Monday, July 30, 2012

Some Thoughts on Viral Marketing and Me

This is Marina Orlova. She has a YouTube channel

about words. It's quite popular.

I am about to write a blog about viral marketing.

This is something that I have more experience with observing and analyzing than applying, and consequently, what I have to say should not be misconstrued as "expert advice", but rather as a culmination of observation and thought. If you're looking for a guru... I'm not it.

I have some friends who are, and who do nothing but make incredible "viral" media.

I've been thinking a lot about this kind of content lately, and I feel like it's about time I compiled some of these thoughts into one place. In doing so, I think it's best to start with a run-down of all the advice I've been given directly, or which I've read recently that I think has some bearing on the topic.

So, let's begin with the advice of my friend Ronen, who - and I don't use this term lightly - is a creative genius, and a masterful executor of the ideas he's presented me with below.

From a Facebook conversation earlier today, here are some selected quotes (and/or paraphrasings).

He began by critiquing the way I went about approaching him and the way in which I suggested he watch one of my recent videos. He noted - essentially - that by asking him to watch "as a favor to me", I was telegraphing that my film wasn't offering any value to him, and thus, he argued I should do the following instead:
"Say 'I think you'll enjoy this video, check out the first 20 seconds and see if it's for you'.

Ideally, just say the name, and if the name stimulates me, I'll go watch. [By doing this] you're just OFFERING value, instead of asking for it. Then if I'm stimulated by the content, I'll be inclined to share it with people who I think will also be stimulated by it."
"If you want it to be popular... that is the ONLY way to do it.

It has nothing to do with implicit subject matter, and if you think your subject matter will never be adopted popularly, then you're literally insane to try and make it popular. It won't get popular through manually pushing the video around, but from designing it to be viral.

...And the idea that something must be stimulating to the general populace to work is absurd; if there are 1,000 people who like Sherlock Holmes slash fiction, then a properly viral designed piece of sherlock holmes slash fiction will reach all of them.

Viral is an issue of characteristics, not scale.

Viral means the first people to interact with it will send it to the next people to interact with it, and it will spread through them. It has nothing to do with the scale of popularity. Though, again, they effect one another.

A properly designed internet video, to be viral, should:
  • Have a name that clearly explains what it is in a fun way, so people can effectively share it without having to describe it manually
  • Have a thumbnail and beginning that shares the bulk of the value, so people stop and watch - etc.
Ultimately, there are two possibilities: The video has value, in which case you should OFFER me the value of watching it. [Or] the video does not have value, in which case you're asking me to sacrifice the value of of my network to promote it."
I've reformatted and edited some of this for clarity and ease of reading, as well as to facilitate the discussion I want to have with regard to this blog, but the essence of Ronen's points are both insightful and helpful. I think the point is clear enough. If the goal is widespread popularity, Ronen suggests designing things in ways that provide as much initial value to the viewer as possible.

This actually goes to something which I've said hundreds of times myself within the context of my own clients:

Made me cry... If you didn't, you're not a person.
The most successful media - of any type - is that which is designed first and foremost to move audiences in some specific way... To laugh, to cry, to jump in terror, to shout angry epithets at political talking heads on screen - you name it.

It just has to be effective.

The more media can move an audience to feel something, the more that audience is - as Ronen put it - "stimulated" by it and will thus be moved to share it with others.

There are a lot of different ways to do this, but it is nearly impossible to do - or so I find - if you are constantly focused on "the message" and not on the quality of film or media product you're making. Basically, cramming something dramatic or funny into a political or philosophical message that you're beating someone over the head with doesn't really work.

It's also nearly impossible to really move people if you are substantially constrained from utilizing all of the tools at your disposal to push your media productions in ways that really get at that emotional core... But I will come back to this point in a little bit.

Apart from my discussions with friends like Ronen, I've also been reading some other websites and things that suggest different "rules" for viral marketing strategies. For example, says the following:
"An effective viral marketing strategy:
  1. Gives away products or services
  2. Provides for effortless transfer to others
  3. Scales easily from small to very large
  4. Exploits common motivations and behaviors
  5. Utilizes existing communication networks
  6. Takes advantage of others’ resources"
This is a pretty simple list, but I feel like it probably gets to the heart of the matter. The website goes into a little more detail about what each of these points mean, but it's all pretty straightforward.

In any case, I'll break it down the first 4 real quick.
  • People like "free" stuff - including information and advice.
  • For something to actually go "viral", it needs to be exceptionally easy to share that thing with other people (note: this is why the Daily Caller was probably foolish to abandon YouTube in favor of Ooyala as a video platform).
  • You've got to be prepared for the consequences of scaling up. If you're hosting a website that goes viral, and you don't have the bandwidth to support it, you're gonna be in trouble. (I'll let Ze Frank explain this one)
  • People have to be moved or stimulated by the piece of media you're offering them.

The last two points (utilizing existing communication networks, and taking advantage of other people's resources), I think I should go back to the article and let them explain:

Utilizing existing communications networks:
"Most people are social. Nerdy, basement-dwelling computer science graduate students are the exception. Social scientists tell us that each person has a network of 8 to 12 people in his or her network of friends, family, and associates. A person’s broader network may consist of scores, hundreds, or thousands of people, depending upon his or her position in society. A waitress, for example, may communicate regularly with hundreds of customers in a given week. Network marketers have long understood the power of these human networks, both the strong, close networks as well as the weaker networked relationships. People on the Internet develop networks of relationships, too. They collect email addresses and favorite website URLs. Affiliate programs exploit such networks, as do permission email lists. Learn to place your message into existing communications between people, and you rapidly multiply its dispersion."
Takes advantage of others' resources:
"The most creative viral marketing plans use others’ resources to get the word out. Affiliate programs, for example, place text or graphic links on others’ websites. Authors who give away free articles, seek to position their articles on others’ webpages. A news release can be picked up by hundreds of periodicals and form the basis of articles seen by hundreds of thousands of readers. Now someone else’s newsprint or webpage is relaying your marketing message. Someone else’s resources are depleted rather than your own."
So... This stuff really amps up the game from what Ronen was talking about.

Ronen's points are solely content-based, but the truth is, even with what they believe to be exceptional content, advertisers don't sit back and just hope that their videos and media "go viral". They get in touch with people with large networks and attempt to exploit those networks in order to get that initial bump in viewership that pushes content in those key beginning stages into high search rankings.

I won't get into this within the blog here, but this is why there are hundreds of people out there on the web who (claim to) specialize in "Search Engine Optimization".

Conceptually, the idea here is that not only do you need to make sure that you have well-designed productions that offer value to the audiences you wish to reach, but also that you need a well-designed campaign that exploits human networks and a solid understanding of internet technologies to really get off the ground so that the media you've made has the best possible chance at being seen by the greatest number of people.

Now........... Up to this point in this blog, I've presented a lot of generic points about what people should do, but the specifics have really been unexplored. Ronen's advice, while great, initially really annoyed me.

He said:
"Design something that is viral, and people will share it organically, instead of through altruistic charity"
It annoyed me for a handful reasons (some more personal than others), but mostly because as true a statement as it is, it's such an exceptionally vague thing to say that it's borderline useless and that kind of advice isn't helpful - especially when unsolicited.
Awesome guy.

Of course the goal is to design things that people will share organically and talk about in positive way!. The question is; what are the kinds of things that people want to share organically?

Well. Enter into the record another recent conversation.

This one was with my former boss and friend, Tucker Carlson, on what topics people seem to flock to particularly within news media. I asked Tucker to give me his thoughts, and he responded in his typically sharp and witty way, which I will boil down to two brief statements.

First, Tucker explained that:
"Readers love sex, violence, mystery, famous people, death and weight loss stories. Also weather. Inherently interesting topics written clearly make good stories."
But also:
"...the key is controversy plus simplicity: say something nobody else is saying, and say it in a way everyone can understand."
So here it is. Here's the essence of it all.

If you want to design something that has high viral potential, some of the best ways to do that are to exploit sex, violence, mystery, celebrity, or death in a simple way that potentially also sparks controversy.

But................. Here's where I get to throw a monkey wrench in the whole discussion and talk about myself.

* * * * *

What happens if the organization you work for has professional (and legal) standards that bar you from exploiting those kinds of things? What happens when organizationally, the mission is education and the brand is fairly serious? How do you make content that that simplifies ideas and sparks controversy when institutionally, integrity, honesty and intellectual nuance are highly valued?

Seriously... Stop and think about this challenge.

Let me illustrate through a real story, actually: A few months back I scripted a little comedy sketch which would - hopefully - highlight the issue of cronyism. The premise was to use a foot race where one person gets special treatment by the referee (or whatever you call it in track & field) in order to win at someone else's expense.

Here it is:

Admittedly, I didn't spend a ton of time on any particular part of this, purely because I was exceptionally busy on other projects - so it is not by any means my best work.

However... My original script idea involved using the starting pistol to shoot the loser in the leg. This is arguably way more funny and would have been way easier to build into the continuity of the foot race concept....... and the final "reveal" would have been way more effective.

But to be perfectly honest, I killed that part of the video and re-worked it to what it is because the Charles Koch Institute really shouldn't be involved in the productions of videos where people get shot.

Not ok.
So while the gun idea would have been a lot funnier (and to the extent that anybody cares about that video at all, it would have been more "controversial"), it wasn't ok from an institutional standpoint.

There are plenty of other examples, but ultimately, the point I have to make here is that the issue is ultimately about trade-offs.

One way or another, there will be things that I simply cannot do under the Charles Koch Institute label that I would be able to do on my own, because they would violate the principles of the institution (and several would also violate my own moral principles), even if they'd be things that would be likely to boost view counts.

Here's a short list of these types of things:
  • I cannot manufacture controversy dishonestly (news media does this all the time) by taking people's words out of context.
  • I cannot deliberately oversimplify concepts to the point that they create popular, but inaccurate soundbites.
  • I cannot exploit directly sex, violence, or death in my films without potentially damaging the CKI brand and guiding principles.
I could find real controversy, and that's part of the current strategy, but it's one of those "easier said than done" things. I could, also, utilize mystery & celebrity in my quest to use media in promoting economic freedom.

As examples, the book Atlas Shrugged - if you strip away the abysmal dialogue and cardboard characters - has the plot of a great mystery, and I would argue that that mystery is very effective at promoting economic liberty against collectivist public controlled economies.... and there are a handful of celebrities who are sympathetic to the ideas I promote - so it's possible (although rather unlikely) that we could find some way to involve them.

Also, another idea I had recently was to start doing videos that talk about the "economics of ____", where the blank is filled in by something relevant in popular culture (like Superman!).

I think an "Economics of the Hunger Games" video would be a really good concept, and I think I can easily do it without violating the principles of the Institute.

But....... There's yet another challenge...

It's hard to explain a movie

if you can't show it.
I don't know if I could do it effectively without actually showing clips from the film or directly referencing characters and showing pictures, etc., and that would be a really tough sell to my organization's lawyers, who have exceptionally limited tolerances for any potential IP violations.

CKI values "10,000% compliance", after all. And it should.

But... this really becomes the crux of the issue. There's a point at which I have to temper many - if not most - of the things that make for great "viral" media within the CKI environment, and while these limitations are often totally legitimate and important in order to maintain both ethical/moral and brand integrity, they are limiting factors that inhibit our videos from having that same kind of mass appeal and "shareability" as some other media.

I understand and recognize this.

So what have I done to work around those limitations? What can I do?

Well... For one thing, I've opted to focus on creating documentary-type projects that I think get at some of the more dramatic stories that illustrate the need for more economic freedom. I think this is a step in the right direction.

Stories like this:

And fortunately, some people do seem to really appreciate and respond to it emotionally in the way I am hoping for. For example, from one unsolicited comment I read about the video posted to a friend's Facebook:
"Wonderful, wonderful film, Sean. Couldn't help it, I wept throughout. I began a small business myself, and though I didn't have the degree of success Jim has had, my little firm fed and clothed a number of families. It brought stress and anxiety to my life, but also the greatest happiness. Small business is the heartbeat of America; I pray we can stop government's malicious interventions in its success. Thanks for what you're doing."
Reading stuff like that makes you feel good. But... As proud as I am with this film, it could still be better.

I mean, ultimately, the subject itself could be better. Jim Garland is a fantastic human being, and a great subject in general, but let's be honest...

On the scale of things, a struggling entrepreneur just starting out and being crushed trumps a successful entrepreneur like Jim, and regulations or government officials that are threatening to shut someone down trumps general uncertainty and the frustration of increased costs.

Likewise... A kid starting a business to help his disabled parents out getting shut down even after he files all the right paperwork and speaks to government officials in advance of opening hot-dog stand trumps everything. Especially if it's also happening right now:

Story matters. News-breaking timeliness matters. Human interest matters. Immediate sympathy for your subject matters. There are several things a producer can do to make sure their media hits the pinnacle of "viral" potential.

And it's all on a continuum.

The subject of your story really matters... Nobody cares about a rich millionaire fighting against a tax-increase... yet everybody cares about a poor kid holding a bake-sale or opening a hot dog cart to pay for some medical bills. It's all economic freedom in the end, but not all stories are created equal in the minds of most audiences.

* * * * *

I've been sitting here with this blog post all night, and I've not come to any definite conclusions about what really needs to be done... All I do know is that there are trade-offs here, and if you want to make a video that is likely to be truly "viral", it's clear that there are some definite ways to do that.

But... They come at certain costs, many of which CKI is not prepared to bear (for mostly good reasons).

...making economics fun!
Selling economic freedom with sex and celebrity is actually a spectacular idea, but it's not something that can be done by CKI and also keep the integrity of its brand. Likewise... Selling economic freedom with over-simplifications and soundbites that spark controversy (think; "Professor says higher tax rates will kill poor people!" may attract eyeballs, but it's not something that can be done by CKI and also maintain the moral integrity of the institute, me, or the professor whose statements I'd be mangling for political reasons).

So given all that as limitations to content-based virality, what can be done to make sure the videos we do make get the widest distribution possible?

I think the only possible answer going forward is do the best we can to find true and compelling human interest stories, and to find ways to create educational media that really captures something popular or celebrity driven as well... And, possibly most importantly of all, given our content limitations: To have a serious marketing and distribution strategy in place.

We need a strategy which does all the things discussed above... To the extent possible, marketing & distribution must make an offer of quality content (we have that, and we'll continue to get better at that), and that offer needs to be made to people within the target audience (who need to be clearly defined), and specifically we need to be making that offer in a coordinated way to people with large networks which can be exploited so that - to the extent that organic, word-of-mouth distribution is possible - we get the biggest boost we can coming directly from people who are credible and reputable leaders in the audiences we want to cater to.

I hope we start really getting better at this. In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away and trying to find better and better stories to tell about economic freedom.

By the way. If you have one, please go share yours right now.