Bigfoot: Our Search For The Viral Video

Editor's Note: This classic Video Insider was first published Aug. 21, 2013.

A New York Times article by Alina Tugend, “Sometimes Second-Best Makes a Better Role Model,”  supports the notion that ultra-gifted superstars, in any field, may be poor role models.  The idea is that people from Miguel Cabrera to Sheryl Sandberg are so exceptional that it becomes difficult, if not useless, to emulate their path or use them as a beacon.  Chengwei Liu, an assistant professor of strategy and behavioral science at the University of Warwick in Britain sums it up: “The more exceptional performers are, the less we may learn from them.” Tugend goes on to explain that consistent, high-level performers may be better role models.

The same can also be said for digital video and other forms of content marketing — and the relentless search for a viral video.  Like the Holy Grail, the fountain of youth and unicorns, the viral video is elusive. Statistically speaking, as a percentage of all video, viral videos don’t actually exist.  For brands, a large portion of views must be purchased.  And yet the term viral is constantly used by people like me at advertising agencies, by clients, and in media coverage.  

Viral videos, by their nature, are one-off events.  They occur when people are compelled to share something with someone else, and when others need to find out what everyone else is talking about.  Generally, the videos are either funny, outrageous, shocking, or poignant — or any other explosive emotional combination.  This is just like any hit book, song, movie, or TV series. However, an author donesn't wake up and say, “I’m going to write a bestseller today” —  she uthor simply wants to write a good book.  And we don’t call songs or movies viral.  We call them hits.  In addition to being difficult to produce, they are impossible to anticipate or predict.  The most successful ones land on bestseller lists.  And they get there, almost exclusively, after they have been marketed. 

Entertainment businesses, just like brand content marketing platforms, find success in consistency: doing well every day or week, over time, in a committed area.  The History Channel has quietly built itself from an archive content management system to a top cable network with strong, consistent content. Vice has built a content machine across a variety of platforms by staying consistently on target, not by seeking a one-hit-wonder of virality. 

Brands themselves can take a page from companies like IBM, GE, and Red Bull, more so than Dos Equis or Old Spice or even Volkswagen and its Darth Vader ad.  This is not to minimize the success of these individual videos and campaigns — on the contrary, both Dos Equis and Old Spice recognized and capitalized on their “viral” success, building lengthy, consistent, evolving campaigns, each the equal of the catalyst.

Unfortunately, few brands have the fortitude to deliver high-quality video content, within their areas of expertise, on a consistent basis—something that allows an audience to be built over time, without relying on or seeking the Holy Grail viral video hit.  Many have short-term media and marketing plans that overreact to performance metrics that don’t allow for audience accrual. Like Phish building a huge fan base without big hits or significant radio play, like NBC leaving “Parks and Recreation” and “Seinfeld” on until they built their audience, like HBO committing to “The Wire,” consistent content outperforms accidental or even purposeful one-offs. Instead of just searching for the elusive viral video, that’s what brands should be looking for.

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