If all else fails, use cats

As a new app aims to unpick the formula for creating a successful viral ad, we explore the ideal equation to make content supremely shareable

A moonwalking pony, an illustrated bunch of dumb ways to die and a straight-talking chief executive of a feminine hygiene company – viral video success comes in all shapes and sizes.

Phone brand Three, Australian transport network Melbourne Metro and said company Bodyform – the respective brands responsible for the above – all benefited from their content going viral almost instantly, passed on from amused to amazed fan, and spreading brand awareness, engagement and good will.

Bodyform Response by Carat and Rubber Republic


Viral content is not new, but as media platforms evolve into ever more social domains, creating shareable brand content is becoming increasingly important. “Of course clients want to ‘go viral’ (and yes, some still use that term) as it means two key things for them – earned media (in theory reducing the need for as much paid media) and endorsement,” says Graeme Douglas, head of interactive and innovation at Wieden + Kennedy London, which created the dancing pony. “Because of this, a ‘view’ (or interaction) generated through earned media is perhaps more valuable than a view bought through broadcast media – and that’s naturally appealing to clients.”

But the evident diversity of viral success poses an obvious problem – it’s difficult to attribute, and divining shareability is still rather more akin to creative alchemy than science. And as videos have to compete with celebrity clips by the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, as well as the guy who turned his dead cat into a quadcopter, reaching critical mass is increasingly challenging. Ask a handful of advertising creatives and you will receive a mishmash of ingredients that make the ideal viral recipe – and in fact none of it can guarantee viral success.


DancePonyDance for Three, created by Wieden+ Kennedy. The campaign was built around the idea of sharing seemingly silly content online. Smart seeding, integration of sticky hashtag, a socially-enabled interactive experience and the intrinsic appeal of the idea contributed to its success. TubeRank formula = (Kawaii + WTF + LOL) + (Internet Culture + Music)


“There isn’t a ‘golden ratio’ to achieve ‘virality’,” says Douglas. “Some claim it’s good fortune. Some claim it’s a result of timing and context. Some claim it’s down to reaching the right influencers. All of the above help. But most importantly, it’s down to creating amazing content that people want to get involved with, watch, discuss and share. If it elicits a genuine OMG or LOL reaction from the web, you stand a pretty good chance of it spreading.”


Dumb Ways to Die campaign by McCann Australia for Metro Trains Melbourne. According to ECD John Mescall its success was down to quality content, charm, humour and likeability, and was made easy to share via different social platforms; TubeRank formula for success = (WTF + LOL) + General Interest

‘Amazing content’ or ‘a good creative idea’ seems to be the default position when creatives try to explain what makes viral success. “We didn’t set out to create a viral video, because I think that’s a very dangerous line of thought,” says John Mescall, executive creative director at McCann Australia, of the Dumb Ways to Die video the agency created for Metro Trains in Melbourne, which became Australia’s most shared video within days. “First and foremost you have to focus on the quality of what you’re making.”

The initial idea started with the song, he explains, with the intent of making something good enough that people would purchase from iTunes. “So right from the very beginning the focus was on creating a campaign built around quality content.” It wasn’t just about making an ad, he says. “Why? Because generally speaking, people don’t share ads. Even the very best ones have a very low share-rate.”

Mescall adds that the video is charming and funny, while being about a taboo subject, but with an instantly attention-grabbing title. “It doesn’t feel like an ad at all, the branding at the end really surprises a lot of people. It doesn’t preach, and it never tells you what to do. And it’s very likeable; I think likeability is really important if you want shares.”

Such common factors as likeability do tend to crop up repeatedly, and by analysing a slew of viral successes, a formula does begin to emerge – or so says Chris Quigley, co-founder of Van and Rubber Republic, an advertising agency specialising in viral marketing. Quigley spent a lot of the past year speaking to global creatives and analysing viral videos to produce a new app, TubeRank. Released last month, it aims to provide inspiration and insight to creatives on how to produce the perfect shareable video.

According to Quigley, the ideal formula is simple, you have to match the right conversation triggers to the most relevant communities of interest – “making sure you create a video that 2 3 people with certain interests will want to talk about and share”.

TubeRank has classified 10 conversation triggers, such as ‘LOL’ (Is the video funny – really? – did it make you Laugh Out Loud?), ‘WTF’ (is the video surprising in any way or does it not quite make sense?), ‘EPIC’ (is the video amazing, makes you think ‘wow’?), ‘Kawaii’ (is the video cute and makes you want to go ‘awwww’?), ‘topical’ and ‘education’.

Those triggers then need to be tailored to a specific audience, such as motoring fans, geeks, activists, parents and so on. For example, Rubber Republic’s recent successes include Fiat’s Motherhood which featured a rap about the trials and tribulations of being a mum. According to TubeRank, its equation for success was creating something funny, and aimed at the parenting community. The company’s Mercedes ‘Catch’ video, which featured Formula One driver David Coulthard ‘catch’ a golf ball with his car moving at top speed, combined EPIC and WTF triggers, while aiming at the sports, car and celebrity fan communities. The success of Nonstop to Rudimental video for Peugeot was down to being an EPIC dance-themed video, collaborating with a YouTube talent, aimed at the YouTube and music communities.

The key to making more sharable content is thinking in this, more viral way, says Quigley. “The social internet is based around people talking about things they’re interested in, so if you’re designing a viral video then you need to think of creating something that people will want to talk about – it’s as simple as that.”

It is an approach echoed by Douglas, who takes it further. “It’s about understanding how the content you create will be viewed, shared and remixed in a world that’s connected, whichever platform you choose to initially release stuff on,” he says. “The idea of a ‘web film’ or ‘online content’ are redundant and the debate around channels is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the old media paradigm in which these terms were originated collapses. When you focus on the channel, rather than the idea, you get stuck quite quickly.”

Making content as shareable as possible from a practical point of view can also contribute to its success. Mescall made sure Dumb Ways to Die spanned a multitude of social sharing platforms, allowing viewers to share the campaign as Tumblr gifs, as a video, as a song and so on. “We got an extraordinarily high share-rate (and very high viewing rate on mobile devices) because we made the whole thing very sharable from minute one.”

The current success of the DancePonyDance ad for Three was also helped along in practical ways, says Douglas. It was a combination of a ‘sticky’ hashtag, a socially-enabled interactive experience and the intrinsic appeal of the idea itself. Effective seeding also played its part – and these days, placing content with the right influencers is key. “With over 72 hours of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute, you really need to make sure your video is seeded to the most relevant influencers to give your video any chance of being watched and shared,” Quigley explains.
However, true viral potential cannot simply be bought. Yes, paid promotions can drive awareness and engagement rates, says Anne McCreary, digital strategy director at Carat, the media agency responsible for the Bodyform Response video, and the combination of good seeding supported by paid media can be effective. “But the paid element must not detract from the authenticity or positioning of the content,” she adds.

A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square by Duval Guillaume Modem for telecommunications brand TNT (43.8m YouTube views since April 2012)


Geoffrey Hantson, executive creative director at Duval Guillaume Modem, which has created such viral hits as A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square, puts the point in slightly harsher terms. It’s easy to buy views, but “views are like sex – only losers pay for it”, he says. “One of the main reasons I adore social video or any social content is that it’s brutally honest. Within hours you know, if the idea is not great it will not fly. It’s all about earning, not buying. Suddenly we creatives actually must come up with really creative stuff and not just good solutions. Isn’t that nice?”
And thus the argument comes full circle. No amount of insight and formulas can make up for lack of good – and authentic – content. As Dom Baker, innovation lead at M&C Saatchi puts it, the term viral is almost irrelevant, “it’s just what happens to good things – at the end of the day it’s telling good stories, shot in a good way”.

“While consumers might turn a blind eye to the odd bit of advertising magic to make for a better story, they won’t tolerate being thought of as idiots,” adds Daniel Evans, founder of Hello You Creatives, who produced past viral hits such as ‘Extreme Sheep LED Art’. “Faked flash mobs, copied memes and trends that don’t relate to the product, it smacks of a brand that doesn’t understand its own audience. Generally audiences lose interest in phoney stunts and paid-for seeding quickly. The golden rule is to create content that comes from a true insight from the audience’s world.”

In fact, “forget trying to make a viral video” says Mescall. “Try to make a piece of content so good that if you were selling it on iTunes, people would actually buy it. Then make it dead easy to share on social platforms. If there is a formula, that’s it. Otherwise, just hope to get lucky.” Citing A Dramatic Surprise in a Quiet Square and Felix Baumgartner’s space jump for Red Bull, he adds: “They both follow the same formula – they are nothing at all like paid ads.” Plus, if all else fails, says Evans, “use cats”.

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