There is a pretty good piece over at Ad Age by Josh Warner—he's the President and Founder of Feed Company, which is an online video promotions and distribution firm.  He has some interesting insight into how viral videos are spread through social media, and what brands need to do to maximize their potential.

The thrust of Warner's article centers around something called "engagement capital," which can loosely be translated as the credit you build with audiences based on their level of engagement to your video.  It is the quid pro quo between a content creator and the viewer—"You show me a great video, and I'll do something for you." The audience member's end of the bargain might be to make some kind of donation or fill out a form.  It might be to vote in an online contest, or any other conversion you can think of.

Different kinds of videos build different levels of engagement capital.  But many brands don't understand this concept, and end up wasting the audience's goodwill by over-branding or by seeking the wrong kind of conversion for your audience.  The more businesses understand engagement capital—and how social media drives popularity—the greater the chance they can leverage the tools they have for success.

In studying their data from over a hundred branded video campaigns that Feed Company has worked on, Warner is able to draw some conclusions.  He suggests that users are 2 times less likely to engage (convert) and 4 times less likely to share whenever the video piece in question is branded too heavily.  And he feels that a "call to action" in your video is actually a possible impediment to success, saying that users end up feeling like they're being asked to do a favor (vote in a contest, fill out a form, donate, etc.) without getting anything back.  They want you to wine and dine them before you go in for that first kiss, to make a clumsy analogy.

To further illustrate this idea, Warner shares that his data which shows that users are 2 times less likely to engage (convert) and up to 10 times less likely to share brand video whenever the video has a call to action included.  Videos with a call to action are often cashing checks they haven't deposited funds for… asking for more than their level of engagement capital can afford.

I have a few of my usual concerns and questions regarding data such as this.  First, it appears that Warner's conclusions (and numbers) are based solely on data from their own projects.  And that's just a bit more than a hundred campaigns.  Most studies would require data from more than 100 subjects  before conclusions could be drawn.  Now, I should point out that Warner isn't suggesting that he has any scientifically proven data.  He's not making any claims as to the provable accuracy of these numbers.  He's simply saying, "Hey, in our experience, this is what we've found.”  And his experience is kind of impressive.  I have no doubt that he has seen enough in his work with brands to know a thing or two about what he's saying.  I'm generally willing to trust his instincts on this.  But it's mostly instinct, and that's important to note.

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Second, how exactly are we defining "lightly branded" and "heavily branded" video content?  What constitutes heavy branding? I'm not saying Warner doesn't know, I'm just saying that it would be helpful in putting the data in context if we knew what criteria are.  Similarly, I would love to understand what counts as a call to action?  Can asking the viewer to simply remember something (like a date, or a statistic) be a call to action?  Isn't a simple logo at the end of a video a kind of call to action in many ways?  I'd love to know more about where the cut-off point is for what Feed Company considers to be a call to action within the confines of this study.

Finally, I'm curious to know what non-branded video content would do to these numbers.  Feed Company works with branded videos, and the conclusions drawn from their data are about "lightly branded" versus "heavily branded" content.  What about videos that aren't branded at all?  How do they fit into the picture?  How do they skew the other two categories?  You can have engagement capital, and even a call to action, with a completely unbranded video.  Feed Company really only does work with branded video from what I can tell.  Heck, unbranded videos don't typically seek out service provider partners for promotion and distribution—those services are, almost by definition, ones that are required by brands and advertisers.  But shouldn't unbranded video be the baseline for conversations like this?

The suggestions Warner is making are plenty interesting even without knowing all the specifics.  The call to action bit is particularly intriguing, as many online marketing consultants still hammer the gospel of "the importance of having a call to action" when advising clients.  Warner is saying that's actually bad advice for brands… that the less a video overtly asks its viewer to do, the more likely that viewer is to share.

Some of this sounds right because it's data that reflects common sense.  Online viewers are a more brand-wary bunch than advertisers have ever seen before.  There's an ever-growing list of companies whose online video efforts have moved swiftly away from heavily-branded videos or even any trace of a call to action (again I'm thinking of Old Spice, but there are plenty of examples).

But of course, a major company can't entirely eliminate "branding" from their list of online goals, otherwise there would be no point in making the video at all.  A logo here, a piece of familiar theme song music there… brands will still be brands.  But I think you'll find the next year or so of viral video follow right along with the trend in Mr. Warner's data… a de-emphasis on branding, fewer calls to action, and quite likely more viral "successes" for online video advertisers.

Here is a presentation from Josh all about this titled, "The New Economy of Viral Video."