Highly Contagious

Germaphobes, be warned: Viral video strategies are catching

The success of some great viral campaigns may always be shrouded in mystery: They just happen, and nobody can explain exactly why. But there have been some dramatically successful viral campaigns that didn’t happen entirely by magic: They certainly have it, whatever it is, but they were also the beneficiaries of strategic planning and a few calculated moves. In some cases, the strategic planning came after the first burst of popularity.

So where does great planning meet great viral? Old-school senior managers and hot-shot new-media types alike are learning that the quest for consumers’ eyeballs means merging the need for ROI and the desire for lots of buzz.

“Creating content that consumers talk about is key,” says Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer at Cymfony, which analyzes trends in social media. “This is anti-mass marketing: Just trying to get to the people who it’s really going to be relevant to, and doing it by using the judgment of those mavens and connectors.” 

All the Way to the Bank

Nationwide’s plan for last year’s “Rollin’ VIP” video — in which Kevin Federline mocks his own wannabe rap star persona for the insurer’s “Life Comes at You Fast” campaign — was always to release it online before its Super Bowl air date in order to generate as much buzz as possible. But after paparazzi photos of Federline on set in a fast food uniform hit the Web, the whole schedule was pushed up.

“There were all kinds of [rumors] on the Internet, saying that Kevin Federline was shooting a Super Bowl commercial for McDonald’s,” says Steven Schreibman, vice president of advertising and brand management for Nationwide. “We were like, ‘We can ignore this, or we can own this.’ ”

Nationwide decided to own it: The company announced the ad’s punch line more than two weeks before the Super Bowl and put the video on its site a week before its on-air debut. The ad grabbed about 832,000 views on alone and brought the site 500,000 new visitors. 

Messages on blogs jumped with the official announcement that the ad would appear during the Super Bowl, according to data from Nielsen Online Strategic Services. They spiked again toward the end of January and reached a peak of buzz on message boards and blogs — many of positive sentiment — after the ad finally “debuted” during the game on Feb. 4.

Nationwide counted about 1,925 individual blog postings about the spot, and estimates that the video campaign — including outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage — generated 757 million impressions, with a value of $23 million.

Releasing the ad before the game violated “a sacred cow,” says Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen Online Strategic Services, which measures online audiences.

But why not release it before the Super Bowl? Schriebman says, “Half of America doesn’t watch, and you need to reach those people, too.”

The buzz returned to pre-game levels heading into March 2007. The ad might actually have spurred positive public sentiment for Federline himself, who was not portrayed sympathetically by the press at that time (though we can’t say it’s done much for his music career). Online discussion about K-Fed’s personal life spiked with the Nationwide ad’s debut and reached nearly the same height again in October during the early part of his lengthy custody battle with ex-wife Britney Spears, whose reputation for poor parenting was starting to make headlines.

All in a Lather

Sometimes success can be found by building on a message that’s already resonated with audiences, as in Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.”

The ads have been a fixture in the viral video world since their inception two years ago; the latest one debuted in October. The first ad for Dove’s self-esteem fund appeared during Super Bowl XL and generated 11 percent of the weekly discussion on blogs, Nielsen Online data shows. Talk leveled off for several months.  

Then, in October 2006, Dove launched its “Evolution” ad, which shows a woman going from wearing no makeup to appearing, digitally enhanced, on a billboard. “Evolution” generated a whopping 19 percent of the weekly discussion online, according to Nielsen Online.

More than a year later, the video continues to be viral. On Oct. 1, 2007, Dove launched its “Onslaught” video, depicting the barrage of media images about beauty that bombard girls. The buzz about “Evolution” spiked again, jumping to six times the amount of mentions in blog posts than before “Onslaught” aired, according to Nielsen Online.

The success is due to what Blackshaw calls consumer-fortified media. “The agency or brand created the content,” he says, “but what made it so powerful was how consumers wrapped around the experience.”

Many female-oriented blogs embedded the video and generated conversation around it, he says, adding, “The conversation that wraps around the ad itself defines its essence.”

Breaking all the Rules

The holidays were happy for OfficeMax, which had a runaway hit with its second annual “ElfYourself” campaign. Visitors to could upload their faces — or friends’ and colleagues’ faces — onto dancing elves’ bodies, and e-mail the video to others. And, oh yeah, there was a link to the OfficeMax site.

According to comScore, the campaign had 2.6 million U.S. unique visitors in December 2006. Then in November 2007, it had 3.5 million U.S. unique visitors, and in December 2007, it had 15.3 million.

Anne Bologna, co-founder and president of Toy, the agency behind ElfYourself, says the site had 40 million total visitors in 2006, and 200 million in 2007, each time within a six-week window.

“We actually had hits to the site all year while it was down,” she says. “There was pent-up demand. Literally, people were waiting for it.”

With an audience already on simmer, the strategy the agency employed was to do everything the same as last year, with one change: Users could “elf” four people at a time instead of just one, which might have made it more fun to forward. “Simple math,” Bologna says.

“What oddly enough made this great to begin with is it broke all the rules,” she adds. “It wasn’t edgy; it was universally loved.”

There was another significant, but strategic, risk here that paid off: “ElfYourself has nothing to do with OfficeMax or what they do,” says comScore senior analyst Andrew Lipsman. “But if you can draw a huge audience there, and everybody’s seeing an OfficeMax logo in the corner, and you’re able to convert that to more visitors to the OfficeMax site or even your offline channel, it can be very successful.”

Burger King’s more subversive “Whopper Freakout” deliberately broke some rules, too. In this case, it took a risk by duping customers: Hidden cameras caught customers’ reactions to the “news” that the Whopper had been permanently removed from the restaurant’s menu. Naturally, they freak out.

The ad brought 250,000 unique visitors to in its first month, according to comScore; Nielsen Online reports that it had more than 230 blog links within a few weeks.

Notably the clip has inspired numerous amateur parodies, including a “Michael Jackson Version” (Jacko is denied the sweet meat) and a “Ghetto Version,” (“What the fuck you mean you ain’t got no Whoppers? Bitch, I been eating Whoppers for 35 years.”) which have garnered their own views. The thing is, the concepts adhere so closely to the conceit of the original that except for some foul language and off-color humor they could almost reflect just as well on the brand. Maybe better if they are perceived to come from an outside source (there is always the possibility that they may not).

Half the Battle

A good strategy only gets you so far. Perhaps the biggest viral success so far is a YouTube video that began with no growth strategy whatsoever: It was intended for an audience of one. Instead, the original posting of “Battle at Kruger” — in which a herd of Cape buffalo rescues one of its own from a pride of lions and two crocodiles in South Africa’s Kruger National Park — has been viewed on YouTube more than 24.5 million times.

Jason Schlosberg, an attorney and amateur photographer, posted it in May 2007 for a friend to watch. The video, shot by David Budzinski, whom Schlosberg met on safari, racked up 300,000 views in three weeks, and Schlosberg started getting calls from production companies. It was at almost 8 million views in August when ABC News licensed and aired it as part of its i-CAUGHT program. Within a month, Schlosberg says, views had doubled.

It wasn’t a business venture before, but it is now. Schlosberg and Budzinski strategically license the video and photos. A National Geographic documentary is in the works, and they’re angling for deals with ad agencies and marketers. (And they didn’t miss the opportunity to ask us which parts of the video we’d like license for this article.)

“It sells itself in that respect; everyone sees something different and can apply it to their own use,” Schlosberg says. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a flash in the pan, but apparently, it has legs.” 

And what more can you ask of a hot-flash in the pan?

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