Top 9 Lessons Learned From 2009’s Viral Video Successes

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Well, it only seems right to join the pack in making a Year End list of sorts.  I originally planned to create my own Viral Video Awards.  But I realized that it’s pretty presumptuous of me to think that I’ve seen all the viral successes out there in 2009.  It’d be like voting for the Oscars without actually having watched all the movies nominated—and we know that never happens.

So instead we’ll just go with a small twist on the usual Viral Round Up formula.  I’ve picked out some of my favorite viral success stories of 2009, and I’ll tell you why I like them and why I think they succeeded—call it my list of the Best Lessons Learned From 2009’s Viral Success Stories. There is obviously no guaranteed path to viral success, but following even a few of these 9 rules will definitely get you a great head start.

9. Feature Actual Talent

Susan Boyle is basically a household name, having won Britain’s Got Talent in 2009 and gone on to release an album in the last few weeks.  But prior to her stint on the reality show—and more importantly, prior to her viral video smash hit—she was like you and me… a relative nobody.  Boyle is a simple, plain woman who packs a wallop of singing talent inside her otherwise ordinary appearance.

This kind of thing is becoming common.  In fact, just this week I saw another “Ordinary-Looking Person Surprises Judges Of Talent Show With Amazing Voice” video—it could be its own sub-genre pretty easily.  (Don’t forget opera-singing Paul Potts, from 2007, who sort of single-handedly created this sub-genre).

Now, where Paul got 17 Million views, Boyle got 82 Million views, just since April.  Holy crap that’s a lot of views.

What made this so successful?  Well, her average appearance, paired with both her unusually frank way of speaking and her graceful singing voice, just makes her easy to root for.  How many of you received a link to this video from a friend who said, “You’re never going to believe the voice that comes out of this woman”?  I did, from more than a dozen people.

Online videos that surprise and amuse, that shock and entertain all at the same time are almost always more likely to go viral.  Susan Boyle’s video is the poster child for that phenomenon.  And Britain’s Got Talent just keeps raking in the free advertising from it.  Very, very successful viral campaign for all parties involved.  The best lesson for those of us that aren’t a major television show?  Feature actual talent in your online offerings. The more unlikely or hidden that talent, the better.

Here she is

8. Do Something No One’s Ever Done

How can we do a year-end viral video recap without including the JK Wedding Entrance Dance video?  It would almost be blasphemy.  The JK Wedding dance was seen by approximately every human being in America (give or take a few), and catapulted this previously non-famous couple into the national spotlight.  There were spoof videos posted online, morning show interviews (including a morning show controversy after one show booted the couple from their hotel), and eventually the nation’s most popular sitcom paid tribute to the video in their season premiere.  Not too shabby for a guy and girl who simply said, “What if everyone dances down the aisle and has fun with it instead of the traditional march?”

This video went viral for a ton of reasons.  It’s something new—who ever went to a wedding where the wedding party did this?  It’s also funny—I can’t tell who makes me laugh more:  the guy who’s really great at dancing and gets into it so much, or the gal who is awful at dancing and yet still tries her hardest.  It’s heartwarming, mostly because it’s a wedding.  And it has a dash of controversy, with many viewers thinking a wedding (in a church no less) is a sacred thing that this couple decided to mock instead of honor.  I’m no chef, but I know that putting all those ingredients into a bowl and stirring will almost always lead to some measure of viral success.

You don’t have to be risky or daring to do something no one’s ever done.  You just have to be creative.  It helps to let in a little personality as well.  Now for your viewing pleasure…

7. Assume You’re Always On Camera/Film Those Who Don’t

Let’s just go ahead as a society and start pretending as though we are always on camera, shall we?  It’s the simplest way to avoid ever being the star of a video like the one featuring the soccer antics of poor Elizabeth Lambert.  She’s the collegiate soccer player who was captured by a fan on film doing all sorts of physically abusive things to her opponents.  She probably feels like the video has ruined her life.  My guess is that her life will eventually go back to normal.

One way to avoid starring in a video about your being a bully is to not be a bully in the first place.  These days, it’s better to be safe than sorry.  Every year the Internet helps embarrass and ruin several individuals unfortunate enough to get their misbehavior caught on film.  And there’s this tricky little permanence to things that hit the web—you may not know it, but it’s very tough to take things back once they’re on the web.

So be on your best behavior. Assume there’s a camera around at all times, and your chances of being made famous for jerky actions go way down.  I promise you this, if you don’t beat people up on a public soccer field, you won’t be starring in any videos about how you beat people up on public soccer fields.  You get my drift?  While you’re on your best behavior… film those who aren’t–you might strike gold.

Miss Lambert’s now infamous game highlights:

6. Publicity Is Publicity, For The Most Part

I hate overused adages as much as the next guy, but there really is no such thing as bad publicity.  Or rather, bad publicity is probably better than no publicity.

Microsoft has created two or three videos this year that were so bad as to be soundly mocked by the online marketing elite.  And yet, I can’t help but feel like Microsoft is laughing all the way to the bank.  Their Windows 7 Party advice video is already a classic, with its wooden dialogue and hammy actors.  The supposedly spontaneous employee’s-dancing-in-the-store video is pretty much just as bad.

But why would Microsoft really care?  In the end, we were ripping on their videos… not their products.  The party video had us mocking the tech giant’s marketing savvy, laughing at the poor execution and the cheesy scenes… but none of us were ripping on Windows 7, were we?  Likewise for the dancing video.  “How contrived,” we moaned.  “How fake,” we exclaimed… about the dancing.  Nobody was criticizing the store itself.

If anyone out there thinks there’s no value anymore in advertising aimed solely at name-recognition, I respectfully disagree.  And I think Microsoft sort of perfected a new sub-genre of it this year.  Something bad can be something good.  Somewhere in Redmond, there’s a marketing genius cackling and rubbing his hands together as he plots his next “awful” Microsoft video.

Pick your intentionally-bad-video poison:


5. Film Kids When They’re Being Cute

I had my wisdom teeth out at 16.  I can attest that dentists have the best drugs.  The stuff they give you can make you giggle at some of the scariest stuff imaginable (like dental equipment).

Pair up the infamous loopiness of dental drugs with the sure-thing popularity of a child being cute (like this guy), and you have that magical elixir known as viral gold.  David After Dentist is one of the most widely seen videos of 2009, and features an amused father interviewing his young son—who just so happens to still be quite loopy from his visit to the dentist.

The result is hilarity that even the biggest Scrooge would be forced to laugh at.  People love cute kids being cute.  What was that classic show with Bill Cosby… was it Kids Hopped Up On Dental Drugs Say The Darndest Things? I’m crossing my fingers for the sequel:  David After Tonsillectomy.

There’s a series of local car commercials in my market where the dealership owner prominently features his kids.  My wife always says, “Why is he putting his kids in the commercial… does he think that we care about his kids?”  And my answer is always, “No, but he knows that cute kids are marketing gold.”

Here’s the clip of what is maybe my favorite interview of the year:

4. Let People Act Like Kids (And Film It)

Volkswagen’s Piano Staircase is probably one of my favorite videos of the year.  It’s great marketing from a major brand.  It’s “cause”-minded, with its push toward exercise and activity.  And it’s funny.  Watching people play on the staircase is entrancing.  Who would have guessed that some black and white decorating could revert so many adults right back to childhood?  I’ll tell you who… Volkswagen.

Now, the good-deed angle of this video is great, and we can all get behind the idea of promoting exercise.

But that do-gooder theme is not what made this video succeed.  What made the video succeed was the juxtaposition of the everyday mundane (subway stairs) and the fun (the piano from Big, essentially).  Then, it’s straight Candid Camera formula from there… film the adults acting like kids.  After all, adults are just bigger kids. I bet you could put one of those mini individual trampolines on the sidewalk in the middle of Times Square and you’d catch just as many adults indulging in a little childlike playtime.  (Hmmm, that’s not a bad idea actually… if only I had some trampolines to sell, I might have a good viral marketing idea).

See adults revert before your eyes:

3. Incorporate Cats

Who would have guessed that an odd video from the 1980’s of a cat playing a keyboard would go on to be one of the most watched videos and biggest Internet memes of 2009?  Keyboard Cat, as he is known, is now so ubiquitous that everyone from Aunt Gladys to President Obama knows him.  If, by some chance, you live under a rock, here he is:

I could fill an entire year-end column with awesome viral videos featuring cats every single year.  Newsflash:  cats are popular online.  If you have a cat, particularly one that does something funny or cute, consider making that animal the star of your next viral offering… you’ll have a huge head start over the cat-less competition.

2. Define Viral Success Based On Your Market

I wrote this one up in one of my earlier weekly roundups.  It’s a local theater group in Nashville (where I live) called the Circle Players.  They staged a fun little flash mob performance of the main number from Fame, their upcoming stage production.  I’m sure there are dozens of similar examples of smaller-scale viral success in each of the major cities.

This campaign had virtually zero cost (they just had to set up a camera and then perform a number they already knew in a place they normally wouldn’t perform) and was an unquestionable success in raising the awareness and driving ticket sales for the group’s show.  Local and national media coverage didn’t hurt either.

The lesson here is maybe the most important one on my list (and really, should be #1 on this list were it not for my love of things from childhood):  Let your market and your goals define your viral success.  There is no universal view-count number for viral success.  A thousand views to you might be the same as a million views to Microsoft.  It all depends on who you’re trying to reach, and what message you’re trying to send.

For small businesses, this lesson is crucial.  Most are scared off of viral video by the seemingly daunting task of getting millions of views.  Realizing you might only need a thousand views for the effort to be a success is a liberating thing, and can push a company into the shallow end of the viral video pool.

See a local company’s viral effort that had few views, but maximum impact:

1. Use Muppets!

The Muppets make everything better.  If there’s any way for you to use Muppets in your viral video without infringing on copyright, I would do it.  Sometimes you just have to ask permission, like Weezer did:

That was a few years ago, but no less brilliant today than it was then.  This year’s Muppet viral video, the Bohemian Rhapsody, is just so full of goodness that I had to find a way to include it on this year end list.  I’m not suggesting you can or will get permission to use the Muppet characters in your company’s viral marketing campaign.  It’s highly unlikely, in fact.  But before that depresses you, just watch this video and I promise everything will be okay afterwards.  Here now is my personal vote for Best Viral Video of 2009:

Honorable Mention

Because I couldn’t include every one of my favorite videos and lessons, here’s a few bonus items for you to chew on:

Use Stop Motion

Stop motion is enjoying a bit of a resurgence recently.  They require a great deal of planning, but can be extremely powerful viral draws.

Feature A Rare Skill Or Talent

Few people on the planet can do what this guy can do, and that fact alone helped propel this viral effort to great success.

Babies Are Just As Money As Kids

The companion rule to “cute kids rule the Internet” is that “cute babies rule just as much.”  This is but one of many successful viral videos from this year that featured adorable babies.

So there you have it.  That’s our year-end wrap up.  It’s been fun doing these Round Up posts every week, dissecting them for nuggets of learning we can all apply to our own efforts.  I’m sure I left some off this list that you would have included—feel free to suggest your own favorite videos or cherished lessons in the comments below.

I look forward to continuing the series in 2010, when I’m sure we’ll see a slew of new and creative viral marketing videos from both standard and unexpected players.  Happy New Year, everyone.


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