viral videoOn the night of December 12th, 2005, the Saturday Night Live comedians Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg recorded a rap song about mundane activities like eating cupcakes and seeing a Saturday matinee of Chronicles of Narnia. After airing, the video was posted to YouTube, which by that time had been active for about eight months. A couple of months later, NBC executives requested that YouTube remove the video. By the time YouTube complied, the video had been viewed over five million times, earning it the distinction of being the first viral video.

Oh, if only we marketers knew how to make videos go viral, surely we would have a recipe for success. You can search “elements of a viral video” on Google, whereupon you’ll be provided with a whole bevy of possible solutions.  In The Viral Video Manifesto: Why Everything You Know is Wrong and How To Do What Really Works, authors Stephen Voltz and Fritze Grobe offer up their own recipe. By the way, Voltz and Grobe were the guys who made the most viewed of the many videos of Coke and Mentos, along with many others.

In all fairness, if making a viral video was like making a wedding cake, Voltz and Grobe aren’t so much as providing a recipe as they are telling us to use only the finest flour, sugar, and butter. How you put those ingredients together into something that will be shared over a million times will be up to you, or whatever supernatural forces are overlooking such things.

The four elements proscribed in the book are:

  1. Be true.
  2. Don’t waste our time.
  3. Be unforgettable.
  4. Ultimately, it’s all about humanity.

Of the four, the authors write:

The more you can stick to all four, the better, although you don’t have to be perfect to create a contagious video.  Strength in one area can often overcome a deficiency in another.

Marketers today may be extolling the virtues of storytelling in everything from tweets to whole marketing campaigns, but interestingly, the authors here tell us to skip the storytelling.  Instead, great viral videos have more in common with old Vaudeville sideshows. They make a good point, although I find that my own favorite viral videos do encompass storytelling.  

A fair chunk of the book is dedicated to the review of various viral videos, along with suggestion on how they could have been better. This is the type of brass tacks and nails advice that can benefit marketers. Many of us are coming from agencies where the tendency is to want to clean things up a bit much.  Often, that cleaning up is the very thing that can keep a video from going viral.

I’m not sure that after reading The Viral Video Manifesto just anyone could pull off the magic feat of creating a viral video.  In fact, there are probably only just so many slots for things to go viral.  If you are aiming to create a video, though, and hope that it goes viral, I do think that reading this book could help provoke the right kind of thinking.

In many of the case studies cited in the book, there was a lot of work. Sure, there were those moments someone just happened to be in the right spot just as a lion and a crocodile got into a bloody battle, but for the most part, people put a lot of effort into whatever it was they were doing.  To quote one of my favorite pieces of advice from the book, do it until you get it.