11/07/2014 05:12 EST | Updated 01/07/2015 05:59 EST

How 'Organic' Viral Videos Are Really Created

A variety of paid, earned and owned media tactics are employed to boost awareness. But, it's paid promotion that really gets the ball rolling. After the right influencers are on board, and with paid ads running to promote the video, people start (ideally) taking notice.

I recently read an article in Entrepreneur that commented on marketing campaigns going viral. Specifically, it was referring to video campaigns that had attracted a lot of attention. In the piece, the author asserts the following: "Social media is also [sic] a great equalizer: Any company can cut through the clutter, regardless of brand awareness or marketing budget. All it takes is a clever idea and skillful execution."

He then goes on to list 10 campaigns, almost all attached to high-profile brands such as Dove or Chipotle.

I would argue his statement isn't true, and for one simple reason -- viral videos, particularly when created by a brand, don't become viral organically. Rather, there are a number of tactics employed behind-the-scenes that catapult them into popularity, using a combination of paid, earned and owned media.

To be fair to the author of the quoted article, the argument isn't that these videos became viral organically, but that the right content recipe is the real driver behind these videos popularity. And to some extent this is true -- great content is critical, but a great video alone won't achieve viral status.

The belief that videos go viral organically, as if hitting publish is enough, is misguided. Simply making a great video won't get you the awareness you so strongly desire. It has to be promoted adequately. And, seeing as organic reach is declining on social media, paid promotion is increasingly an essential part of the equation. Ultimately, viral videos achieve this status via a number of different tactics working in conjunction with one another.

The key ingredients and effort required are important to keep in mind when considering the potential virality of a video in any marketing strategy. Because you want to be educated and strategic -- not hopeful, unrealistic, or worse -- disappointed.

Brands throw money behind the videos

If you look at any brand videos that have gone viral, it's obvious that these weren't cheap campaigns (in other words, marketing budget does matter). Last year's WestJet Christmas Miracle video, for example, had some obvious costs behind it: production, buying people gifts, the involvement of 175 staff, the effort required to obtain corporate sponsors like Under Armour, etc. Furthermore, you can bet that they threw quite a bit of money behind paid advertising to promote the video (though they won't disclose how much).

The point is, these types of videos have advertising budget behind them. According to SuperCool Creative, it's actually a lot like paying for a TV spot, radio airtime or billboards - awareness comes with a price tag.

Outreach isn't free, either

There is an entire industry around paying influencers to promote content, and it's thriving for video marketing. This isn't necessarily new - buying links, paying for brand mentions, and so on has been around for a while. But, with the rise of social media celebrities, it's becoming even more prominent, and brands are taking advantage of it.

And it's not just happening on YouTube. Star users on platforms like Vine and Instagram are using their audiences as currency, leveraging their networks to make money from brands that are willing to pay them to promote content, products, or even feature in branded videos. There are also companies whose sole purpose is to help these users monetize. Breakr, for example, looks to leverage the "teen social media machine" and takes a percentage of what social media influencers are paid (though, they have recently come under a bit of heat for allegedly claiming their involvement in a viral meme they weren't actually behind).

Brands are paying for support to make their videos go viral. They are reaching out to bloggers, writers, influencers and social media celebrities and offering them money to share and promote their content. There are even intermediary companies (such as Thinkmodo or The Viral Factory) who do this outreach for brands, paying people to blog and embed, sending videos out to email lists, creating forum threads and posting the videos on them, etc. There's nothing wrong with this, but these are not organic tactics.

When Videos Go Viral

All of this isn't to say that viral videos don't have an organic element to them. As mentioned above, a variety of paid, earned and owned media tactics are employed to boost awareness. But, it's paid promotion that really gets the ball rolling. After the right influencers are on board, and with paid ads running to promote the video, people start (ideally) taking notice. If the content is great - high quality, funny, inspiring, clever, interesting, etc. - people are more likely to share with their networks. That's when the organic growth of the video really takes off, and it becomes viral.

Ultimately, claiming that any brand who creates great video content -- regardless of brand awareness or marketing budget -- can create a viral hit is misinformed. Sure, videos can go viral organically, but more often than not, they don't. It's the behind the scenes maneuvering, paid advertising and outreach strategy that truly gets the ball rolling.


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