The digital era demands a new way of thinking about brand and content marketing. Our exclusive Q&A with viral video experts Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz
You might know Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz as the “Coke and Mentos guys,” those lab coat-wearing stars of one of the first viral videos to hit the internet. But today, Grobe and Voltz are bonafide experts in creating viral campaigns for brands from Coca-Cola to McDonald’s. In their book, The Viral Video Manifesto, Grobe and Voltz break down the four rules of creating contagious content. We asked them what event marketers
need to know to embrace these new—and sometimes counterintuitive—ways of thinking, and how to embrace a “viral mindset” in your event organization. Here’s an excerpt from what they had to say.
EM: Everyone is trying to create content that goes viral. You narrowed it all down to four rules. Tell me about that.
FG: As we looked through all of these hundreds of viral videos that have been successful, or unsuccessful, online we started to see some real patterns emerging. At first it seemed like going viral is just magic, but there really are consistent patterns. A couple really big things that emerged were, one, it’s really all about an emotional connection. That active, positive emotion is the most effective thing at getting something to go viral. That’s what promotes the notion that, “Oh, I have got to tell my friends about this.”
SV: Sometimes people hear that phrase [emotional connection] and think you want it to bring you to tears. It’s really not that. You want people smiling, chuckling, being inspired. It’s much lighter than that. It’s still emotional but it’s on the easy, light side. That’s really what’s most contagious.
FG: The second trend that emerged is that this is really a 21st century sideshow. And it’s about having a really good hook. The notion of sideshow shows up throughout our four rules of viral video. But those two overarching ideas, the positive emotional connection and the 21st century sideshow permeate throughout the four rules.
SV: When you think about the sideshow, and one of the things we realized, really to our surprise, is that it’s really not about story. You really want to eliminate story as much as possible. Almost everywhere in marketing you want to be telling a story. It’s what commercials, films and copywriting are about. But surprisingly, in video that’s going to go viral, it’s about what’s the sideshow moment. What’s the thing you’ve never seen that makes you go, “Oh my gosh?” You don’t want to tell the story of the sword swallower, you just want to show him swallowing swords. You need a little bit of preliminary stuff to set up what’s going to happen, so people understand what the crazy sideshow moment is, whether it’s a really cute puppy or a fire-eating Indonesian farmer. You want to do enough setup, and that can be a few seconds or maybe more than that, but just enough to understand it, and then, boom, hit your moment, and then get out. And that’s the pattern we saw consistently from video to video to video that was contagious.
FG: So that led us to the four rules of viral video. And the first is, Be True. We want to see reality, not some filtered version of reality. Internet video has the beautiful opportunity to give you the sense that you are a fly on the wall, that you are witnessing something that really happened. So the big danger sign for us is when there’s a script, when there’s acting involved, story involved, all of the things you tend to use to dress up content—you want to strip that away and just show us something real.
EM: That has to be so hard for marketers. It’s almost an institutional challenge because it’s so counterintuitive to brand management as it’s been practiced prior to the internet age. How do you turn the ship around when brands are so used to protecting, polishing and controlling their image… and hiring the professional film crew?
FG: It’s allowing those rough edges to show through to be more human. We focus a lot on saying we’re not going to give you that perfect product shot—we’re going to give you a beautifully imperfect product shot. We’re trying to capture reality and have your brand presented in a natural, true, organic way and that’s going to be stronger. The message that we’re trying to convey is that a true presence is stronger than something manufactured where you dress it up to be perfect.
SV: If you’re a brand and you’re making this kind of stuff, you don’t have to put online everything you get, all the footage that you shoot. You can pick from what you’ve shot the stuff that is consistent and promotes your brand messaging, but if you can get that from real people having real reactions to real events, that’s going to have the contagious factor that people will spread from one to another.
One of the things Coca-Cola did a few years ago was called Happiness Machine. They took a Coke machine in what looked like a college dining hall (it was up against a wall so they could be behind it and see through the vending machine) and then as someone would put in their dollar for a Coke, instead of a bottle they’d get a pizza, or flowers. And they got real students going, “Oh my god.” So they had control over a lot but they got real people reacting to a fun stunt. That was really contagious. And that was a nice mix of getting real people really reacting, having fun, small surprise and delights, but they still had control over their brand and what it looked like and could control what was coming out of the vending machine. Everything was approved and consistent with the messaging they want, which is all about Open Happiness.
FG: Coke has done a good job of understanding that consumers also have a sense of ownership over the brand and how they can allow people to have fun with the brand. Every moment doesn’t have to be perfectly scripted and worked out in advance.
SV: Yes, they could have shot it in a studio with actors. It’s a great concept for a commercial, and it would have been fine, but it wouldn’t have been contagious. It was contagious because they had real people I can look at and I can identify with in a way you just don’t when you see the pretty, perfect, gleaming models, actors and actresses and the shininess of the editing that filters the real experience from the viewer.
FG: Caterpillar’s another great example. When you say, we’re going to do a giant game of Jenga with Cat trucks moving the blocks—that’s a great hook. We want to see that really happen. You want to see everything fall over at the end. And that’s one of those situations where you want to just show the true event; it’s going to be very satisfying.
EM: Should there be strategic thinking around those consumers who will record your event and propagate it virally?
FG: Absolutely. When something can be captured by a single camera, by a single person who happens to be there for that wonderful experience, that’s a great true moment to capture. There have been a couple of airline safety speeches and things that have gone viral because they’re really spectacular, or, the cast of “The Lion King” singing on an airplane, where somebody’s cell phone has just captured this wonderful moment. If you can create true moments like that, those are the kind of things people will film and share.
EM: OK, so Rule No. 1 is Be True. Tell me about Rule No. 2.
FG: The second rule is Don’t Waste My Time. Just get down to business right away. We want to see nothing but the money shot. Just get right down to “Why am I here?” I’m here to see this incredible moment. Don’t dress it up more than is necessary, don’t tell me a story around this, don’t get into the life story of the sword swallower. Just show the sword swallower.
SV: And that may mean you have an 18-second video. That’s fine. If that’s contagious, hooray. It may mean it’s two minutes, or three. Just show what you got, only the money shots, make sure there’s enough story to set it up and be clear, but then give them what they came for and then get out.
FG: You’ve got the full range, from The Sneezing Baby Panda that’s only a few seconds long on up to the battle at Kruger, which is eight minutes of epic crocodile versus lion versus hippo. And you’ll hear a lot of, “Oh, a viral video should be no more than 90 seconds long.” But it’s really, how long is your content? Don’t make it any longer or any shorter than it should be. So long as you’re focused on what people really want to see, not something that dresses it up prettier.
EM: This is a total departure from everything marketers have learned about TV advertising.
FG: Yes, if you’re coming at it from the point of view of a TV commercial, you’ve got a 30-second spot or a 60-second spot, you’re trying to fill that time and with this, you’ve got permission to say, “You know what, this is a 47-second video. That’s exactly how long it should be.”
SV: The other dangerous modern tradition around this is reality TV where they may have 30 seconds of something that’s really cool, a giant 19-foot trebuchet that’s going to shoot a washing machine across a field, and that becomes a half-hour show. Because they’ve got something great but they’ve got a half-hour to fill. So the reality TV treatment, the History channel treatment of that is completely different than our treatment of that. And the History channel treatment won’t go viral. It may well keep viewers for the half hour they need them, but it’s only the money shot, maybe the one to two minutes, that will spread. You have to take that sensibility to whatever the content is that you’re working on.
FG: Rule No. 3 is Be Unforgettable, and that’s the most difficult. It’s a real challenge but this is where that sideshow hook comes in. When we talked to Charlie Todd, the guy behind Improv Everywhere, one of his observations was that their most successful videos, not in his opinion their best videos, were the ones with the clearest hook. So, “No Pants Subway Ride.” I get it! “Frozen Grand Central.” Boom, got it! A video where they go to a park and there’s a street performer and the flash mob pretends to be hypnotized by the guy… amazing video, but it took me a few sentences to try and explain it to you.
SV: And it turns out that’s enough to make it not contagious.
FG: It’s much less contagious when it’s more complicated to explain. And when you have that clear “giant sized Jenga” hook, that hook helps make it something unforgettable that makes you say, “I’ve got to tell my friends about this. You won’t believe what you’re about to see. It’s amazing.” That’s what’s behind all the click bait headlines: you won’t believe what happens next. They’re trying to make you think it’s unforgettable. What really gets people genuinely sharing with friends is when it truly is unforgettable.
You’ve got to be bold enough to be unforgettable. You don’t get to unforgettable by going halfway. You get to unforgettable by going all the way; make it extreme, scale it up, make it big, make it spectacular. What’s the hook that’s really going to blow people away?
EM: Tell me about Rule No. 4: It’s All About Humanity.
FG: We want to see who you are, who you are as a person. That personal connection is ultimately what drives viral video. When people come up to us and say, “You know what the favorite part of your videos is?” It’s invariably not the spectacular moment.
It’s always when we throw our arms up at the end of the video to celebrate. And everybody gets to see our joy at this absurd achievement. And so in the Coke candid camera-style videos, you’re seeing people’s genuine reactions and joy and that joy in and of itself is contagious. When we celebrate at the end of our videos, when you see Matt Harding in the “Where the Hell is Matt?” dancing videos, dancing with people all over the world, you’re sharing their joy and that simple humanity is incredibly powerful.
SV: And that gets back to the emotional content we were talking about. It’s getting that uplifting happy feeling that you see for real on your little screen. It actually affects you and there’s actually good science behind that. Seeing emotion triggers emotion and if you can make that happen for the person sitting at their desk, that’s something that’s contagious and that’s something that will stop them from what they’re doing to tell their friends.
EM: Many marketers have attempted to co-opt that emotional factor in a way that’s too contrived or in some way not authentic to the moment. Are there other traps to avoid?
FG: It’s really easy to forget to show the joy. To show the human. So, Cadbury has done a brilliant job with several videos. “Gorilla,” for example, when we’re talking about being unforgettable. To see a guy in a really good gorilla suit doing a crazy drum solo. It hits on that, “What? I’ve never seen that before.” It really hits on unforgettable. And then they followed it up with a video called “Trucks,” with a whole bunch of trucks driving around on a tarmac at an empty airport. And there were no people in the whole video. It was really an interesting video but it was devoid of that personal touch—that presence of humanity.
EM: Any new rules cropping up since you wrote the book?
FG: It’s remarkable how much it really keeps coming back to the four key elements that help create a contagious video. One of the key opportunities for brands in the world of viral video is to create something that has that human element that allows your brand to be more human. In the old days, you went to the corner store, you knew the person behind the counter, you had a real sense of connection to the companies you did business with because you had a connection to the people in those companies. Social media and viral video has created the opportunity to reopen that sense of personal connection to a brand, but essential to creating that emotional connection is to allow your brand to be human.
If you are nothing but the considered corporate response with all the t’s crossed and all the i’s dotted and everything is perfect and impersonal, it’s very hard to bridge that gap and get people really connecting to you. It’s remarkable to see a corporation like Coca-Cola really doing it.