Virals – Reach for the stars

We don’t think The Beatles will do anything in this market…”

Capitol Records internal memo, 1963.

What makes a film ‘go viral’?

A client asked me this the other day. I thought I would share the gist of what I told her…

Firstly I said: “I don’t know” which I thought was impressively honest of me. (Didn’t all those years working in agencies teach me anything?). I quickly went on to suggest that nobody else knows either. Indeed no-one, but no-one, can guarantee success in viral marketing. That’s part of the fun. You can pretty much guarantee failure if you don’t do the basics (see below). If you do everything right, you are likely to get a good number of views on YouTube and/or Metacafé (not to mention Google Video, Break and Dailymotion). But as to whether your film will ‘take off’ or ‘go stratospheric’, well that’s largely in the lap of the gods. Viral marketing is so named, because if you get it right, people forward your video to others in an ever-increasing circle via the wonder of the internet and it spreads like a virus (but in a good way) so that the number of views rises exponentially to a massive number approaching infinity (or something.) Of course just because it’s easy to forward the link to your mates doesn’t mean people are going to do so. Therein lies both the challenge and the unpredictability of this whole business.

In the same way that a music act or a movie can ‘capture the Zeitgeist’ and take off (in some cases against all the odds), so can a short promotional film (or a game). So read what follows, cross your fingers and hope you’re sitting on the next Beatles,
Slumdog Millionaire or Susan Boyle!

It’s worth clarifying that we’re not talking ‘You’ve Been Framed’ or roller-skating dogs here; except where they are used to promote a brand (e.g. Cadbury’s gorilla) i.e. we are talking about viral marketing. We need to get the brand name/ logo in somewhere. The media isn’t paid for, (it’s ‘earned’ as the PR people like to say) but in general the creative, production and seeding is.

A few basic principles:

1. Content is king (sorry to resort to cliché)

You must give people a reason to forward your film (which after all reflects on them for thinking the recipient would be interested in it) , so your film needs to be:

• Funny

• Interesting

• Violent

• Risqué

Or some combination of the above!

Of course you may upset some people with violent/ sexy content: be aware what you are doing and the risks attached (certain grannies will probably hate you and certain video sharing sites will probably ban you).

2. Get the length right: as a rough rule of thumb: more than 30 sec; less than 4 minutes

3. Experiment with executions; indeed consider a series with similar creative; awareness can build until you suddenly hit the jackpot

4. Don’t try too hard to sell: you can include your logo and brand name subtly; if the film is considered cool, the kudos will rub off on you

(By the way, branded viral games have their own set of rules; that could be a whole other blog post.)

There’s a another crucial ingredient of a successful viral campaign – seeding. In short, this means putting your film where it will be seen by people who will pass it on; they are the digerati, the movers and shakers (OK basically, cool people like us). It’s giving your viral film ‘critical mass’.

As with many branches of digital marketing, a whole mystique has grown up around ‘seeding strategy’. Specialist seeding agencies have sprung up, promising ‘to put your film where it will get the best possible start in life, at the heart of your target audience’. Needless to say these companies are rather tight-lipped about exactly how they will do this (well none of us likes to give away our intellectual property, after all!). To be serious, there is no doubt that very few films can go truly viral without at least a little judicious seeding but, as usual, there are no cast-iron guarantees.

Here are three virals that made it big- very big. Sure, all do the basics right but, beyond this, all of them just ‘took off’; maybe yours will too!

Will it blend? iPhone

Transport for London Awareness test

Honda Cogs

For this last, by Wieden + Kennedy (London), credit to: executive creative directors Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth, art director Matt Gooden, copywriter Ben Walker and agency producer Rob Steiner. OK it was shot (live) as a TV commercial, but it’s so good it works brilliantly as a viral film. Which all goes to prove that those old ‘traditional media’ skills are far from obsolete; increasingly we’re just going to be seeing the fruits of such creativity and production expertise in new and surprising places. Which is nice.

So go on; send your viral film out there into the big wide world. Reach for the stars. Good luck!

2011-07-06T09:34:33+00:00 June 17th, 2009|General|8 Comments


  1. Julian Clayton June 18, 2009 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    Mike – great post. Couldn't agree more. My digital agency are prone to promising me the next film will "go ballistic" and it never quite happens. I have repeatedly asked them what email lists/ websites they use for seeding and they go very coy- but it's my money! Do I need to find a new agency? Any ideas anyone?

    Julian C.

  2. Mike Berry June 18, 2009 at 3:27 pm - Reply


    Thanks for the comment (and for reading!). You may be being a bit harsh on your agency; their seeding techniques have probably been built up over years and you can't blame them for not wanting to reveal all (they may even suspect you are about to fire them!). Are you sure the problem is not the creative?. I would suggest a "clear the air" meeting with your agency MD and account team. At least you'll get their full attention! If things still don't improve try another agency (preferably a viral marketing specialist). Good luck!


  3. Fee June 20, 2009 at 7:43 am - Reply

    For me as consumer, it has to be funny, moving or really, really clever.

    Seems to me that after hundreds of years of gradual infitration by professionals becoming ever more expert, the amateurs are moving in and doing it better… the official video for Phoenix's Lisztomania doesn't appeal half as much as the amateur mash up of 80s films set to the same track.

    Like journalism, invaded by bloggers and citizen journalists, advertising is going to have to move over and make room for the possibiity that ingenuity can top professional skills.

  4. Julian Clayton July 1, 2009 at 7:17 pm - Reply


    Yes I agree. Those Covent Garden/Soho/Clerkenwell suits have been bullsh*ting their clients for too long. Time they admitted it was all smoke and mirrors; these days it's the idea that counts, not slick production. Uncomfortable times for the '60s style mad-men!

  5. ali-mirza November 11, 2009 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    Glad to see, a logical and pragmatic approach is not forgotten. Unlike the Hoxton set who seem even more flighty these days – Are the under 35's not being trained in classical marketing anymore? why they insist on mystifying digital can only be down to lack of real knowledge. The New world order (within digital) will go back to big ideas that sit comfortably in whatever the channel. Change your agency – I can assure you there are 'non bs' ones out there.

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