What makes an idea go viral?

Published on February 27, 2011 under Marketing, Business, Social Media

Kia Soul Commercial

Last year, I was flipping around on the TV when I saw this rather creative ad from Kia Motors.  They were advertising their new Soul compact car.  With Blacksheep's The Choice Is Yours playing, the ad showed hamsters lip syncing to the music, and cruising around town like they were human.  Almost instantly I was caught and immediately posted links to the commercial on Facebook.  Even when I looked for the commercial on YouTube, I saw several homemade parodies of the ad using other hip-hop anthems and even one of just the loop of the hamsters bobbing their heads to What Is Love? by Haddoway.

So there I was, inadvertently advertising the Kia Soul.  The creative minds who made the copycat "remix" videos were advertising Kia as well.  Every time one sees hamsters and rap music, they'll think "Kia Soul".  That's viral advertising, and it's probably one of the bigger goals many aim for now when a commercial hits the airwaves and/or a video hits the internet.  The joy of hoping millions will pass around and talk about your ad, then even better going and buying said product or service.  While many try, few ever attain viral greatness.  So what separates the viral winners from the losers?

The idea is genuine

Dove Campaign for Real BeautyThis isn't just copying someone else's idea or blatantly making someone to push product and thus there isn't any sincerity in the message.  When Gary Brolsma put his now famous Numa Numa video on the internet, people simply felt he was silly, but real.  He was a real person having a little fun with his webcam, and we all laughed at his joke.  Thus it was sent all over.  It wasn't some high-cost production made by a record label or corporation to maybe push the single he lip synced to.  Another example that actually does advertise is Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty.  While many scoffed at the women they pulled out to pose for print ads, the real genuine message that caused millions to post links all over the internet was their video showing how much Photoshop work went into turning an average-looking woman into a polished model.

If you want to get shared, then you have to be genuine and not fake.  If you're pretending to be "cool" or "smart" and really are just pushing something, consumers will see right through it.  Sony tried to advertise their PSP handheld system by getting a kid to make these rap videos and post them on YouTube, going off on how he wanted a PSP for Christmas.  Consumers saw right through it and knew it was Sony and not some kid on the internet.

The idea instantly grabs your attention

Before you can even win hearts and minds, you have to grab the attention of the consumer and make them pay attention to you over the billions of other things out there that can steal their attention away.  I mentioned the Kia Soul ad earlier with the rapping hamsters.  Many people into that scene and lifestyle (or those close to it) were instantly grabbed by the classic Blacksheep track, but it was the top-quality animation of the hamsters and the small jokes in the ad (cardboard box and toaster) that made me laugh and watch it til the end.

Judson Laipply's Evolution of Dance video is another great example of this.  In the beginning we just see a guy in jeans and an orange t-shirt, but his initial dive into the dancing grabbed us and held us as we wondered what he would do next.  The key to success is that you don't give the consumer time to lose interest.  Ad Agency giant DraftFCB constantly pushed the idea of "6.5 seconds that matter", meaning you have 6.5 seconds to grab someone's attention before you lose them.  There is truth to that.  The best viral ideas that went out and spread are the ones that are focused and short, thus the consumer is pulled in instantly.

The idea hits a nerve

My New HaircutWhen Brett Tietjen created My New Haircut, his funny satire on what we now see in Jersey Shore more or less struck a nerve in all who viewed it.  Like it or not, we all know someone or have seen someone like the infamous Brett Broski Tietjen played in his video.  It's that nerve struck that made people not only send Brett's video all over the internet, but even create parodies making fun of other stereotypes.
Verizon's Big Red ad is another one that hit a nerve, mainly in anyone who grew up in the 1980s.  While one can say they simply copied an old idea, the difference is they managed to successfully strike a nerve in anyone who's ever seen the old gum ads while sliding in their own push of their service benefits.

I personally believe the key is familiarity.  In both examples some ideal or item of familiarity is clearly shown and thus the user connects with the idea.  The entertainment value added to it not only reinforces the message but also drives us to want to show others.  Thus we spread it virally.

The idea entertains without overly advertising

Probably one of the biggest mistakes advertisers make in attempting to try to make something that could go viral is they advertise their product more than entertain the consumer.  As stated in the idea being genuine, consumers will easily see through it if you are merely pushing product on them and pathetically trying to disguise it as some kind of fun video.

A great example of how an advertisement can entertain and not overly push product is the series Will It Blend? by Blendtec.  For years we've watched Blendtec toss anything and everything into their blenders and turn it into dust.  We laughed and passed around the videos, but despite the entertainment value, we did get a good look at how well Blendtec blenders can work.  Sometimes you just need the product to speak for itself or even let the brand speak for itself.

Another example lately has been how much product placement has ended up in music videos.  Both Lady Gaga and Britney Spears were called out in tech blogs for how many new tech products are in their recent videos.  What makes it work virally is younger girls will still pass around the videos virally, and even though they're not hitting you with a big Sony logo or a push, some will see the products and later wonder what they are.  The entertainment value in the videos is what drives them to be spread.

The idea is accessible and people want to share

iPod Silhouette adThis in my opinion is the big prize.  When you build an ad or idea that people not only get into, but they share it vividly and even better, create from it.  My New Haircut spawned loads of parodies, and the Kia Soul ad also ended up with loads of homemade parodies.  Every one of them still advertises the original idea.  Even better examples of this are Apple's original silhouette iPod ads and Shepard Fairey's painting of President Obama in 2008.  Both examples spawned tutorials all over on how to recreate it and thus thousands of recreations.  Even if they don't have the words on them, every recreation references the original, and thus virally spreads the idea.

It still takes a bit of luck

Now I wouldn't look at this whole article and think this is the instant formula for viral success, but these are the guidelines that might help you get better odds on success.  Regardless, I still believe it takes a little bit of luck on top of it all.  Viral advertising has shown though how much people have the power to make or break a product or brand.  It shows how much entertainment or even good information can be useful as a means to advertise.  It can't be forced or manufactured, but only created.

What do you think can make an ideal go viral?

Tags: viral, media, social media, marketing, business

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