Can Viral Be Bought?

Viral experts say 'everybody wants a free lunch'

     There is apparently nothing more irritating to veterans of viral than being asked by a presumably stuffy, uptight, corporate suit to make their Brand X become the Next Big Viral Thing on the internet. Like, poof, magic—your product video just got a million hits on YouTube.

     Not so fast Mr. Man—viral videos aren't just some whizbang process anyone under the age of 25 who listens to independent music and likes skateboards can do. It is, it turns out, something that requires a lot more luck and willingness to let go than pure force of will or ad dollars can muster. In fact, the reality is that you might not even want a viral video for your product.

     That's what the takeaway was from the "Can 'Viral' Be Bought?" panel discussion at Internet Week HQ yesterday. The panelists—Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed, BBDO's creative director Jeff Greenspan, and web hooligan/meme generator Lauren Leto of—put on a clinic of viral know-how wrapped in loads of social snark, while trying to demystify the elusive, coveted goal of viral social ascension.

     "Everybody wants a free lunch," said Peretti, commenting on the desire of most brands to be able to just create viral content the way they've created traditional ads in the past. What brands need to realize instead is the benefit of incorporating a social media campaign into their broader strategy, hoping to realize the "social distribution bump" from marketing content making the rounds of the social network.

     But are most brands willing to take the full plunge into the chaotic world of viral? Greenspan, who's had a number of viral hits like his "Hipster Trap" series, says successful viral products become so because they relate an intrinsic truth about someone or something. "A lot of these clients come from these television backgrounds and they could control every sentence," he said. "That's how traditional media used to work." Not so with viral.

     And if you thought you could just copycat a great idea, Leto said think again. Nothing says, "We're trying too hard" than creating a knockoff site or campaign. "That's never going to work," she said. "Make something exceptional and relatable." See the earlier note about truth and honesty.

More than anything viral success these days comes down to luck: the right idea, at the right time, under the right circumstances. The next frontier, Peretti pointed out, is to make viral success a regular thing. Too often "success" has been a one-off thing. If viral can be bought, it's going to need a regular ROI to be a legitimate part of a portfolio.