Written by Christiano Covino
The Myth of Virality
The current social strategy of many Marketing and Ad Agencies goes something like: "It doesn't matter if the content is good, as long as we get a celebrity to tweet it, the thing will go viral!"
The prevailing consensus is that if a Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber tweets your content out to their followers, the inherent size of their audience will cause a viral loop, exploding the campaign into the news feeds and inboxes of everyone and their grandmother.
This fallacy is perpetuated by the "hip," "disruptive" agencies as they focus on buzz words like "share-ability" and "social" (read in a loathing, sarcastic voice while I make air quotes). If a campaign has a presence on every social network in the known universe, with custom widgets that all connect to each other, then its success is just a matter of turning a key and watching the crowd swarm. Right?
This strategy is not only absurdly lazy, but is ineffective, irresponsible, and even a little offensive to the intelligence of your desired audience. And yet, campaign after campaign saturates the Internet, towing along promises of fame, virality and ubiquity.
Any producer or agency that has had an Internet hit will tell you that contentʼs value, not "share-ability," is the most important key to virality.
A Case Study
Our company, Mischievious Studios, recently joined the short list of ad agencies that have experienced true viral success. What contributed to this success, you may ask? A young Canadian artist by the name of Justin Bieber.
Our longtime client Smule, a leading iPhone app company and frequent innovative marketer, came to us with a simple proposition: "We want a video that will do a million views and introduce our product to 13- to 17-year-old girls."
Our first thought was to attempt to crack Justin Bieber's ironclad grip on the teen girl demographic. Yet any attempt to market to these hyperactive, frenzied, texting balls of estrogen would be rejected and loathed. How could we sneak under the radar, find a way to jump into the conversation they were already having rather than force them to change the topic?
We parodied his new single the week it released and tweeted the video to his followers. What happened next was the stuff of Internet legend.
A Viral Explosion
The "Biebettes" took to the video and made it their own. They spread it within their circles, posted it on their Bieber Blogs and fan sites and tweeted it to the Biebs himself. Hundreds of tweets poured in, asking @JustinBieber if he'd seen the video yet.
Ten days after releasing the video, I sat down at my desk and started my computer. I was immediately bombarded by a wall of Twitter notifications from "Beliebers" who were tweeting the video. The volume of tweets seemed slightly heavier than our recent flow, so I went to the YouTube page to investigate.
Top Comment: AHHHHH!! Justin tweeted this! It's soooo funny!!
A rush of adrenaline coursed through my veins. I threw my door open, and screamed for my partners to come in. They rushed in to find the tweet pulled up on my screen. They gasped. The most popular guy on Twitter had just tweeted our video to his 22 million followers.
As the celebrations and high fives commenced, I decided to check one more thing. I pulled up Justin Bieber's Facebook page, and BOOM. There it was, on the top of his timeline, embedded, watchable and being published out to 44 million fans -- our parody.
Yet the journey only began with Justin's tweet and post. What happened next was far more interesting.
A Community of "Beliebers"
You see, Justin's promotion of the video was only the beginning. The tweet and Facebook post only resulted in a 330,000 view spike -- a nice number, but nothing in the Viral Video world. The true key to the video's viral success would be in the ones who got Bieber's attention in the first place -- his diehard fans.
We had placed ourselves in their shoes when writing the concept. What would we want to watch and pass on if we were teenage girls, obsessed and in love with Justin Bieber. Our answer? A video about a teenage girl, obsessed and in love with Justin Bieber.
Our parody had featured a headgear clad teen girl who kidnaps Justin and makes him her boyfriend. Seeing their undying fantasy acted out in front of them, especially to the tune of his new hit single, struck a chord with his followers. It gave them a feeling of "This is SOOO me!" or "OMG my friend is just like this."
And they shared. My god, did they share.
They posted it on their walls like a badge, laughing with their digital friends that this video was totally just like them. Or they used it as a gift, sending it to a friend, strengthening their bond and status in that friend's social circle.
We hadn't just created a funny video; we had created a currency. A valuable item to be shared in exchange for a feeling of connection with a group of one's peers. And that currency has continued to gain value.
At the time of this writing, our Justin Bieber "Boyfriend" Parody has blown past 4 million views in a little under two months, and continues to see the exponential growth indicative of a viral sensation. Neither Mischievious Studios nor our client Smule have had to spend a penny marketing the video, yet it has generated over 25,000 downloads of Smule's Magic Piano app through a link in the video description.
The moral of the story for advertisers and marketers alike?
While it helps to have a tastemaker like Bieber kick-start your viral growth, that growth will not occur unless the content itself has value to the audience and can be used as currency within their circles. Justin Bieber often shares videos that see no growth after the initial 300,000 view bump. Kim Kardashian gets paid $10k per tweet to give minor bumps to ideas that have no chance of virality. Ad.ly is making a business off the fact that advertisers think Influencer = Virality.
The key to virality has, and always will be, value. Create content that is valuable to an individual, a group, or society as a whole and they will spread it faster than any marketing campaign or celebrity endorsement ever could. Give them what they want, and they will give you what you want.
And maybe, just maybe, if we all create valuable content, and stop paying celebrities to tweet, advertising will be more fun, Kim Kardashian will be gone, and this world will be a much better place.
You can see our video here.