You saw it coming to this over the past few weeks, didn’t you? I have been writing a lot lately about “viral video” and “social video,” and now it’s time to give them the ultimate face-off. What’s the difference between viral video and social video? Which has the edge today, and which is the future of online video marketing?

The Misunderstanding of Viral Video Marketing and Social Video Marketing

“Viral video” is very well embedded into our mainstream lexicon. Wikipedia defines it as such:

A viral video is a video that is made popular through the process of Internet sharing, typically through video sharing websites, social media, and email.”

We also know that a viral video can be so infectious online that it can breach the outer realm of mainstream media, and back into the online, and so on and so forth.

Yet the term “viral video” has become not only a cliché, but often a misnomer. The common misunderstanding is that viral videos are just about the number of views they get. As ReelSEO’s Christopher Rick explained here earlier, “viral videos are about spreading a message without having to do the actual spreading yourself.”

Companies that provide what they like to call “viral video marketing” solutions for clients will provide one or more of the following services:

  • Plan and create interesting video content
  • “Seeding” that content online (both organically and through advertising), and;
  • Measure performance of those campaigns from both social media metrics and branding metrics (and if they’re up to the challenge, sales and revenue correlations as well.)

Accomplished video marketer Kevin Nalty, and author of “Beyond Viral,” stresses that a viral video isn’t an actual marketing strategy, per se; it’s the result of one. Partially because the term has become such a cliché and a short-sighted video marketing strategy for most, Kevin declared viral video “dead” in 2008. (He still says so in the very first sentence on his own book’s website.)

“Social video” is a term that’s comparatively very new, and even more misunderstood. I’ve heard marketers equate it to just putting a video up on a social media channel, like YouTube or Facebook. However, that really makes no more sense than saying because someone put up a video on a business directly that automatically makes it a business video. If I put up a repurposed television commercial on YouTube, that certainly wouldn’t be what we consider to be a true social activity, either.

That’s why I’ve given my own definition of a social video as this:

“A social video is the blending of video with human relationships for the co-creation of value.”

Social video marketing goes further down the funnel of engagement than views and sharing alone; which also allows for better audience targeting and a more qualitative response than a viral video can be expected to provide.

I also believe that the term “social video” is a cliché and misnomer as well. Artificial Intelligence has not advanced so much that we can have an actual “social video;” what we only have are social people. (Or if you want to get sociological, we do have other social mammals as well, but all of our marketing efforts are reserved for humans until at least the next few evolutionary cycles. ;-) Since both marketers and consumers are compelled to ascribe human qualities to digital media, “social video marketing” is a term that I hope will stick around for a while as we improve our collective social, video, and marketing skills.

The Big Video Face-Off: Viral Video Vs. Social Video

I’ll say right off the bat that this is just my own, admittedly highly subjective study. But I hope it will serve as an easy way for comparing two types of video when applied as professional marketing strategies; and to show which has the edge for certain types of marketing objectives. These categories are done in no particular order of importance, and you may find a few more value indicators of your own than what I included here. Let’s begin!


  • Viral video is more about capturing short-attention spans, which are easy to slip away.
  • Social video is about gaining focused attention, which gradually increases over time.


  • Viral videos actually require no socializing activity around them. While most viral videos tend to have some social component for their views and shares, those can be achieved through other means, such as mass display advertising and popular keyword searches of breaking news. That is why a viral video can also appeal to people who have no interest in the social aspects of the medium. There’s always going to be a large audience for people who only want to be entertained, where they can just watch a video and then leave it (and do nothing else).
  • Social videos are dependently largely around the value of the conversations and human-based help that are born from them, and cultivated over time.


  • Viral video doesn’t require any authenticity to achieve views and shares. (I.e., the video can be a fake.)
  • Social video is based on trusting the source and the message. The video must be transparent and authentic.


  • Viral video is about the quantity of views and shares. A viral video doesn’t need a targeted audience, or a clear objective, to go viral. To quote Kevin from his book, “Views or impressions can be horribly deceptive. They can give a brand the false pride of going viral with no sales consequences.”
  • Social video is about the quality of those views and shares; and as such, it needs to be based on both having a targeted audience and a clear objective.


  • A viral video is more about the short-term goals (i.e., the sprint).
  • A social video is about the long-term model (i.e., the marathon).


  • A viral video is often about casting as wide of a net as possible for a low-entry point to a large number of views
  • A social video is more about finding a niche market with unmet needs, and creating video content specific to their needs and likes.


  • A viral video is very difficult (sometimes impossible) to duplicate its initial success, since it is largely based on market uncertainties.
  • A social video can have it’s success duplicated every time simply by following it’s original formula, and adapting to changes in the market.


  • A viral video shares only the content of that video itself
  • A social video shares not just content, but opportunities for person-to-person communication. This communication can take the form of answering questions, providing recommendations, sharing perspectives, and just implying showing that you’re listening and responding.


  • A viral video is about talking at someone.
  • A social video is about talking with someone.


  • Even if a video does go viral there’s no guarantee of real audience engagement. Audiences online are easily distracted by other video competing for their attention.
  • Social video is more apt at building and maintaining a relationship with your audience. A relationship is defined as the state of which two or more people have a real connection with each other. Social video by its own method is much better about creating a sense of community, and personal connection.


  • The success of viral video is extremely difficult for most to maintain. “Many marketers are focused on creating a viral video, but they are missing the reach and influence of sustaining an audience via online video,” says Kevin in his book.
  • Social video, on the other hand, works best when it involves building a series of videos and connecting with your audience beyond just seeding content (i.e., conversations). Here is another quote in Beyond Viral from Ben Relles, founder of (the company responsible for one of the most viral sensations of the decade, “Obama Girl”): “The major of our viewership comes from continually building an audience, which is more sustainable than trying to ‘go viral’ with every video.”


  • With viral videos, audience attention span is fleeting and easily lost. Without a sense of loyalty, people will just browse to whatever catches their attention next.
  • Social video is all about building a loyal audience. That loyalty is earned from your genuine interest and commitment with actually socializing with your audience – both with new videos, and the conversations you participate in from those videos. That loyalty is also what makes audiences stick around for your next video, and the next, and the next.


  • The purpose of a viral video is to entertain, first.
  • The typical purpose of a social video is always to be of help to someone.


  • Trying to make a viral video can be very expensive to produce
  • Social videos cost nothing to produce

Performance (Equation)

  • Viral video marketing = views + shares
  • Social video marketing = views x engagement x value x acquisition

The Final Decision: Viral Video vs. Social Video Marketing

Viral video and social video both have their place and can co-exist peacefully in our marketing industry. Both of them are their own types of business strategy with some areas of overlap. So which should you do? Well if you ask Kevin, a very successful viral video and social video marketer, he has this advice to share in his book: “Don’t bet on the big viral video. Brands should go social.”

Both viral video and social video are organic creations. If we stick the medical analogy, a viral video is something that someone infects people with, and oftentimes of questionable benefit (and in some instances causes big problems). A social video, on the other hand, is something you give to others to make them better for it, and healthy for everyone.

You heard me right. A viral video, by its very nomenclature, is related to the idea of an infection. Infections spread and sometimes, as we’ve highlighted here recently on ReelSEO, one of their drawbacks is that they can cause serious problems for real people. Viral videos may be good for their creators and have at least some good for their intended audience, but for some people they have proven to be harmful.

I consider social video to be the long-awaited cure to our viral video maladies. What I appreciate about social video is that is born out of good intentions. It’s not spammy or deceptive to gain attention; instead, it works by being a gradual and steady development to something richer over time. It’s something that’s easy to do well and do a lot of it. Social video doesn’t infect, it cultivates. When you share it with others you make them better for it, and more inherently beneficial for them to share with everyone else.

I’m apt to guess that some video marketers out there will disagree, perhaps rather vehemently, with some of the assessments I’ve made here. So to those of you who do, I’d say the next time you actually do plan some kind of video campaign you spend lots of your resources (or your client’s) on “going viral,” think about putting just a fraction of those resources into “going social” with your video as well. You might be surprised at the results.

(photo credit)