The Recipe Behind the ‘Spontaneous’ Viral Video

LOS ANGELES Josh Warner, 48, is president of The Feed Company in Los Angeles, which he founded late last year.

The company has seeded viral (he prefers “social”) video hits such as Ray-Ban’s “Catch” from Omnicom’s Cutwater (in which sunglasses are tossed at a man who catches them on his face, despite the increasingly unlikely scenarios) and General Motors’ “Robot” from Interpublic Group’s Deutsch/LA.

He was previously vp of marketing at Nine Systems, San Diego, a content-delivery network and reporting tools provider, and he started his career as an account executive at DDB Needham in New York.

He talked to Adweek about what makes a viral success story.

Q: What’s the biggest myth about viral video?
A: That it will market itself. Good viral takes a lot of work. Eepybird, started by two guys from Maine, spent six months getting two minutes of footage of Mentos being dropped in Diet Coke bottles and causing an explosion.

What were the channels you used for “Catch,” for example?
With “Catch,” we uploaded to over 25 sites, and we go as far as 50 deep—blogs, forums, social-bookmarking sites, video-share sites—and the message was centered on whether [the clip] was real or not, which drove people to watch on their own. A base level of views caught the attention of the editors at YouTube and, and they featured “Catch” on home pages, and from there it really took off. On video-share sites alone, we’re at 5 million views.

How does that compare to other viral hits?
Well, I got a call from a friend at YouTube that “Catch” had been the most popular branded spot since Nike’s “Ronaldinho” soccer spot, and that got 15 million.

Can you guarantee reach?
No. We can guarantee performance. We’ll get the video in front of every community, every nook and cranny where video is shown. It’s up to the creative to take it to the next level.

What’s the biggest mistake clients make in determining if their content will go viral?
Assuming that they can take traditional commercial content and run it as is or repurposed for social-video networks. Look at TurboTax with Vanilla Ice, the $25,000 contest on YouTube for the best rap on taxes. Somebody won, but it didn’t inspire any involvement with the brand. In contrast, the GM “Robot” spot [made an] emotional connection, and [we] ran with it. We created a blog for the robot that was “by” the robot. Each post was the same as the day before. Josh Rose [cd of iDeutsch] was asking, “What’s the idea here?” We said, it’s a robot. It does the same thing every day. Then we did a podcast that was just computer sounds. Any user within YouTube, if they dug deep enough, could see that it’s coming from GM. But because of sensibility and humor, they didn’t mind. “Robot” got close to 2 million views—and that was before [the TV spot] was pulled off the air.

Why is it necessary to use a seeding company? Won’t great creative go viral on its own?
For a brand to not investigate and experiment with an aggressive online policy in today’s Web-centric marketplace is like making a TV commercial and not running it. Last month, we saw one of the biggest drops in network TV usage. Agencies have an obligation to get their brands in front of that audience. We use marketing software for targeting specific users within a network; we have referral networks that we can tap into, to get a surge of the viewing capacity the first crucial two days for a burst of viewership that will allow the video to reach critical mass without particular networks. We use Feed View to showcase the creative to a select group of site editors so they are aware.

Is there a recipe for a viral/social hit?
It begins with the creative, but extends to how you package it. One element is, “Is it real or not?” [You want people to] want to return to it again and again [to find out]. Another element is WTF [what the fuck!] in a way that is quirky and engaging. For example, [Saatchi & Saatchi’s] Quiksilver ad with a gang of young people in a city throwing dynamite into a river to catch a wave. Or, on the other hand, the Dove “Evolution” campaign exhibited and spoke to our distorted concept of beauty through an entertaining and educational brand message. That’s what I like to see.

What’s next in the field?
In the Norelco body shaver video, they did a dedicated microsite where you see someone use the shaver. It’s important to understand that you can succeed with branded content without it being viral. [Campaigns like Norelco’s] are integrated campaigns. They have a microsite. They’re reaching out to blogs, [they’re] in the social-video networks. And it’s a much slower build. That’s as valuable as viral. That’s a missing distinction in the focus on the viral home run. There are a lot of singles and doubles that get the job done. Personalization: Can you see yourself in the action? If it’s too unreal, too over the top, people can’t relate to it. After “Catch,” for instance, there were more than 50 user-generated video responses of people mimicking or responding to the video, and one of those got 173,000 views! We’re still getting comments.

How do “social media” buys work compared to traditional media

We work directly with agencies or the brands, but we do our best work when partnered with creative agencies or brand teams that understand that mistakes and opportunities come with experimentation in this new medium. They have to have an open mind and trust us.

What’s the media buy cost?
These campaigns range from $25,000 to the low six figures. It depends upon the length of the campaign, how many videos we’re feeding or marketing, and whether we’re building microsites, other creative or helping to produce creative. We don’t compete with agencies, but we are drawn into it [by clients]. We prefer the role of support. … We’re more focused on the marketing capabilities and only assisting in the content creation.

What’s the risk for brands not being upfront that videos are ads?
We believe in a level of transparency. And transparency could be saying it’s an ad. It’s about not lying. [Not acknowledging sponsorship] is like going to a social event or party and not telling people your real name. “Catch” did it very well. Anyone who wanted to make that connection could. I do think there’s a risk. People in these environments go there to get away from commercial messages, so [going in] you have to have different creative [from offline ads].