The Viral Video Manifesto

The guys who brought you 101 Bottles of Coke and 532 Mentos know what it takes to create viral video. They share their four principles for viral video in their new book, The Viral Video Manifesto: Why Everything You Know is Wrong and How to Do What Really Works.

Everything you know is wrong? Yes, if you want to get millions of views for your video. Voltz and Grobe offer four simple rules for achieving viral videos, which you can find at their Viral Video Manifesto website as well as in their book:

The Four Rules

The authors say that all the important things about TV and movies — stories, characters, production quality, lighting, camera work — are irrelevant for getting lots of views for your video. In fact, much of what’s done in TV and film turns your viewer passive and receptive. That doesn’t lead to tweeting a video or telling all your friends how great it is.

People are driven to share a video because it creates a strong and positive emotion (including perhaps anger) which riles them up and makes them want to tell people about it. Not because it was a high quality video, useful information, or any of the things we usually think of as goals for the videos we make, let alone film and TV. A viral video makes people feel as though they were there, and even as though they could do it themselves. That’s not how you feel when you watch The Hobbit.

Online video, say Voltz and Grobe, is the sideshow: the lion tamer, the bearded lady, not the feature film. Check out their most famous video:

“What’s your booth in the 21st century sideshow going to be?” is the question the guys have for marketers. They have examples of remarkable things people have done with a variety of products, including blenders, sticky notes, and blue jeans. If these products can be used to do amazing tricks, maybe your product can also do amazing tricks. It might take you months to figure out how your product can be used to do something unforgettable, but it could be worth it if millions of people end up seeing your product.

If your product just doesn’t lend itself to amazing tricks, they suggest, you can be the source of something amazing, as in the T-Mobile Dance, a video in which several hundred people suddenly begin dancing together in a train station. There’s nothing in the video about phone service, but T-Mobile was the source of the clever flashmob experience. This type of video may not be about your product or service, but it makes your company look cool. Possibly to millions of people.

Much of the book is devoted to analyses of viral videos, seeing how they used the principles given above to rise to the dizzying heights of virality. The book includes QR codes so you can readily watch the Dramatic Chipmunk if you somehow missed it. I had somehow missed most of these viral videos (I’m pretty busy), so I spent much of my time with this book watching videos that I would never normally have watched. This brings home one of the truths the book points out: this stuff doesn’t have to be good. Voltz and Grobe appreciate hard work and accomplishment, actually, but they know that the quality of the video is not actually the point.

So what does this mean for you? My first response to the book was based on the number of ads I’ve seen looking for someone to “create viral video for our company.” I’ve always felt that this was unreasonable, because such a small proportion of videos go viral and it’s impossible to predict which ones will do so. In fact, the Manifesto breaks down the characteristics of viral videos in an interesting way, but I don’t think they can predict viral videos. Nor do I think that following the instructions in the book will give you a guaranteed viral video. Many of the examples were doubtless high budget, and it would certainly be a gamble. In fact, the authors admit that they can’t tell how much was spent on promoting any of these videos after they were created. However, I think that anyone who wants to create a viral video should read this book and follow their principles — it seems likely to increase your chances.

Do you want a viral video? I tried to imagine the effects on our business if our most popular video had not 26,380 views but 26 million. I don’t think it would matter. For chewing gum, yes, but would your veterinary practice or software company benefit from a viral video more than from one seen by the right few thousand?

If not, the question becomes: does this book have lessons that apply to making videos for your website if your goal is not to go viral?   I tried looking at those of our videos with thousands of views and those with a few dozen, to see whether there were any differences in the level of trueness or humanity, and I’m not seeing it.

However, the book makes some excellent points about modern marketing, and that may be its greatest strength for the average business website owner. Too many businesspeople don’t see any difference between TV ads and YouTube videos, between creating linkbait and sending out catalogs, between social media and classified ads. This leads to failure at online marketing — and to the mistaken belief that there’s something wrong with online marketing, rather than with the strategy of using traditional media methods with the internet. If you are beginning to suspect that your marketing department needs to get out of their time machine, this would be a good book to share with them. If it leads to a viral video, so much the better.

The book is a fun read — true and human, possible even unforgettable. It will probably lead to wasting time watching Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” but millions of people have already done that, so we can’t hold the authors responsible.







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