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Everyone wants a viral video

Viral video sensations regularly sweep the globe, but the chances of scoring a big international hit are almost zero. However, there are plenty of practical things your business can do with online video, writes Josh Mehlman.

Many small business owners see the prominent successes of a viral video – the Cadbury gorilla, the Carlton Draught ‘big ad’ or the Mark Ecko campaign featuring graffiti painted on Air Force One – and think, “Wow, I could do that and get millions of dollars worth of publicity free!”

They see the instant celebrity of Susan Boyle or Clare Weberloff, or perhaps Tom Dickson, star of the Blendtec ‘Will it blends?’ videos, and wonder if the same thing could work for them or their business.

Unfortunately, internet memes die out almost as quickly as they pop up, and online fame is fleeting – just ask the Star Wars kid or the Numa Numa guy. Who? Exactly. And if that doesn’t make you miserable, consider this: you have almost no chance of creating the next viral video hit.

“The things that go viral are either completely random, like Clare Weberloff, or highly produced, big-budget campaigns like Mark Ecko’s Air Force One video,” says Owen Lansbury, managing partner of website design and development consultancy PreviousNext. “Marc Ecko had a $1 million budget, which was admittedly smaller than what a conventional advertising campaign would have cost, but still out of the question for most small businesses.”

And here’s some more bad news: anyone who claims they can make a viral video is lying.
“You can’t make a viral video; I’ve often been asked to make them and I have to explain to the client that the ‘viral’ part is something that happens after the fact,” says producer and director Sheldon Gillett, founder of Giant Squid Films. “It’s like asking someone to write a hit song or TV show.

“You can design a video that’s clever, humorous, or impactful and doesn’t look too corporate, and hope it becomes popular. But you’ll shoot yourself in the foot trying to design a viral video.”

“If you spent $10,000 on a viral video campaign in the hope of getting a million views, unless you’ve got some absolutely amazing creative concept, you’re gambling with that money,” says Lansbury.

Some of the most successful viral videos have turned out to be faked, causing an instantaneous backlash against the companies behind them. Fashion label Witchery had to pull its ‘man in the jacket’ video campaign the same day it launched after marketing bloggers revealed it to be a fake.

“If you are faking it, the campaign’s success is limited to how long you can pull it off for.”

“People are much more aware of viral campaigns now and wary of being duped into believing something that isn’t authentic,” says Lansbury. “Each case of that happening strengthens people’s resistance to being engaged by those campaigns.

“If you are faking it, the campaign’s success is limited to how long you can pull it off for.”

And if nothing else convinces you, this one should be the clincher: even the greatest viral video successes almost never make money.

“Even with the Susan Boyle phenomenon, because YouTube and ITV couldn’t agree on the terms of putting ads on top of that content, they missed out on something like US$2 million in revenue from those clips,” says Ian Gardiner, chief executive officer of online video specialist Viocorp.

Pictures are cheap

Nonetheless, video is a valuable communications tool for small businesses and is cheaper and more accessible than ever before.

“Video allows you the sort of engaging, rich content that you just can’t get with any other medium,” says Gillett. “When Flash has introduced on the web 10 years ago, there quickly became a dividing line between sites that had Flash and sites that looked very dated. Now if your site doesn’t have video, it looks out of touch.”

These days, just about anyone can produce a video and publish it online. High-quality video cameras are easily affordable. Just about any computer can handle basic video editing. Broadband internet connections are almost everywhere and people have got used to the idea of viewing video online. And a range of online services, from YouTube to Viocorp, make it easy to upload and publish video content.

“You no longer need to give Channel 9 $1 million to broadcast your commercial,” says Gillett. “This has caused an explosion in the video market. It’s not taking away from the ad agencies or production houses; it’s a new emerging market. Video has been democratized.”

Not just for ads

Online video can fulfill a broad range of corporate communication purposes: demonstrating thought leadership or expertise; indicating product quality; educating consumers on how to use your products; keeping customers informed of company news, events, or new products; covering company events; case studies; in-store displays; and take-away promotional material (on a USB key or DVD).

As with any form of promotional material “it’s important to assess your demographic and what kind of message you want to push to them, then develop content that meets those requirements,” says Lansbury.

One recent prominent success in this area is recruitment firm LaVolta’s Digital Bullets series.

“LaVolta asks well-known personalities in the digital space the same question,” says Gardiner. “People watch these videos and think, ‘Now I understand what mobile video actually means’. It puts LaVolta in a thought leadership position, which is very useful for them.”

“LaVolta is positioning themselves as the go-to people for digital experts in Australia,” says Lansbury. “The production time and cost of those videos is relatively low, but the exposure benefit for them is quite high. A lot of people in the industry go to their site to watch them.”

If you want to go down the thought leadership path, it pays to find out what your audience is interested in.

“Analyse what people are searching for around your area of expertise, then produce a video based on one of those high-ranking search terms,” says Lansbury. “Then you’ve got a good chance of your video appearing high up in search results. If it’s good enough, people will share that with their friends.”

Of course, putting video online can be a low-cost way of distributing traditional advertising messages, though with no guarantee of an audience.

“If you’re putting on an event or launching a bar, especially if your audience is younger, it’s great to bring that to life with video,” says Gardiner. “If they’re on your site, then they’re interested in your brand, so a good-quality video works.”

An online video is also a valuable tool for organizations such as community groups or sports clubs where members take an active interest in the day-to-day goings-on.

“For a lot of these groups, their audience is so rabidly passionate, they’ll watch whatever is put in front of them,” says Gardiner. “When we covered a six-day cycling event at the velodrome, we thought a few people might watch it, but the feedback we got was that people were watching for hours.”

Quality still counts

Inexpensive video cameras and editing software have dramatically reduced the cost of producing video, but that doesn’t mean cheaper is better.

“It used to be you couldn’t produce a video for anything less than $50,000, but now $5000 will go a long way and you could potentially reach millions of people,” says Gillett. “But people want it for 50 bucks, or do it themselves.”

If you’re selling a high-quality product at a premium price, a low-quality video will not convey a good impression, says Lansbury.

“If it’s about imparting knowledge and it’s personal, people will respond better if it looks a bit authentic and self-produced. But there’s obviously a line that can easily be crossed in terms of poor production values that will make the company look amateurish.

“If you’re going to self-produce, you should educate yourself about the basic principles of lighting, composition, editing, and sound quality.”

“While the barriers to entry have fallen, what hasn’t changed is the care you’ve got to take because the bad video is worse than no video,” says Gardiner.

Hundreds of channels

Once the video is produced, you can choose to publish it on your website or on YouTube.

Self-hosting the file gives you the most control over who sees it, but might end up costing you more in data transfer fees because video files tend to be a lot larger than regular web pages or images. At the other end of the spectrum, posting a video on YouTube costs nothing, but you have no control over who watches it, where it gets seen or what comments people post underneath it.

Companies such as Viocorp, for a fee, can host video content for you and allow you to embed it in your website, while taking care of tricky technical issues, such as what happens if someone is looking at your site on a mobile phone. Viocorp’s model also offers opportunities for getting an income from your video content.

“For most people reading this article, the monetization will come from just having happier, more engaged people who understand your brand and what you’re offering better,” says Gardiner. “But when you start moving up the value chain you can have a subscription, you can have pay-per-view or you can deliver advertising around it.”

And even if you don’t create the world’s next viral hit, you should not hesitate to take advantage of social networks to promote your video.

“If you are developing video content, look at ways you can distribute that to other sites and let people share it with each other – make sure they can post a link to Facebook or email it to a friend; there’s a bunch of tools that make it easy now,” says Lansbury.

The growing popularity of online video means news sites are hungry for content. Public relations-savvy companies can take advantage of this situation by providing content that fills the need.

“All the major newspapers and TV channels have extensive online video sites but they don’t have extensive budgets, so if you produce a good quality video, they’re more likely to pick up your story and run it on their site,” says Gillett. “Sites like Ninemsn have video channels for each magazine – there is just an explosion of online video channels.” #


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