Brand Challenge: Is There a ‘Recipe’ for Going Viral?

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It’s every marketer’s dream to see a campaign go viral. However, earning the engagement of a passionate audience can be difficult for many brands, and viral successes like Volvo’s “Epic Split” campaign featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme can be hard — if not impossible — to replicate. For brands looking to get an audience’s attention, is there a recipe for success? According to Kelli Wisuri, an evangelist at Google, and Gopi Kallayil, the firm’s chief evangelist for brand marketing, there is a simple answer to that question: “Brands that meet consumers on their own terms succeed in getting greater reach and engagement.” In the following opinion piece, Wisuri and Kallayil explain why that’s so. 

Psy was a completely unknown Korean pop star until the summer of 2012, when he released his smash hit single, “Gangnam Style.” Since then, the music video has shattered all records by becoming the single most watched video of all time, reaching more than two billion views in May 2014. 

Two billion is a huge number. There are more than two billion people on the entire planet with access to the Internet, so it’s the equivalent of every person on the Internet having watched this video once. 

Whether you find Gangnam Style endearing or annoying, the reach of Psy’s video is a unique accomplishment in the history of humanity — and it’s not just rock stars like Psy and Justin Bieber who are achieving such astronomical numbers. Home videos like “Charlie Bit Me” have earned hundreds of millions of views. Video game commentators accumulate tens of millions of followers and billions of views. Even brand marketers are getting in on the action. 

Last year, Volvo’s “Epic Split” campaign featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme racked up almost 75 million views. Meanwhile, the season finale of Game of Thrones, HBO’s most popular show of all time, had a total viewership of just 18.6 million.  

Virgin Airline’s cheeky flight safety announcement video has been viewed 10 million times on YouTube, a feat that doesn’t sound impressive until you realize that all 10 million views happened not while viewers were strapped in their seats on a plane, but while they were sitting on their couches at home. 

Every marketer hopes that their next campaign magically goes viral, but successes like Volvo’s and Virgin’s aren’t easy to replicate.

Every marketer wants an engaged, passionate audience. Every marketer hopes that their next campaign magically goes viral, but successes like Volvo’s and Virgin’s aren’t easy to replicate.

Which begs the question: If you are a brand trying to get your audience’s attention, is there a recipe for success?  

While there’s no magic formula, there is a simple answer: Brands that meet consumers on their own terms succeed in getting greater reach and engagement.  Twitter In our experience, there are three fundamental changes in consumer expectations that digitally savvy brands understand.  

By Invitation Only

The first change in consumer expectations is that consumers want to engage with brands, but only when they invite those brands into their life. The relationship between brands and consumers is becoming more intimate as brands get physically closer to the consumer. When a consumer experiences a brand’s ad on TV, that brand’s message is 15 feet or so away. On a desktop computer, the same message is three feet away from the consumer. On a laptop, the distance shrinks to a foot or two; the brand often literally sits on the consumer’s lap. And on a mobile phone, a brand’s message is inches from the consumer’s eyeball. It’s a very personal and intimate space, so it’s no surprise that consumers are saying to brands, “Do not market to me unless I invite you in!”

Digital media is quickly moving us from a world of ambush marketing to permission-based marketing. Twitter  In the traditional model of brand marketing, advertisers waited for the pivotal moment in the big game or series finale to ambush consumers with their brand message, and consumers paid attention because they had no choice — if they wanted to see the rest of the game or TV show, they had to sit through the commercial break. 

But in the digital world, consumers have increasing control over the media they consume. Every consumer is armed with a powerful new gesture called the “swipe.” If consumers don’t like a brand’s content or ad, with a flick of the finger, they can simply swipe it away into oblivion. And this behavior isn’t limited to the digital world. Consumers may not be able to “swipe” away a boring TV commercial, but they can turn their attention elsewhere, checking Facebook on their phone or watching YouTube videos on their second screen.

So what are savvy brands doing to thrive in this world of permission-based marketing? They’re acquiring permissions from consumers. 

Starbucks, one of the world’s savviest digital marketers, acquires permissions in two ways. First, they’ve grown their social communities to include more than 50 million members. That’s 50 million people who have raised their hand on Facebook or Instagram or YouTube, and said, “Starbucks, I like you as a brand. I give you permission to come into my life and communicate with me.”

Another way Starbucks takes advantage of permission-based marketing is through their mobile app. The app, which allows customers to order and pay for their lattes without waiting in line, is the most used mobile wallet app in America, beating out even PayPal. Starbucks’ app is a great way for the brand to engage with its audience, but to do so, customers must first invite the brand into their lives by downloading the mobile app.  

Every brand seeking to build a strong online presence should ask first ask themselves, “Do we have a strategy to gain permissions from consumers?” 

Here We Are – Now, Entertain Us

Just because consumers invite a brand into their life doesn’t guarantee they’ll give the brand their attention. Consumers only pay attention to a fraction of the countless messages they receive from brands via email or Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest. Why? Because a consumer’s attention can’t possibly encompass the thousands of brand communications they’re exposed to each day

Consumers want to engage with brands, but only when they invite those brands into their life.

So what do brands need to do to earn consumer attention? The answer is simple: brands must provide value to consumers through their content, ads and campaigns. The most successful brands recognize that for consumers, value comes in three forms — entertainment, education, and utility.

Entertainment 

Volvo’s wildly successful 2013 “Epic Split” YouTube campaign was so good at earning consumer attention that it received almost 75 million views. How did Volvo do it? After all, they’re advertising a highly technical B2B product, and the Volvo brand — which stands for safety and precision — doesn’t obviously lend itself to a viral hit.

Volvo hit the attention jackpot by applying an age-old advertising rule to the new world of digital brand marketing: Entertain, and they will come. And amplify your message like crazy. 

Volvo created this gripping piece of content by taking advantage of the unique capabilities of the digital platform. The brand and their agency started by creating eleven roughly produced versions of their creative and publishing them to YouTube. Why? Volvo wanted to get real-time audience feedback to see which piece of content resonated best before investing large amounts of money in distribution. Data from YouTube revealed that Live Test 6 — the spot featuring Van Damme doing the splits — drove the most views, shares and buzz, so Volvo backed the campaign with additional paid media support to fuel its success.   

Volvo’s novel, clever use of entertainment on the digital platform not only hit the attention sweet spot but also drove bottom line business results. One month after launching the campaign, Volvo announced a 31% increase in truck sales.

Education 

Clinique faced a problem that’s all too familiar to most retail brands — diminishing traffic to their physical stores. How could Clinique educate customers about their products if they never visited Clinique’s makeup counters? 

Clinique turned to digital media to solve the problem. The brand invited 10 beauty bloggers to join them in a live, online video chat with Julia Cox, a Clinique beauty expert. During the Hangout, participants had the opportunity to ask Julia questions they might typically ask at a makeup counter.

Viewers willingly tuned in, devoting more than 15 minutes of their attention, because Clinique provided their audience with value in the form of education. 

But what’s even more interesting is what Clinique did to scale this content on the digital platform. They took the Hangout footage, sliced it into 10-15 second pieces of content, and then ran that content as permission-based, opt-in video ads. And guess what?

Because those ads were educational and authentic, they received 16 times higher view-through rate and ten times higher click-through rate than official product ads advertising the same exact product feature. Here Clinique hit two birds with one stone — permission-based advertising, and value through education — to drive real impact.

Utility 

Toyota recognized that the car-buying process intimidates and confuses many people, especially Millennials. So they decided to put consumers back in control of the process by re-imagining the buying experience online. 

The result, called the Toyota Collaborator, allows consumers to collaborate with friends online to build the car of their dreams, share their dream car on social networks, and most important, video chat with a local dealer to get their questions answered. Consumers can even take the car they’ve created on a virtual test drive using Google Street View. 

The Toyota Collaborator takes advantage of digital technology to solve some of the most stressful parts of buying a car: exploring features, consulting with friends or family, and making decisions — all in a high-pressured sales environment. 

As a result of the campaign, the time consumers spend on Toyota’s site has increased dramatically, and local dealers are clamoring to join the Collaborator pilot

If consumers don’t like a brand’s content or ad, with a flick of the finger, they can simply swipe it away into oblivion.

The Collaborator is a brilliant and successful piece of marketing, because it’s useful to consumers. By educating, or entertaining, or providing utility brands such as Toyota, Clinique and Volvo are earning the attention of large audiences and driving real business results. 

Brands Ignite, Customers Amplify

In the digital world, consumers understand they have power to impact a brand’s success and reputation. If a brand delights consumers, they’re willing to amplify the brand’s message. 

Ziploc is a utilitarian product that’s a staple of almost every household in America. It’s a useful product, but not the type of product you’d expect consumers to engage with and talk about online. And yet, a search for “Ziploc bag” on YouTube yields more than 16,000 videos, and not a single one of those videos was made by the brand itself. Instead, all 16,000-plus videos were made by consumers talking about the Ziploc brand. You can find videos demonstrating how to make ice cream and omelets using Ziploc bags, videos reviewing the product, and even videos that use Ziploc bags as a hook for entertainment. 

Consumer-generated content like this is brand amplification, and it’s a tool consumers use not only to reward brands that delight them, but to punish brands that disappoint them (as Comcast recently discovered when a disastrous customer service call went viral). 

So what are savvy brands doing? They’re harnessing the positive power of amplification (and minimizing the negative) by actively encouraging consumers to get involved. 

GoPro encourages its customers to upload user-generated content online. As a result, customers post approximately six thousand videos per day on YouTube with the word GoPro in its title or description. GoPro rewards customers for their participation by curating and redistributing customers “best of” UGC on their YouTube channel. The brand’s digital marketing prowess and deep understanding of consumer behavior online has helped GoPro become the fastest-growing camera company in the world.  

The Ultimatum

In the digital world, consumers don’t want to be ambushed by advertising; instead, they expect brands to advertise to them only when they grant brands permission to do so. Consumers expect brands to deliver something valuable in their messaging, whether its entertainment, education, or utility. And lastly, consumers know they have the power to amplify a brand’s message, and they expect to actively participate in doing so.  

The message is clear — to be successful in the digital era, brands must listen to the demands of their consumers when marketing to them: “Meet our expectations, or become irrelevant.”

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