Thursday, March 06, 2008

Tuesday Tip (day late) No.43 - How To Do Virals

Today's tip was written by Jerome Courtial, an engagement planner here at BBH in London.

Jerome is a very smart and interesting guy - I highly recommend you check out his blog, digicynic, from which he kindly lets me reproduce this post (his blog is quite new, you could probably read the whole thing in one sitting.)

Anyway, here's his take on virals.

HOW TO DO VIRALS, by Jerome Courtial

All virals are Black Swan. In fact, using past references and case studies might make you less likely to come up with the next big viral phenomenon.

I'm talking here, of course, about the uber-virals. The ones that have been seen by millions of people, that everyone talked about, that have changed pop culture and have redefined the way we do advertising.

I'm not restricting my thoughts to online virals as now, any piece of communication can become viral - the internet is just the facilitator.

I'm also not just talking about ‘advertising’ virals, but phenomenons that have ended up being virals (Chocolate Rain, Mentos and Diet Coke, Blairwitch…)

There are only very few real virals every year. The subservient chicken, Kylie’s Agent Provocateur video, John West Salmon, the Mentos and Diet Coke experiment are a few examples.

We’ve all analysed their success and come up with pretty solid arguments as to why they were so successful. Yet no one seems to have found the right formula to reproduce this kind of phenomenon.

But let’s go back to the Black Swan theory from Taleb’s new book:

What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

And here’s his argument summarised (whole article on Moneyweek here):

Taleb argues that humans are ‘hard wired’ to see the world through the lens of the ‘Platonic fallacy.’ We look for structure where there is none and comprehension where none is possible. Such people are condemed to live in the realm of ‘Mediocristan’. There, their understanding will be conditioned by “Platonified economists with their phoney bell-curve-based equations”. More, they will constantly fool themselves with the “narrative fallacy” – the human drive to impose a post hoc explanation on even the most shocking events.

Let’s come back to the last point. The “narrative fallacy”. Which is, how humans beings like to find patterns where none exist, trying to make sense of the unexpectable.

If you were to ask 10 advertising gurus why the subservient chicken was so successful, you’d probably get 10 different points of view. The surprise, the innovative use of the technology, the awkwardness, the comic factor… All making for a pretty sound explanation of why this one piece of work, out of hundreds of thousands, achieved such a grand scale success.

Yet, for all these explanations, no one seems to be able to use this knowledge to recreate similar effects.

Being able to understand and analyse great virals is in no way a factor in predicting whether a piece of communication will go viral, let alone trying to manufacture another one.

I will go further than that. I actually think it’s counter-intuitive. As soon as you have some big principles as to why communication have turned out to be great virals, you are even less likely to come up with the next one.

As I said, all the virals listed above had one point in common. Their success was totally unexpected. You could not predict that, overnight, kids around the world would start popping Mentos into Diet Coke bottles following an online video. It’s easy to post-rationalise why they did. But it in no way guarantees that you will be able to come back with the next one (especially if you are one of the two brands involved).

Some agencies or really talented people have a better feel for what will is likely to become viral. But they are just doing better work than the rest. No one has found a formula to consistently turn communication into virals. Crispin Porter and Bogusky have never been able to reproduce another viral of the scale of the Subservient Chicken. The Viral Factory has not done something as successful as the Trojan Olympics. (And I’m happy to be proved wrong), Fallon will find it hard to come up with something as hugely popular as the bouncing balls or the drumming gorilla.

There is a big difference between great work, getting numbers and people talking, and highly successful virals. Yes, having some principles help us get to better work, but not to amazing work. It is only 0.01% of communication that has a major impact on our industry and on our audience’s lives.

So when trying to turn a communication into the next big viral, don’t just look at what has been successful in the past: it will give no indicators of what will be in the future and will make you less likely to achieve it. You need to be brave and look into other areas, new directions, outside of advertising. Don’t try to predict success by comparing it with the 10 most successful virals, it just won’t work.

By looking at past examples, you are going to make contrived work that is never going to be any better than the originals you were looking at. You’ve put yourself into the wrong frame of mind. Therefore it won’t be surprising. Or unexpected. This behaviour could not have led to the drumming gorilla or balls, because they broke every single rule of what people thought a good viral was made of.

Which explains why it’s so easy to post-rationalise why something went viral (by retrospectively applying a pattern to it) yet so completely impossible to recreate one.

Previous Tips:

How To Get A Pay Rise; Be Wary Of Punding; Challenge The Brief; Tell The Truth; Playing To Lose; How To Write Headlines; How To Do Direct; How To Do Radio; How To Do Press; How To Do TV; How To Do Digital; How To Do Posters; Look At Weird Shit; Presenting To The Client; Presenting To The Team; Presenting To The Creative Director; How To Deal With Rejection; Look Creative; Don't Be Afraid To Ask; Your Idea Has To Be 120%; Read Iain's Tips; Don't Behave; How To Discuss Ideas; Read Hugh's Tips; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7); How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ; Make Friends With Traffic; Get Reference; Don't Stop Too Soon; Be Very; Breaking Up; Working Well With Your Partner; Finding The Right Partner; How To Approach Agencies; Never-Seen-Before Footage; Dicketts' Finger; Two Blokes In The Pub; Play Family Fortunes; Should You Take A Bad Job?; Don't Overpolish


Anonymous said...

puh, great read. i quite like to see it that way - anlyzing doesn't help you making great virals (or great ads in general?), it rather stops you from breaking boundaries.

Anonymous said...

platonic wha...???

great post.

virals are hits. pure and simple. they're just irresistible on some level. like the tune you can't but hum or whistle.

but that isn't to say you might not know one when you see one. if you really love something there's a chance others might too. i think it really helps if you're a student of what makes people tick.

agree that trying to create a viral is futile. but trying to create a hit (and having the ability to) is the key IMHO.

look at sir hegarty's track record. or bogusky's. they were always trying to have hits. and they did.

Anonymous said...

Might have to give the blog a look, as Waldemar said, interesting read.

I reckon I've got a big fat magic idea for a viral. As someone said on the 'wages' post though, would the Gorilla have got through if a student had it in his book. Hmm.

Scrapped my Orangutan with maracas though.

Alan Wolk said...

Nice timing Scamp. I just did a post on Facebook apps that's applicable to virals as well.

The one thing virals DON'T have is a traditional planning-based strategy that makes a salient and ofttimes granular point about the brand.

At best, they have a loose tie-in to a category or a very broad point (e.g. blowing things up is fun)

They are different than advertising because they are not about delivering news in a (hopefully) engaging manner. They compete with unbranded programming of all sorts and if you can happen to work a brand reference in there somehow, that's just a Lucky Strike Extra.

Anonymous said...

so basically you have an expert post about virals and your point is no one knows anything, right?

Anonymous said...

You lost me at fallacy. That word reminds me of people with English degrees and who went to Oxford.

However, I will go back and read this blog again until I understand it.


Anonymous said...

I gave up after the first paragraph.

Anonymous said...

'Kylie’s Agent Provocateur video, John West Salmon'

One was orginally a cinema ad, the other a TV commercial. Yet both are cited as prime examples of virals.

Is there a lesson here?

Anonymous said...

"Nice timing Scamp. I just did a post on Facebook apps that's applicable to virals as well.
The one thing virals DON'T have is a traditional planning-based strategy that makes a salient and ofttimes granular point about the brand."

Bet you don't have many takers for dinner at your place.

Anonymous said...

does this imply that to increase the odds of making better ads we would be better off employing a never ending succession of untrained people with no advertising background? would you get something more interesting from a czech performance artist than a skinny jeaned monkey in an agency...?

Martin said...

I reckon talk of making virals is nonsensical in itself. You can't make something viral. You make something. Maybe it goes viral, maybe it doesn't. You only find out afterwards.
Saying you're going to make a viral is like saying you're going to build something ancient.

Martin said...

Hang on - having read Digicynic (nice) Jerome does mention one way to get a viral going - stick it on Kontraband.

Although perhaps that's more a way to get the client to believe it's viral. Like a clever form of click fraud.

Anonymous said...

No I wasn't assuming that we start using untrained people. And I wasn't saying you just need to stick something in Kontraband to turn it into a viral. Just that for something to become viral, someone needs to see it first.

Totally agree with the point that says you don't plan on doing a viral. It just happens.

That said, the main point I was trying to make is that we need to stop looking at the most successful ads, trying to figure out why they worked and then re-apply these ‘rules’ to try to make a new one.

If you follow that logic, it goes like that: Sony Balls was really successful. It was a big stunt. It was real. It was spectacular. So if we throw even more money at making a bigger stunt, we'll be even more successful. Guaranteed. And *poof*, you end up with the last Guinness ad.

Actually, we should look at the popular virals, or hugely successful ads, try to figure out why it become successful, and then put it on your list of what your next ad shouldn't be (like a giant stunt) or shouldn't have (like car pieces. Balloons. Or animals.)

That might be a good start.

Martin said...

On the other hand, celebrities having grainy out-of-focus sex seems to work over and over again...

Perhaps Flake should pushed their proposition to its logical conclusion in their latest campaign.

I agree that someone needs to see it first. I was more getting at the way Kontraband presents itself as a kind of aggregator of great stuff on the web, but then sells a certain number of views of any old ad. So they do imply that you can stick something on Kontraband and it's a viral. But I see that you didn't mean the same thing.

Rob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

what do you think of the VW dog ad scamp? and mars ad?

Anonymous said...

As your post about advertising hair icons was on Tuesday, I assumed that was you tip for this week...

Scamp said...

The dog ad rocks. You can't argue with a singing dog.

Anonymous said...

I found a list of the top ten ad-virals this year, according to goviral, accounting for hits and blog mentions:
1. Cadburry gorilla
2. Smirnoff green tea party
3. Ray ban catch sunglasses
4. Bendtec 'will it blend'
5. Lynx/Axe bom chicka wah wah
6. Wilkinson 'fight for kisses'
7. Quicksilver dynamite surfing
8. Mentos and Carlsberg experiment
9. Snickers get some nuts
10. Dove campaign for real beauty, onslaught

some of those are Tv ads, others are made for viral specifically. but I would add 'berries and cream' in there for starburst. not sure how they missed that one.

I think that proves it's the idea is what matters.

Anonymous said...

what do you think toad? do you think the granularity of the brand will impinge on the essential participatory nature of the viral denouement? maybe you can post something on facebook apps?

Anonymous said...

I'd have to disagree that you can't think of something as a viral.

Something becoming viral is just a different angle of success. I think just like you recognise it when you see it, the creator can recognise it when he concieves it.

You see the drumming monkey, you think 'fuck that's brill' and tell someone about it. The creator has the same thought.

faris said...

it's likely that viral hits are subject to cumulative advantage

so, it's impossible to manufacture hits, as their viral coefficients are a function both of the the idea and the context / structure of the network they are propagating in.

That said - you are more likely to send some things to your friends than others [if this is the definition of viral - it being a behaviour, not a thing that it.]

So what are those things? Things you think they will like, that you want them to have seen from you first, that demonstrate something about you and your knowledge of them.

acutally - i think I'll post about this. laters ;)

Anonymous said...

How come advertising in todays D&AD annuals, is mainly image led. If there is copy, it's one sentence which is very small. Where as if you looked at earlier annuals, typography and lots of copy was common. Can someone tell me, is this just a trend in art direction or is there another reason?

Anonymous said...

>>>so, it's impossible to manufacture hits, as their viral coefficients are a function both of the the idea and the context / structure of the network they are propagating in. >>>>

ain't that the truth? WTF???

it is possible to manufacture hits. just have ideas that are really likeable and surprising. sure you'll have some bombs. but you'll also have hits.

Anonymous said...

What the fuck is an 'engagement' planner? Like a wedding planner? If it is what I think then we have the same at our place and they're called connections. These guys are nothing but glorified media planners who sit around all day reading shite like The Tipping Point and the latest articles about facebook or 'web 2.0' only to regurgitate it in meetings so they seem intelligent and look like they are doing something. Does this engagement planner of yours make virals, or does he just analyze and talk about them? Probably talked his way into 200k too.

Creatives make, Account people sell, and I could barely put up with Planners if I hadn't met a few smart ones. But...engagement?

Anonymous said...

agree with previous. online means planning goes out the window.

you earn your audience through execution, it's that simple.

Anonymous said...

this is hyper-intellectualising something very simple and well understood. it's no different to the music industry, you create a load of stuff, 80% bombs, 15% does okay and 5% flies and makes enough money to fund the rest. so the secret to successful virals (wrong word but i'll use it cos everyone else is) is to keep producing them and over time you'll start to get better at spotting the ones that will fly and your hit rate improves...

that said, the number of views of the films listed above pail into insignifigance compared to the number of a plays a half decent game on mousebreaker/miniclip/candystand get as a matter of course or the number of people who "elfed" themselves so we may all be talking about the wrong thing entirely...

Anonymous said...

200K! I wish. Glorified media planner? I never worked in media.
Online means planning is out => you've got to be kidding.
And yes I did work on a couple of 'virals' in my time. Have you?

Anonymous said...


i didn't just "work on" virals. whatever that means. i created them. some very successful ones.

and i cannot for the life of me imagine how a planner would have been of any use.

it's pure creative instinct. it's execution.

Anonymous said...

Jerome, no. I don't think you've 'made' a viral. Unless you came up with the idea, wrote and directed it, you didn't make anything.

Idea will always be king, no matter how many false prophets come along.

Anonymous said...


did your virals actually go viral?

Anonymous said...

Look for some viral stuff here in the coming months. Right now still trying to get google to acknowledge our existence. But the viral is coming big time.

Charles Edward Frith said...

I blogged about this back in May last year :(

And then wrote a bit about how it can be part of the solution for an evolved agency model over here.

Anonymous said...

...>>>>this is hyper-intellectualising something very simple and well understood. it's no different to the music industry, you create a load of stuff, 80% bombs, 15% does okay and 5% flies and makes enough money to fund the rest. so the secret to successful virals (wrong word but i'll use it cos everyone else is) is to keep producing them and over time you'll start to get better at spotting the ones that will fly and your hit rate improves.....>>>>

this person knows what they're talking about. thanks for saying that.

except that to limit virals to films is insane. elfyourself was a huge viral precisely because it truly interactive. in fact it's easier for non-films to go viral these days i reckon. unless it's a sneezing panda, of course!

Anonymous said...

Good debate all! Nice one Jerome.

Sadly we are navel gazing. The most popular stuff shared (online) are music videos, a few fun apps, homemade content, news stories and blogs. Ads (film, interactive or otherwise) are way down. Step away from adland and we can see that being useful, popular, topical, funny etc are handy ingredients in stuff that people share. Mostly it's about relevance (cue role of planner (or anyone else) finding insights). It is often very random, but so is human nature. So a bit of luck and a healthy volume of ideas helps hedge bets.

So perhaps we should be thinking about selling our clients smart things people can share rather than getting fixated on ads or film content?

Anonymous said...

I prefer prawn cocktail, Walkers usually.

Anonymous said...

I just posted on my blog about a story that started on a regional UK football forum and has gone global.

Proper viral in my mind.

Some think it's tosh, some think it's true. If it were a hoax, it'd all the more impressive for me. Check it out.