Going viral

It’s a no-brainer to post every video you produce on YouTube, hoping for a hit. In fact, many campaigns now call out for amateur videos and commercials to be submitted as well, widening the net. Just this week, Organizing for America, the post-election evolution of the Obama campaign, posted 20 videos that were culled from thousands of submissions on healthcare reform. The OFA “Healthcare Reform Video Challenge” asks members to vote for their favorite video, with the winner to “be aired on national television.” Everyone is an auteur who hopes his or her creation will be selected and broadcast to millions.

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So just how do videos become viral, and what is their impact? Those are questions every media consultant in the business is trying to answer, in large part because our clients are asking us to make lightning strike — to make their cause the next big thing in the viral world. Believe me, that is easier said than done.

Probably the most-watched political video in history is the one of candidate Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres on her show last year. The YouTube version has been watched over 8.2 million times. John McCain’s high-water mark (2.3 million views) was a slickly produced commercial titled “Celeb,” which featured Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in cameo roles. It generated a lot of chatter on talk radio, cable TV and the late-night comedy shows and spawned half a dozen spoof videos. But a hotly contested presidential campaign is bound to draw millions of views.

In the world of issue advocacy, where I spend most of my time these days, there have been only a few true viral videos. One is MoveOn’s “Save the Insurance Company,” a faux PSA that uses familiar Hollywood faces to make a dripping-with-irony plea to take pity on insurance companies. With about 2.8 million views, it seems to be the most-watched advocacy video of the year. I got at least 10 e-mails with links to the spot in one day. Now that’s viral.

So, back to the first question: What does it take to go viral? There is no simple answer. Clips from outside the box are the most successful. Humor and satire work. Classic production values don’t guarantee success — in fact, there is evidence that something captured on a cell phone may have more legs. It is difficult to plan, produce and place a viral video. Clever as David Axelrod and the Obama media team were, they didn’t “create” the Ellen video. It just happened; it was magic and it was something everyone had to “see for themselves.” The latter being the true definition of viral.

It also appears that it is more difficult for “establishment” issues to launch a viral message. Part of the magic of viral video is the guerrilla appeal. That is one reason the most successful clips tend to be from the left. It is hard to craft a witty or poignant message against increasing healthcare coverage, or one that argues financial-services reform will hurt the availability of credit. Much easier to take on the suits.

And the second question: Does it work? Do hits equal success? In the Virginia governor’s race, Creigh Deeds’s campaign has scored 23,000 views of its “Fired Up” video, while Bob McDonnell’s most successful offering still hasn’t hit 6,000. Deeds certainly isn’t leading McDonnell four to one — in fact he’s almost certain to lose on Election Day — but he’s winning on YouTube.

A viral video may get passed around, but that doesn’t mean it changes minds. My own firm has had more success with multifaceted campaigns that include coalition recruitment, online advertising, petitions, Facebook, Twitter and texting along with posting videos. In a recent advocacy campaign we generated over a hundred thousand contacts with members of Congress in just over 90 days with such an integrated campaign. No single video could have done anything near that.

So the message seems to be that viral videos can add excitement to a campaign but seldom appeal to viewers who don’t already agree with the video maker’s position. As with any political or advocacy campaign, you need to do a lot of things well to win.


Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com