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How to make a viral video (Hint: Don’t)

Viral Video. I get all twitchy just writing those words. When a client asks me to produce a viral video, I can’t help but roll my eyes and think “here we go again!” The lure of free distribution on a massive scale is understandably tempting, and I can’t blame marketers for wanting to capitalize on it. But when clients start fantasizing about taking their corporate marketing agenda viral, I have to gently yank them back down to earth.

In all but the rarest examples, viral videos don’t have heavy brand messages. And the vast majority aren’t about company products or services at all. Cats, explosions, kicking of balls — those usually work better.

What Makes a Video Viral?

** Videos become contagious because they go to extreme lengths to stand out from the (very large) crowd — and tap into strong emotions. Videos that go viral are shared for a reason. They are exceptionally “_______” (amazing, funny, shocking, horrifying).

Now ask yourself honestly: “what about my company’s product means any of those things to the general population?”

Most marketers don’t have the stomach to associate their brand with something risky or dangerous. I doubt Diet Coke or Mentos were too crazy about the explosive chemical reaction their “edible” products caused in the now-famous viral video. The “fireworks” are meticulously choreographed (that’s half of what makes it so great), but the video also makes the products look like they would turn your guts into chunky salsa. Great viral video? You bet! Great marketing coup? Um, pass the chips.

A better goal for companies is to develop video that encourages sharing. One that has some brand integration but isn’t so bland that no one would share it with their worst enemy. If you can reach 10,000 people who like your product or service, that’s better than the 10 million people who are now terrified to drink Diet Coke and eat Mentos at the same time. Brands and viruses don’t always mix, but when they do, they can have explosive results.

With free distribution comes an opportunity. But the onus is on marketers to invest in video that people want to share — within the everyday social sharing ecosystem that most of us belong to. Before you dive in, ask yourself: “What do I want users to say when they share my video?“ Then ask yourself what resources it will take to develop a video of sufficient quality. It takes skill and experience to produce video at this level. But when done right, a sharable video can make a terrific impact and build brand recognition.

To misquote Field of Dreams, “If you make it sharable, they will share.“

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