How viral video could do more than a TV ad

A successful viral video can help brands engage with consumers on a much larger scale than a TV ad, and is much cheaper to produce. Sean Hargrave looks at the best formula to give videos the contagious nature they need.

Celebrities: Vinnie Jones and Lady Gaga have helped make virals successful

Viral marketing is no longer a matter of brands getting lucky with an infectious piece of content. These days, virals are meticulously planned to ensure they reach as many people as possible and their social nature is built in from the start.

But what makes a successful viral? Nick Radmore, head of social marketing and brand at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), warns that marketers must consider multiple issues, including timing, distribution across both traditional and digital channels and what content attracts the correct audience. “You can’t just put the video up on YouTube and hope it will do all the work for you,” he says.

BHF has been running a campaign using actor and ex-footballer Vinnie Jones to promote the importance of saving lives through hands-only resuscitation rather than using the mouth-to-mouth method. “Everything came together for the viral, it’s gone supernova and we couldn’t be happier,” says Radmore.

“Getting a celebrity is a wonderful first step but you’ve got to make it entertaining. We had the line ‘You only kiss the mrs on the lips’ to underline the message and there’s the henchman dancing to Staying Alive as Vinnie gives hands-only CPR. People are entertained and naturally want to share it.”

Google has also seen the benefits of using a celebrity. Its virals, including a video of Lady Gaga interacting with fans through the brand’s Chrome web browser, were viewed a staggering 78 million times last year. As a result, the search giant was named the “most viral” Fortune 500 company in 2011.

The really hard work for marketers, however, starts once the content is complete, according to BHF’s Radmore.

“We used our Facebook page and Twitter account to allow followers to preview, share and ‘like’ the video and we had a lot of success,” he says. “We put in a huge amount of effort to get bloggers involved as well as journalists on digital and traditional media.

“On the day we launched the TV ad, we got coverage in just about every newspaper and on all major TV channels. You need that impetus to get people going off and searching for content and sharing it.”


These days, having a social following is as important as being recognised in the street. Julian Diment, director of brand and marketing at Carphone Warehouse, reveals that singer Tinchy Stryder’s appeal to a key demographic, backed up with a strong social media following, was a major factor in working with him on a viral video.

The brand worked with its agency Cake to set Stryder’s band up with the technology to perform an exclusive track produced on iPads in one of the retailer’s stores. “For a brand that does TV advertising, viral videos are a great way of reaching out to a younger, tech-savvy, trendier demographic, which is harder to reach on TV than older age groups,” says Diment.

“It’s a great medium to share your passion for technology, so we were aware that we had to make the gadgetry the focus of the video. If you’re not careful, you can get a star to be in a viral video and it can end up just being about them.

“By telling a story about the band coming together to create and perform an exclusive track, we got around that and made sure that we conveyed that we share our audience’s passion for technology. A good viral has to entertain and engage people while portraying a message about your brand that the audience can identify with.”

Carphone Warehouse regularly releases virals, including a series demonstrating new facilities on gadgets. However, working with Tinchy Stryder led to the most clearly demonstrable uplift in brand reach. Within two months of release, the retailer quadrupled its Facebook fan base to 350,000 fans, which has led to the video being viewed nearly 300,000 times.

The importance of online engagement is particularly relevant when there are so many marketing channels, and brands no longer automatically plump for a TV campaign. Glen Price, senior brand manager at Molson Coors, says that the fragmentation of media means brands have to be clever with content use.

In its recent Coors Light campaign starring action-man actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, the company previewed its ads on Facebook before showing them on TV. The idea was to reach consumers who are spending less time watching TV but are happy to engage with time-consuming online media.

Coors: TV ads were previewed on Facebook

“Viral videos are a great way of getting away from the interruption of pushing messages at people and instead using entertainment and an emotional connection to encourage consumers to pull your message to them,” says Price.

“We’ve cast Jean-Claude Van Damme in a role where he gets to have some fun as well as be a tough guy. It gives people a chance to see him in a new light. So far, we’ve had around 3 million views.”

Using online virals to promote ads that will later appear on TV also helps break down the barrier between the TV (which is a shared device) and the mobile, tablet or laptop (which tend to be personal), according to Price.

“We estimate that around two in three TV viewers have a smartphone or tablet PC on the sofa with them that they’re using at the same time,” he says. “If people see some content from a brand they like, we believe they’ll search online for it and the spikes in searches for our content when the adverts are airing are backing that up.”

It is this relationship between search marketing and other media channels that can prompt brands to not only start working with viral videos but to keep on producing and distributing video content. Google has made no secret of the fact it is actively looking to list video content in search results where appropriate, normally in the third or fourth position. In addition, searches can be refined, via the ‘video’ tab, to return solely such results.

According to David Meliveo, marketing director at Autoglass, it is a key concern for the company that its brand can be found through searches for video content as well as images and text. “It’s a virtuous circle,” he says. “The more people link and share your content, the more relevant it appears and so the better you do in search.

“You need to get some apt metatag descriptions to go with the video so Google knows that it’s a video about ‘windscreen repair’ and ‘Autoglass’ – then you need to encourage people to enjoy and share your content. Your search performance will improve and your videos will hopefully appear in searches and not your competitors’.”

But to get those videos shared in the first place, to aid search rankings, means a brand needs to start a conversation with consumers. This was something Autoglass had to think about when storyboarding ideas with its communications agency Lewis PR, and is the first to admit that a new windscreen or a chip repair is not something people normally look to be entertained about.

“Viral video is all about engaging with people and so each brand has to find the way they are going to do that,” he says. “Nobody really wants to watch videos about everyday windscreens and so we highlight the fact that we’re a service business and that we have people behind our service; it’s a very human message.”

If brands are already having conversations in social media with people who ‘like’ or follow them, as they undoubtedly should be, it stands to reason that the viral video is a central part of this two-way dialogue. Not only is new content something to share and chat about with followers, the content itself can actually come from the public.

Virgin Media: Finding viral success with Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt

Meliveo reveals that the ideas for two of its most successful videos have come from social media and viral videos have made the repair people featured in them take on a life of their own on Facebook.

“People actually kept posting [on our page] asking when we were going to be able to fix iPhone screens,” he says.

“So we thought it would be a good April fool’s joke to create a video about us making smartphone screens that heal themselves if they’re smashed. It’s the same with our viral about the future of the windscreen. That was kickstarted by conversations on Facebook.”

He says that he was really surprised how much conversation was instigated as a result of consumers seeing the virals. Autoglass received petitions asking the company to bring back Gavin, the original man appearing in its advertising. It also received questions about why the business had not yet featured female technicians in ads, which it has fed back into its marketing.

Yet while virals offer the opportunity for brands to reach consumers in a more social way than traditional media, they also have the potential to demonstrate when companies have not done a good job. If videos sit on a YouTube channel with just a handful of hits, it is a very public forum to show the lack of marketing success.

The ability to host virals, distribute, encourage sharing and then analyse the metrics is all in place. Ultimately, as Autoglass’ Meliveo says, the brand’s experience has “underlined to us the power and opportunity of kick-starting meaningful conversations in social media through our viral videos.” Finding success from there is a matter of a lot of planning and a little bit of luck.

Q&A: Brand in the spotlight

Tom Burrow Digital, communications manager, Umbro

Tom Burrow, digital communications manager, Umbro

Marketing Week (MW): What makes a good viral?

Tom Burrow (TB): Viral is a misused word. It’s really just about great content or ideas that engage the audience and appeal on an emotional level, often through humour, shock, entertainment, sexiness or by simply telling a great story. Content should be viral-like in that it should be contagious so people can’t help but pass it on.

MW: Why should brands consider virals, aren’t TV ads or online display enough?

TB: A video recommended from a friend is a much stronger endorsement for a brand than one that just appears because you happen to be on a certain website or TV channel. Plus, they cost a lot less of course.

MW: What about metrics, how do you measure effectiveness and not just views?

TB: Shareable content is the measurable equivalent of the old-fashioned word of mouth – comments, blog mentions, social media thumbs up and shares can all be tracked. A good piece of content will often transcend the web into TV and mainstream media.

Umbro: Created a video with Liam Gallagher’s band Beady Eye to promote the latest Manchester City FC home shirt

Brands need to engage with relevant bloggers and online influencers. And by engage, I mean build a reciprocal relationship, not just “will you publish/share this?” type emails. Creating bespoke or an exclusive piece of content, relevant for different blog sites, is all obvious but it’s surprising how many brands or companies don’t consider it.


What’s the downside of virals, if you make a bad one that isn’t shared or viewed?

TB: Making a video is hard because you rely totally on the strength of the content to get views. There is nothing better than someone sending a movie you have worked on back to you, but on the reverse, if only 50 people watch it, it is heart breaking.

MW: What’s your main piece of advice to a brand considering virals?

TB: Start with the audience; think about what interests them and why they will believe in the idea. Storyboard the video, then ask yourself, “Who cares?” If the answer isn’t obvious, start again.

Figure focus

3bn video views take place on YouTube every day, the site claims

43% of the world’s 200 billion monthly online video views occur on YouTube, according to ComScore

1.3% of the world’s online video views are on Facebook, according to ComScore

78m people watched Google’s videos for its Chrome browser, in 2011, the most watched of any Fortune 500 company

23% of teenagers say they are now watching less TV, Ofcom research shows

81% of smartphone owners keep their handset or tablet PC switched on at all times, according to Ofcom


Fiona Low
Head of digital and social media, Virgin Media

Social networks have changed the face of viral marketing. With a click of Facebook’s ‘like’ button, sharing has become a broadcast activity. Our campaign featuring sprinter Usain Bolt impersonating [Virgin founder] Richard Branson is a great example of creating interesting content to launch and amplify a campaign.

To ignite the conversation, we dedicated primetime TV slots to drive audiences to Facebook. Also, Bolt hijacked Branson’s Twitter account for a day, strengthening the social effect.

Within two weeks, we were at 120 times the Facebook reach we had prior to the campaign. The key to success is making your content funny, provocative or portray your brand in a different light, then people will want to engage with it.

Jacylin Goh-Ng
Product manager, Energizer

Energizer is a household name, but the battery category is not very exciting, so we are challenged with finding ways to engage consumers.
Our recent campaign to raise money for Help for Heroes centred on our new communication platform of “that positive energy”, which believes consumers want both performance and responsibility.

Through the viral video element, developed by our media agency MEC, we were able to engage consumers with Energizer and take the brand outside of the battery industry and build a relationship with customers based on passion.

I think a lot more brands will align themselves with charities that complement their brand values, as they look to create viral content that connects emotionally with consumers.

Julian Diment
Director of brand and marketing, Carphone Warehouse

Brands can trick themselves into thinking they’ve got a good social media following when they haven’t. It’s all too easy to offer competition prizes and then sit back and watch Facebook ‘likes’ go up and confuse that with people wanting to engage with them.

That is the beauty of viral videos. When people watch your content and choose to ‘like’ it, you have entertained and engaged with them – they want to find out more about you and see more content in the future.

Viral videos will be used more by brands that want a meaningful dialogue with advocates online, not just fool themselves that competition entrants really ‘like’ them.