Online Virals: The Ripple Effect

By Ashwini Gangal and Satrajt Sen , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Digital | November 27, 2013
It takes just one click for a brand to travel miles and reach people. Virals have given marketers a perfect platform to create ripples.

If we were to make an argument in favour of modern day magic, we'd say it's hidden somewhere in the exact moment when someone views a video online and decides to click on 'share'. Multiply this action by any seven-digit number, and we have highly contagious content - 'a viral'. But, unlike magic, this is no illusion or sleight of hand - it is for real.

Viral Videos

The concept of virals and sharing content has been around for years. What is new is that, in the recent past, many brands have created online video content that has reached millions of people in a short span of time. These are either specially branded films created for the internet alone, modified extensions of TVCs or TVCs that have found their own calling on the digital medium.

Among the many examples are Aircel's Joy of Little Extra, an online film featuring MS Dhoni, Cadbury Bournville's Not So Sweet mall activation video, Google Chrome's Tanjore Paintings film, L'Oreal's Jad se Judein video, Maybelline's crowd-sourced Baby Lips song, and the Abused Goddesses images (campaign against domestic violence). And this list is far from exhaustive.

However, for every successful branded viral, there may be 100 marketers still standing on the sidelines, wondering what they can do to get consumers to flex a muscle and hit 'share'. We look at both, the science of shareability and some hygiene factors that make a piece of branded content 'viral-able'.

The 'shareability' phenomenon

Rajiv Dhingra

A decade back, sharing something online meant five clicks to email it to, say, 40 friends in one go. Today, with videos being hosted on multiple platforms beyond brands' company pages, those five clicks could take the material to five million people. Brands now create films for online consumption alone, to fetch eyeballs. It is the marketers' reliance on these online films that is noteworthy. And they do this with good reason. Digital sharing is redefining the word 'reach'.

Another change is the type of content that goes into online films. Until a few years back, many branded virals that made news were animated. For example, Airtel's entertaining Ali Baba Chalis Chor video and MakeMyTrip's cute Chidiya Udi video. Today, however, a lot of 'traditional content' makes it to a branded viral. A shorter, or perhaps tamer, version of this viral content is what TVCs are typically made of.

Ever since online sharing evolved into the powerful tool it is today, people have wondered about the secret. According to research conducted by New York Times' Customer Insight Group, the psychological motivations of sharing branded content online range from the need to be valuable/entertaining to others, to the need to better one's social image. Sharing also acts as 'information management'; 73 per cent of the respondents said they process information more deeply, thoroughly and thoughtfully when they share it.

The study categorises 'sharers' into one of six personas: Altruists, who share to help people, Careerists, who share things related to business interests, Hipsters, those who share content for creative expression, Boomerangs, people who share for social validation (and assign a lot of importance to others' reactions to what they share), Connectors, for whom sharing is a means to an end (such as enhancing their interpersonal relationships), and Selectives, those who share in a customised manner, after analysing how relevant the material is to the target recipients.

A good viral is one that appeals to all six types. The Cadbury Gorilla viral (video of a giant gorilla playing the drums, Britain, '07) had a great deal of inherent Hipster appeal and Spain's ANAR Foundation's viral (about an outdoor ad with a message for abused children, visible only from the child's vantage point) banked on Altruist appeal.

Defining 'virality'

Another approach is to look at the kind of content that makes a piece of work shareable. Trying to replicate virality by imitating another brand's approach never works. Every brand needs to find its "own runaway fluke", as some experts put it. We tried to put together some basics that might help brands reduce dependence on luck.

Meghana Bhat

From a content perspective, a viral should be like a TVC, but on steroids. Meghana Bhat, executive creative director, Webchutney, a digital agency, says, "The common theme across virals tends to be the 'extreme' nature of the content." Keeping this basic rule in mind, the first tenet is emotionality and intensity.

Videos that tug at the heartstrings have a higher propensity of going viral. Released from New York this year, British Airways' tearjerker of a viral, Visit Mum, is a case in point, as is Lifebuoy's Gondappa film that highlighted both, the perils of diarrhea and urban insensitivity to the same.

"In India, relationship-led videos tend to get shared more, compared to gimmick-led ones. We're a collective society, not a self-centered, individualistic one," says Harshil Karia, co-founder, FoxyMoron. Virals like Adobe's bus-stop prank, which involved capturing unsuspecting people on camera, probably fetched far more online shares from non-Indian netizens, than local surfers.

Videos that make viewers laugh till they cry are also safe bets, as humour is another element with inherent virality. "Humour and the ridiculous are good bets," says Carlton D'Silva, chief creative officer, Hungama Digital Media, highlighting how humour alone is not enough.

Consider Blendtec's Will It Blend? viral (US, '06): there is no arguing with the fact that crushing an iPad in a cooking blender is a ridiculous yet effective product demo. Released this year, an online promotional video titled Girls Don't Poop for US-based toilet deodoriser brand Poo Pourrie went viral within days, on the back of its hilarity and shockingly clean imagery.

Hareesh Tibrewala

Shock value is what Nimesh Shah, head, Windchimes Communications, puts at the top of his must-haves for virals. One that ranks high on this parameter is LG's toilet prank (Amsterdam, '13), where videos of beautiful women appear on screens in front while the urinals are being used!

Shah says that sharing, unlike merely liking something, is like an endorsement. So, to get people to put it up on their online profiles, the video must also work hard to resonate with people and represent them in some way. "Remember, videos are not viral. It's the people who make them viral," he says. As Hareesh Tibrewala, joint CEO, Social Wavelength, puts it, "It's never brand loyalty that makes one share branded content online; it's loyalty to one's friends."

As Rajesh Lalwani, founder and principal, Blogworks, a brand consultancy, puts it, "The common thread in virals is an exaggerated sense of involvement." For instance, Dove's Real Beauty Sketches video (US '13), that garnered global appeal in a matter of days, addressed the issue of appearance-related self-esteem, something women can relate to. He points out that sharing is about gaining 'social capital' or 'social currency'. "When you share a funny video, you appear to have a good grasp on humour; when you share a video that's about helping others, you look like you have a sense of goodwill," he explains. Speaking of goodwill, videos that are hinged on a cause also tend to have high shareability. Garnier's widely shared viral campaign PowerLight A Village translated online shares into actual energy donations in Indian villages.

Repeat value and more

Many experts say music is an absolute must for a viral and that dialogues are best left for TVCs. "Music or dance moves help because besides being entertaining, they lend the video 'repeatability'," explains Rajiv Dingra, founder and CEO, WATConsult, a digital and social media agency. "I should be able to make a 'my version' of the video, put a bit of me in it and then share it. That's why the song or dance moves should be easy to imitate, like Gangnam Style's hopping dance," he adds. Vodafone's online video with the squatting step, he says, is a poor example because the choreography is too difficult to imitate. In fact, Tata Docomo's recent Dinkachika TVC was inspired by an actual viral - a home video of a kid dancing to the same song.

Rajesh Lalwani

We just can't get enough of the things we like. Thus, online videos of the 'Making of the ad' or 'Behind the scenes' variety tend to become popular. Of course, the presupposition here is that the original ad is a hit or the brand is a popular one. Add scandalous content to such videos and the probability of virality increases.

An example is Fiat's viral (US, '13) that gave people a peek into the making of its popular print ad in which 12 near-nude women, in body paint, adopt a synchronised pose such that the final picture resembles the car. Don't look further than this year's Ford Figo ads to conclude that scandalous content spreads like wildfire.

If Evian's roller-skate babies (France '09) and closer to home Kit-Kat's dancing babies are anything to go by, then one might add 'bizarre cuteness' to the list. "Kids give a kind of 'legitimacy' to videos and help them go viral," says Windchimes' Shah.

Timing is yet another catalyst to virality. Recall Oreo's opportunistic tweet You Can Still Dunk In The Dark (with an image of the product) during this year's Super Bowl blackout that took the brand's digital footprint to a whole new level.

Platform matters

While it's obviously the creativity quotient that helps a video cross a certain threshold and develop a digital life of its own, the platform on which it is shared also impacts virality. Typically, brands use YouTube as the publishing platform, and Facebook as the primary referral medium, with Twitter and probably Pinterest as secondary mediums. Videos are also hosted on Vimeo, especially if the content is high-definition.


Webchutney's Bhat highlights some usage differences, "We've seen that people tend to watch less video directly on Facebook. Also, pictures don't get as much traction on Twitter as they do on Facebook, but this is probably unique to India." However, Twitter has now made it possible to view photos and videos in the Tweet-feed itself, unlike earlier.

While Facebook is considered very conducive to sharing, because of its easily visible 'share' buttons, some experts believe, using it as a video hosting service limits virality. Here's why: Facebook videos can't be embedded on a blog post or a news mention, but YouTube videos can. And YouTube videos get special placement in Google searches. So while Facebook is conducive to sharing, the content tends to live only within the network's walls.

FoxyMoron's Karia urges brands to be on the lookout for "algorithm changes" on different platforms. "In the early days, YouTube would favour organic (unpaid) views to be delivered to all channels. At present, though, when it comes to featured or related videos, its algorithm favours content posted by its content partners," explains Karia.

Similarly, Facebook presently harbours an agenda to promote views on Facebook-uploaded videos; therefore, its algorithm rewards Facebook videos more than YouTube video links shared on the network.

Of course, one can't ignore the push that paid media can give a viral. On Facebook, through an organic plan, only 16 per cent of a brand's fan-base will receive branded content through newsfeed. On YouTube too, a paid media plan can help basic 'discoverability' of a video. Experts call this 'social seeding'.

Despite having these basic rules in mind, it is still early days to claim that the formula for making successful virals is ready with marketers. Virality still remains an elusive and somewhat intangible force, much like comic timing - you either have it or you don't. Marketers are still tempted to draw on non-branded success stories like Harlem Shake, for tips.

However, we can be sure of one thing: as time passes, the approach to virality will become more scientific and fewer digital agencies will receive marketing briefs that go, "Mujhe mere brand ke liye ek Kolaveri Di chahiye."

A Note From the Consulting Editor

Word of mouth went cyber quite some years ago. People who had, at first, begun by chatting their way across continents with the flick of a finger, discovered other ways of sharing momentous - and the not so momentous - occasions with friends. The latter, in turn, passed on this info to even more people, if they found it interesting enough.

Brands gradually caught on to this factor, which was immediately dubbed 'shareability'. "What" brand managers and marketers started asking themselves, "if people started sharing our brand's videos as passionately as they did their own videos and visuals?" The question that followed was: "How can this be achieved?"

In recent times, much time and thought has gone into a digital strategy whose cornerstone was a viral video. Almost everyone happily considered the mouth-watering prospect of grabbing millions of eyeballs at the click of a mouse.

When it comes to online sharing, every brand marketer hopes that his is the brand that goes viral with a vengeance. His is the brand that races ahead touching millions - if not billions - of prospective consumers leaving the 'other' brand miles behind. And, for that, he (or she) is willing to deploy funds, seek creative advice and hire digital experts.

Films, for instance, are now made not with just the television commercial in mind. Brand messages are planned in such a way that they ensure maximum sharing or what is traditionally called reach. Entire teams put their heads together to weave a message that appeals to every possible type of consumer.

What makes people share makes for a fascinating subject. Marketers would gladly give an arm and a leg - and some money too - if someone can guarantee success. That is where the catch is. During the course of this fortnight's cover story, we discovered many new things along with the fact that getting the mix that ensures enthusiastic online sharing is still an unpredictable science.

While marketers are dreaming about that big click that will propel their brand into cyberspace immortality, they are also working hard to achieve that.


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