EXCLUSIVE: What Staged Viral Videos Can Teach You About Marketing

Like 16 million other viewers, I found this video of the “worst twerk fail ever” hilarious and extremely entertaining, so of course I clicked the share button. What I didn’t realize, however, was that the video was faked – or staged, rather, by Jimmy Kimmel. Chances are you remember this video, but you probably didn’t realize that the video was uploaded to a “sock account” without any promotion from Jimmy Kimmel whatsoever.

In other words, out of the 100+ hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute, this 30 second clip cut through the clutter and went viral on its own. Without any media push, tweets, or similar publicity, the video became the biggest viral hit of the year.

Has Jimmy Kimmel discovered the truth behind the nature of viral videos?

If so, he isn’t the only one. In fact, there’s a host of viral videos similar to “Twerk Fail” that are actually staged. Similarly, many of these viral campaigns were created without any corporate push or publicity.

You’ve probably read or heard about the “secret” of viral and sharable content, but why not learn from those who have actually done it?

Lesson 1: Unexpectedness

The key for any viral content, whether it’s a video or blog post, is unexpectedness. Though this is the most important element, it’s also the most difficult to achieve. Whether staged or spontaneous, unexpectedness is what creates an emotional hook that attracts viewers.

Consider “Cat Lover’s” eHarmony pitch from 2011, which has since been viewed over 27 million times. At first, the video appears to be a normal introduction video of the young woman to attract potential suitors on the dating site. Within the first minute, however, the bio video gets cringe-worthy, as she emotionally reveals her deep affection for cats. Viewers were surely thinking, “Here’s a future ‘cat lady’ in the making.”

It turns out that the young girl trying to find a date online is actually an actress – and the video was staged. She has even appeared in a Volkswagen commercial for Super Bowl XLVII. Perhaps it was actress Cara Hartmann and eHarmony that got the final laugh.

Or consider the video “Pig rescues baby goat.” The internet is in love with cute animals, so this video was bound to get a handful of views, but it was the unexpectedness of a pig rescuing a drowning goat that made this video go viral. Viewers shared the video over 8 million times, amazed at what appeared to be a natural phenomena caught on film. It turns out, however, that the pig’s heroic rescue was staged by Comedy Central to promote its upcoming show Nathan for You. No animals were harmed in the making of the video.

Whether it’s video marketing or content marketing, social promotions or organic SEO, the primary ingredient to authentically viral content is unexpectedness. There will be no social community or tastemaker who will promote the content if it is completely expected and predictable.

It’s important to remember that unexpectedness doesn’t necessarily mean “shocking” or “surprising.” Rather, it’s simply the idea that something is “coming out of nowhere.” If creating unexpectedness is a challenge for your brand or your clients, then focus on creativity, which will result in a novel end product.

Lesson 2: Appealing to Tastemakers

No viral video achieves fame on its own. There is always a trail of tastemakers behind the scenes, sharing the video with their friends. Essentially, there are three types of tastemakers:

  1. Average Joe tastemakers. These are the individuals who are highly influential within their circle of friends. If they share something on Facebook or Twitter, people are going to click on it.
  1. Celebrity tastemakers. Since they’re already well known, celebrity tastemakers have much more influence than the average Joe. A push from the right celebrity could have everyone in a tizzy. Please note that the term ‘celebrity’ doesn’t necessarily mean Hollywood; rather, there are blogging, YouTube, and digital ‘celebrities’ that have just as much influence in the online world.
  1. Brand ambassadors. Since 92 percent of people trust recommendations from those closest to them, it’s vital to appeal to your most loyal customers and clients whenever creating content. If the content resonates with them, they’re more likely to share it and begin the process of virility.

Consider “Yosemitebear Mountain Double Rainbow,” which has over 39 million views to date. While this video isn’t “staged,” it’s the perfect example of the importance of a tastemaker. Double Rainbow was posted onto YouTube and remained dormant for many months, hardly getting a few thousand views. It wasn’t until Jimmy Kimmel tweeted the video to his then 90,000 Twitter followers. Less than a week later, the video skyrocketed to 4.8 million views and was the talking point of CBS and other news outlets.

Lesson 3: Becoming Contagious

To create content with viral potential, understand the science of why people share things online. In his book Contagious, Jonah Berger reveals 6 principles that define sharable – AKA potentially viral – content. They include:

  1. Social currency. Similar to money in the real world, people use social currency to look “cool” online. Consider LinkedIn, which sent an email to its most popular users, congratulating them for high profile views. Users then clicked the “share” button, which revealed the message, “Hurray! I have one of the top 1% most viewed @LinkedIn profiles…” People online want to feel like they have a status exclusive to them. If your content provides unique value, people will be proud to share it.
  1. Triggers. If you analyze the searches behind Rebecca Black’s viral Friday music video, you’d find that people searched for it the most on Fridays – of course! The idea is that “triggers” activate something in your mind to share content or revisit a website.
  1. Emotion. Whether content makes you laugh or cry, happy or angry, you’re more likely to share it if it resonates with you. This is why political posts tend to go viral closer to election time.
  1. Public. According to Jonah, if something is “built to show, it’s built to grow.”
  1. Practical value. People have short attention spans and don’t want waste their time. By providing practical value in your content, you increase the likelihood of people sharing it with their friends.
  1. Stories. If you were to dissect a conversation, the bulk of it would be made up of storytelling. Viral videos and articles naturally tell an engaging narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Unexpectedness, appealing to tastemakers, and becoming contagious are the three keys to virility. Does your video and content marketing incorporate these techniques and strategies for truly shareable content?

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Daniel Chioco is a writer living in Nashville, TN. He earned his Commercial Music degree at Belmont University, where he also studied creative writing and wrote for the student newspaper. When he isn't creating content, Daniel works as an actor and films YouTube videos. He is also a freelance musician and is authoring his first fantasy novel.

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