 million retweets and 2.02 million favorites. It was later discovered that the selfie was part of a $20 million paid sponsorship by Samsung. To show their gratitude to DeGeneres, the brand decided to donate $3 million to two of her favorite charities, thus generating further media attention.
2. Pharrel Williams’ Happy
Pharrell’s lead single from the album Girl went on to become one of the chart-toppers in late 2013. In early 2014, it became a widely successful user-generated video series as people around the world started making their own #Happy videos. By April 26, 2014, the original music video had exceeded 204 million views and there were more than 1.8 million different user-generated video entries of the song on YouTube. The original video has crossed 619 million views at the time of compiling this research.
3. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
In 2014, the ALS Association (ALSA), a non-profit organization fighting Lou Gehrig’s disease, initiated what we today know as the Ice Bucket Challenge. The idea was for people to pour a bucket of ice-cold water on their heads and nominate three more people to do the same – and to donate money to the organization. While it’s unclear who undertook the first challenge, many famous personalities from the fields of business, politics and Hollywood took part, giving it a boost. By September 2014 there were more than 17 million videos related to the Ice Bucket Challenge shared on Facebook, viewed more than 10 billion times by more than 440 million people. YouTube says almost 2.3 million Ice Bucket videos were uploaded and from June 1 to August 17, more than 28 million Facebook users talked about the Ice Bucket Challenge on the network.
4.“ First Kiss”
In March 2014, an LA-based women’s clothing line named Wren came up with content that turned out to be extremely viral. Shot by independent filmmaker Tatia Pilieva, “First Kiss” showed strangers meeting for the first time and kissing each other. It generated 77.8 million views, 1,392,296 Facebook shares, and 68,740 Twitter shares in just 31 days, and directly led to an increase in the brand’s website traffic by 14,000 percent. More importantly, it had increased sales by 13,000 percent. At the time of compiling this list, the video had garnered more than 156 million views and inspired multiple adaptations and parodies.
5. The Dress
Over a weekend in February, a Tumblr post asking what color a dress is resulted in the Internet losing all sanity. Due to some visual illusion and/or lighting effect, some people said the dress was black and blue while others saw it as white and gold. After Buzzfeed picked up the story, there were more than 670,000 people viewing the post simultaneously at one point, garnering 16 million hits in six hours. The original Tumblr post got 73 million page views and 485,000 notes. As per Facebook’s data, 42 percent of Facebook users were on team Black and Blue, while 58 percent were on team White and Gold.
6. Devil Baby and Mutant Spider Dog
Illustrating people’s need for entertainment, prank videos have gained popularity in the last year. In January 2014, the Devil Baby video showed a scary at bystanders. The video was actually created by Devil’s Due. The YouTube video received more than 4.4 million views on the launch day alone. In 2015, a YouTube user from Poland named Wardega uploaded a video featuring a medium-sized dog wearing a large spider costume turning it into a scary creature. The costume bounces around in an unnerving manner when the dog trots along. In the video, people going about daily chores are confronted by the “Mutant Giant Spider Dog” and they panic and run.
7. Kim Kardashian’s Bare Back
In November 2014, Kim Kardashian posed for the cover of Paper magazine, baring her back with the headline “Break the Internet: Kim Kardashian”. Just one day after publishing the story, Paper’s website saw 6.6 million page views and the next day generated 15.9 million page views, reaching more than 11 million unique visitors. While anything to do with Kim Kardashian can go viral, her husband Kanye West’s tweet of the cover resulted in approximately 70,000 retweets. This resulted in memes that gave the original pictures even more exposure.
8. Flappy Bird
In early 2014, an indie game by Hanoi-based Vietnamese gamemaker Dong Nguyen made it to the top of iOS and Google Play charts. It was a obstructions, much like the wildly popular Angry Birds. Just within two months of the launch, more than 1.4 million links to the iTunes page were shared on Twitter. By the end of January, Nguyen was making as much as $50,000 a day and then he decided to take it down as he felt people were overusing it. Rumors that he had committed suicide – later confirmed to be a hoax – only led to more people talking about it. The game was originally released in May 2013, but it wasn’t until January 2014 that it became a sensation with people sharing the link on Twitter using the hashtag #flapflap.
9. Unsung Hero
In April 2014, Ogilvy Thailand released an ad for Thai Life Insurance Company named “Unsung Hero” that sends across the message: “Believe in Good”. The video was trending across Asia with more than six million YouTube views, 800,000 Facebook shares and 22,000 tweets. At the time of compiling this report, the video had received more than 30 million views and was shared by multiple YouTube channels.
10. Nike World Cup’s “Risk Everything” and “Last Game”
The 2014 World Cup was probably the biggest digital sports event of all time with more than 45 brands releasing over 97 campaigns during the course of the tournament receiving over 671.6 million estimated views. Nike easily took the top spot on the list with “Risk Everything,” which garnered more than 122.2 million views. In the campaign’s most popular video, “Winner Stays,” two boys meet in the center of the soccer pitch to play a pick-up game when they magically transform into soccer stars Ronaldo and Neymar Jr. The “Last Game” ad took the second spot with 97.1 million views with a 5.30 minutes animated short video featuring the voices and animated CGI versions of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Neymar, Andres Iniesta, etc. battling their clones.
Break it down
The one thing that sticks out in most of the events that have made it to the list above is media involvement in some form or another, according to Khater.
For instance, the Ellen selfie was taken at the Oscars – probably the most expensive media – and it featured top Hollywood celebrities, which again is very expensive, although the brand did not pay for it, says Khater. Similarly, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge saw famous celebrities participating, and almost all media outlets picked up the story – for good or bad “It was celebrity endorsed and when someone like Gates or Zuckerberg does something, that’s automatically a $100 million worth of media spend,” says Khater. For Linaker, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge ticked the boxes of awe, amusement and laughter, but more interestingly, it was also a great demonstration of Facebook’s auto-play video feature, which was released around the same time. She says, “it felt a little bit commercial and a bit staged because suddenly, everyone that mattered in Silicon Valley participated in it”.
Pharrell’s Happy was catchy and, well, happy. And who doesn’t want to be happy? Kunal Ghosh, strategic planner at Clique Interactive, attributes the success of the music video to its upbeat nature and to the fact that it was marketed well. The video was launched with blockbuster animation movie Despicable Me 2’s soundtrack, in addition to which, celebrities such as Jamie Foxx participated in the song on its website 24hoursofhappy.com. Add to this the radio plays and Internet streaming option, and it’s a hit.
Happy is also a lesson in the “remix culture”, wherein original content becomes more valuable as repurposed content. Earlier songs such as Harlem Shake and Gangnam Style had already paved the way, starting a trend of dubbing songs, says Khater. The facts that the music was catchy and that it was so easy to do, also contributed to making it a big hit. “According to data from several social platforms, music is the No. 1 consumed piece of content on social platforms in this region,” says Linaker.
Secondly, it’s crucial to understand people’s motivations and what the “trigger” is – in Happy’s case, the “movement” of a community in the video that made it a phenomenon. For very different, yet similar reasons having to do with community vs individuality feelings, The Dress had everyone up in arms over what color it was. The fact that everyone wanted to prove their point is probably the reason it went viral.
However, the role played by aggregator sites such as Buzzfeed and Mashable – and even more “serious news” outlets like CNN and Times – that picked up the story and gave it even more momentum, cannot be overlooked. Such news aggregator sites can massively contribute to the rise to fame, says Ghosh. Partly thanks to their support, “The Kiss” went more viral than World Cup ads such as Nike’s “Risk Everything” and “Last Game,” which came out around the same time. A lot of user-generated content actually starts on platforms like Reddit and Tumblr that encourage conversation and have a strong base of influencers, versus platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, says Challita. Very often, news outlets and online media channels pick up conversations from Tumblr and Reddit when they see a story starting. This shows that we are in the age of authenticity and belief in small businesses, and proves the point that a good advertisement should never look like one, says Ghosh.
Kardashian’s bare back cover is probably the most unsurprising of the list, simply due to her own massive social media following – pretty much anything she does would cause a ripple effect. “It has a Kardashian and a bare back, so if you take the most popular person on social media and the most sought-after body part, well…” trails off Khater.
Unsurprisingly, Ghosh says that the influence power of celebrities is way superior to that of brands, and brands should leverage this. However, only few can be contextually relevant at times like this, such as when the Oscars’ official Twitter account posted a tweet saying “Sorry, our bad #oscars” with an image of Twitter crashing, following DeGeneres’ stunt. Similarly, the tipping point of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was celebrity involvement. Pro golfer Chris Kennedy was the first one to kick it off and then prominent figures such as Pat Quinn and Oprah started involving people from their social circles to take the challenge, says Ghosh. Tech leaders including Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Tim Brown, as well as famous actors like Charlie Sheen, Leonardo DiCaprio and David Spade, took part. The activity generated a fair bit of criticism over the futility of dunking one’s self in ice-cold water without donating to the cause and feeding users’ social vanity of being good human beings. Either way, the campaign went on to be a big hit, raising more than $111 million, with almost $2-3 million being generated every day between August and September. But Ghosh adds that the challenge did not look like a brand-sponsored activity, indicating that not all viral content needs a brand signature. To some extent, we might add.
Roman Originals, the brand that The Dress belonged to, probably should have had some signature somewhere and some point in time: according to Mashable, the brand could not tap into the buzz due to its lack of preparedness for real-time marketing or culture-jacking; it was left with the same 2,000 followers on Twitter. Nike’s ads bring together celebrities as well, along with the most popular event at the time – the World Cup – and a great deal of media investment, ticking pretty much all the boxes it takes to go viral. Interestingly, only two of the ten pieces of content on the list are ads, whereas others like “First Kiss” and Ellen’s Oscar selfie can be labeled as branded content at best.
The last word
So what does this mean for brands and agencies? As evidenced from the list and general online behavior, user-generated content is more likely to be shared than branded content. Challita says that this really depends on the brands but consumers could be better at generating shareable content than brands because “if it’s not relevant and not genuine, then why would consumers invest in endorsing and associating themselves with the message?” All industry experts agree that if a client brief starts with “I want a viral video,” then the chances of that happening are very slim. Often, virality is a one-hit wonder. Then what? Fitzgerald, for instance, started his own blog in the UK called 52burritodates.com when he won a year’s supply of free burritos from Mexican food chain Chilango. Rather generously, he decided to share the experience by taking a different girl out on a burrito date every week and then blog about the experience. The blog was a hit and was even picked up by local media channels. However, once the 52 weeks ended, there was nothing else done. And that’s the problem with virals; they end up being one-offs. Instead, Fitzgerald suggests fostering a community and developing a fan base over time so, every once in a while, when you do an activation or an interesting piece of content, you hit, for example, a million views, simply due to your large community.
He cites the example of Jessica Alba’s brand, The Honest Company, which generates virality in its own way – a way that might seem too premature for the regional industry to grasp. The brand started off with just baby wipes. Over time, it built its social communities and, based on consumer feedback and needs, developed its products. Over a span of three years, the brand went from producing just one item to 30 different products for moms. When the brand introduces new products by listening to consumers “a few months later, they’ll get millions in sales on that product and that’s viral in a way,” explains Fitzgerald.
Linaker, however, doesn’t question the one-off nature of virality, stating that humans need to be entertained and, if a piece of content is doing that even once, that’s not a bad thing. She adds that sometimes it’s just about one moment and at other times it’s about a more enduring longevity. Dove’s “Real Beauty” is a great example of the latter. “Dove has been having this conversation with women for four years now; that’s brave and great, and shows that they fundamentally believe that this is their place within our lives,” she says. Similarly P&G’s Always’ “Like A Girl” campaign has succeeded for the same reason. Khater reinstates that chasing virality as an objective is a waste of time and effort and instead the focus should be on creating interesting content.
For a lot of brands, virality is like the Golden Snitch; it’s shiny, attractive and helps you win the game but it’s also incredibly hard to catch. And even once caught, the win might just be temporary, making it sound much more appealing in fiction than it would ever be in reality. Just look at Flappy Bird’s success: the game might have stood out because of the buzz around it, nostalgia since it resembled the Mario video game, difficulty level, panic due to losing, rage and determination at losing a seemingly simple game… But in the end, no one can really explain its success, though, other than by admitting that sometimes, the Internet is a strange, strange place.