One of the biggest mistakes that skilled, well-intentioned marketers make when creating viral videos is to employ the traditional storytelling methods of television and film. But the Internet isn’t about story, it’s about sideshow.
Viral video is the 21st century sideshow.
Think about it. The most popular videos on YouTube range from the bizarre to the beautiful, and are gritty, weird, wonderful, bold, daring and often unabashedly strange. Whether highly crafted, or spontaneously captured, viral videos give their audience something to gawk at and that same audience will click away the second you lose their interest or waste their time.
Although there are some notable narrative viral videos (they usually involve celebrities), storytelling is a generally a hindrance rather than a help. It wastes valuable time, and distances the viewer from the immediacy and the emotion, making them a whole lot less likely to share your video.
So when creating your content, give us your unforgettable hook and then deliver on it right away. Forget about story. Focus on sideshow.
TNT Benelux (Belgium/Netherlands/Luxembourg) hit it big with A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square (43 million views), which was a featured case study in The Viral Video Manifesto and our pick for the best branded viral video of 2012. Now, TNT Benelux is back with A Dramatic Surprise on an Ice-Cold Day, and unfortunately, it misses the mark in a few important ways. While it still has many things going for it, and it’s generated 6.8 million views, it fails to capture what was so special about its predecessor.
Here are the two videos:
An Ice-Cold Day makes many of the same mistakes T-Mobile made with The T-Mobile Welcome Back (13 million views). Although Welcome Back also had its strengths, it failed to score as high as their previous effort, The T-Mobile Dance (37 million views), because of over-production and subtle aggression toward passersby. For an in-depth case study of The T-Mobile Welcome Back, check out our book, The Viral Video Manifesto.
Now, let’s look at how An Ice-Cold Day compares to A Quiet Square on the four rules.
Rule One: Be True.
Like A Quiet Square, this video is classic Candid Camera. Both videos stage an elaborate scenario to, ideally, delight the people who wander into their traps. While both videos are a bit overproduced, A Quiet Square has fewer camera angles that feel more like hidden cameras, whereas An Ice-Cold Day has cameras that zoom around and make this feel more like a TV commercial. For viral video, simpler is better.
An Ice-Cold Day also has many video effects, like slow-motion and blurred circular frames (as if we’re looking through a gunsight), that, again, makes this more produced and less true. Key to the success of A Quiet Square was that it was TV drama stereotypes recreated in real life with a filming style that remained (mostly) true and unobtrusive. An Ice-Cold Day has TV drama stereotypes seen through a filter of…TV production stereotypes. This overproduction distances us from the action and makes it less involving and consequently less contagious.
Rule Two: Don’t Waste My Time.
No problems here. Like it’s predecessor, it has minimum set up, maximum payoff. It introduces the concept and gets right down to business.
Rule Three: Be Unforgettable.
Here, the video is directly competing with its predecessor. As with all sequels, the pressure is on to top what’s been done before. In general, An Ice-Cold Day is louder but not more satisfying. It has plenty of guns and explosions, but more interesting are the clever twists like the guy descending on wires from above and an Elvis impersonator showing up, guns blazing. Those kinds of surprises are what make both videos unforgettable, and it would have helped if this video had delivered a few more of them.
Rule Four: It’s All About Humanity.
This is where the video falls short in an interesting way. Candid Camera-style videos are at their best when showing us joyful human reactions. It’s active, positive emotions, after all, that are most contagious. But this video is consistently more aggressive and less fun for the participants than the previous video. There’s an important rule in theater: if you get a volunteer up on stage, always treat him or her well. The audience sees the volunteer as their representative. If you are mean to your volunteer, it doesn’t build positive emotion and trust with your audience.
An Ice-Cold Day isn’t so nice to its volunteers.
Sometimes subtle, sometimes not, this is a pervasive and critical failing of the video. It begins by literally putting the volunteers in the crosshairs of a gunsight. That’s representative of the attitude throughout.
The first thing that happens after they choose yellow or blue is someone getting shot right next to them. In A Quiet Square, gunfire doesn’t erupt until 1:09, when everyone is ready for something like that, and even then, it’s less graphic and farther away.
Next, the volunteer is dragged into a van and driven away at top speed. Some people may be okay with that, but it’s a violent thing to do to someone. We wouldn’t blame someone for reacting quite violently in response, and the mere possibility of that violence erodes the trust between the video creators and the audience.
Quite simply, if we are worried about people’s safety, if they look scared, or if we’re wondering why they aren’t freaking out, we’re not smiling. And to get us sharing, you want to get us smiling. This video will make some people smile, but it makes us subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) uncomfortable.
The original video, A Quiet Square, has almost none of these concerns. It is far more considerate to people who press the button, which makes it more fun for people watching and, consequently, more contagious.
So in the end, while A Dramatic Surprise on an Ice-Cold Day has some great moments, its production techniques are more flashy TV-style and less simple Internet-style. That creates an emotional distance. Plus the video consistently has a more aggressive attitude toward the people who push the button. All of this, unfortunately, makes it less contagious than the original, A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square.
With fewer camera angles, simpler production values, and a more considerate attitude focused on bringing out joyful reactions from the people who push the button, A Dramatic Surprise on an Ice-Cold Day could have been a much bigger success.
Buzzfeed just posted a great article about the video Golden Eagle Snatches Kid (42 million views). Here’s our take on how this video got away with breaking the first rule of viral video: Be True.
Golden Eagle Snatches Kid is an unusual viral video because it’s fake. As we say in The Viral Video Manifesto, “Being true is a key part of forging a positive emotional connection with your audience, and that emotional connection helps make your video contagious.” So trying to fake us out is a dangerous game to play — and one that doesn’t work very often.
Fake videos apparently showing Kobe Bryant jumping over a moving car and David Beckham kicking soccer balls into trash cans from impossibly far away only mustered 5.2 million views and 1.8 million views, respectively, despite their impressive star power. The stunts looked fake, were unmasked as fakes, and once you know a video is fake, you’re not likely to share it. No one wants to look stupid in front of their friends by sharing something that’s fake.
So with 42 million views, Golden Eagle Snatches Kid has done exceptionally well for a fake.
Viral video is the twenty-first-century sideshow, and the sideshow does have a long tradition of trickery. But online, you’re trying to fake out the collective intelligence of the Internet. Sometimes, that may not seem like much of an obstacle, but the chances are very good that you’ll be found out, and found out quickly.
And indeed, Golden Eagle Snatches Kid was unmasked soon after it was posted. Certainly, when we first saw it, we thought, “that can’t be real.” A quick search turned up a lot of discussion that it must be fake, and soon after, it was clear: it was fake. Now the video’s YouTube description acknowledges that.
So what helped this unusual video go viral? Looking at how it scores on the four rules for contagious content from The Viral Video Manifesto, we find it does well on a couple of them.
On the first rule, Be True, obviously it strikes out. Although the game itself of, “Is it real or is it fake?” is compelling and jumpstarts many videos like this where it can be hard to know the answer at first glance, that game only works for a little while. Again, once a fake is revealed as a fake, the chances of sharing it with your friends go way down. The video does, however, do a good job of making you wonder, “Could this be real?”
On Rule Two: Don’t Waste My Time, the video does very well. At 59 seconds, it’s tight and efficient. It gives us minimum setup and maximum payoff: a few seconds of the eagle flying so we see what it is, and then bam – it swoops in for the grab. Eagle flies in, eagle grabs kid, guy runs over, kid is okay, slow-motion replay. And done. This is nothing but the money shots.
This video’s biggest strong point is Rule Three: Be Unforgettable. The image of a giant eagle grabbing a kid off the ground is unforgettable and taps into primal fears. And even when you know it’s a fake, it’s not like any other video out there. Whether you think it’s real or know it’s fake, this video definitely provokes the reaction, “I’ve never seen that before!” That’s a huge strength for going viral.
The video does fairly well on Rule Four: Ultimately, It’s All About Humanity. Shot in true viral style, in what looks like one unedited shot on a handheld camera, they did a great job of showing what look like real reactions, from “Oh, shit!” to the baby crying. Although they’re acting, which is a viral video sin (see Rule One: Be True), the reactions are engaging.
In the end, this is a rare exception, a fake video that took off online. It is helped by not being an ad like the Beckham/Pepsi stunt, but instead was made by students. Even when you know it’s a fake, you have to give the students at Centre NAD in Montreal props for making something so memorable.
Despite the success of this video, it’s still a better bet not to try to fake out the Internet. Most viral videos spread because of active, positive emotions like laughter and amazement, and feeling tricked shuts that down.
What is different won’t necessarily catch on, but what will catch on is necessarily different. And this is different.
The latest example of viral video as the 21st century sideshow is the Harlem Shake. This meme has gone wild these last couple of weeks. It began with a bizarre video from Dizasta Music (11 million views) but a second video from TheSunnyCoastSkate (12 million views) gave the craze shape:
Now tens of thousands of people have followed the same simple formula:
• With a single, fixed camera, shoot a 30-second video to the song “Harlem Shake” by Baauer.
• For the first fifteen seconds, one person dances, perhaps wearing a strange helmet or mask, surrounded by other, seemingly disinterested people.
• At the fifteen second mark, the music kicks up and chaos ensues with a cut to everyone wearing wild costumes and going crazy dancing.
As of Valentine’s Day, YouTube reported that there were about 40,000 Harlem Shake videos, with more being posted every day. And altogether, they’ve been viewed over 175 million times.
They range from the Matt and Kim Edition
(7.7 million views):
To the UGA Men’s Swim and Dive Harlem Shake
(19.2 million views):
And even the Norwegian Army got involved (18 million views):
What makes this phenomenon so contagious?
First, it’s a simple, effective formula, so it’s easy for people to join in and make their own. Second, it scores very well on all four of our rules for creating viral videos. Let’s break that down.
Rule One: Be True. High marks here. Each of these videos is documenting a real event with a single, fixed camera and only one edit. That’s sticking to simple, strong Internet production techniques that keep it true and make it contagious.
Rule Two: Don’t Waste My Time. Yes, some may argue that the whole phenomenon is a waste of time. But all these videos are quick and get right down to business. The same dancing would wear thin if the videos were even a minute long, but at thirty seconds, they are great bite-sized videos that you (or your kids) can devour like candy.
Rule Three: Be Unforgettable. Again, contagious content has to be different, and this phenomenon is exactly that. It’s downright bizarre.
Rule Four: It’s All About Humanity. Great marks here as well, and this rule is crucial to the success of the phenomenon. Each video gives us a glimpse of who these people are. It’s a chance to express yourself. What’s your crazy costume? What’s your silly dance? This formula, like Where the Hell is Matt? 2008 (45 million views), gives a simple way to see how different people make the same idea their own and reveal something of themselves in the process. The humanity revealed is what makes it fun to see the Grandma Edition (4.1 million views) or the Maker Studios Office Edition (16.8 million views).
Following Maker Studios lead, a few brands have made Harlem Shake videos, with companies like Buzzfeed (800,000 views) and College Humor (2.6 million views) making their own office editions.
Most interestingly, Pepsi has posted two Harlem Shake videos:*
The first is a computer-generated can dancing and lacks all the truth and humanity of the phenomenon. It tries to exploit a popular meme for a blatant commercial. That’s simply not contagious.
The second video, on the other hand, stays true to the formula. It’s the Jeff Gordon Edition, and there’s blatant branding, but it’s much stronger. It trusts the truth and just points the camera at people dancing. One minor quibble: there are two puzzling video effects thrown in at 0:20 and 0:21 where the video shakes and flashes. That is a strange departure from the simple, low-tech formula and they don’t gain anything by using the effects. But overall, this second video does a good job of staying true and embracing the phenomenon.
How are these two videos doing? As of this writing, the first, overly-branded, CG video has 136,822 views and the second video that sticks more to the true formula has 1.9 million views. That makes sense: the second is much better for the Internet. It’s much more contagious.
What’s next for the phenomenon? The tricky thing with a craze like this is seeing how fast it wears out its welcome. What was unforgettable a week ago can now be old news and annoying. But this craze may last a bit longer, so long as people keep coming up with fresh variations like these:
Puppy Edition, 1.7 million views
Dryer Edition, 1.9 million views**
*Since this blog entry was posted, Pepsi has removed their computer-generated Harlem Shake video from YouTube, most likely due to its low number of views. Sorry to those of you who won’t get to see it, but it’s removal underlines a crucial point about branding which we often make here on ViralVideoManifesto.com: when it comes to product shots in a viral video, don’t overdo it! If people think of your video as just another commercial, they won’t share it.
**Looks like the Dryer Edition, with several million views, ran into some copyright issues and was also taken down. Here is what seems to be the original posting:
An interesting note on the copyright issue: the viral video that we first posted was taken down due to a copyright claim by YouTuber RediLataj, who seems to have combined footage from YouTuber Photonvids with music by Baauer. The combination is brilliant, but where does the copyright claim actually lie?
Last month, it was a real treat to speak at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, CA about “The Viral Video Manifesto”. We talked about why the old tools and techniques of film & TV don’t work online and why a fresh new perspective is needed when creating videos designed to go viral. We also outlined our 4 Rules for creating contagious content, took a close look at last month’s viral sensation “Drive Through Invisible Driver Prank”, and fielded questions from curious YouTube staff about what works and what doesn’t in the world of viral video. Click the video to watch the full presentation!