The truth about going viral


It’s been a year and a half, and people are still talking about Psy and ‘Gangnam Style’. Specifically, the people at UK-based PR agency 10 Yetis, who released a whitepaper report last week examining the myriad factors and strategies that led to the Korean dance video achieving global popularity. In How Did Gangnam Style Go Viral? The Gangnam Viral Marketing Style Playbook, Andy Barr writes; “I started looking at the story behind the video because I truly felt something was being gamed behind the scenes for it to be getting such mainstream pick up, over such a short period of time.”

It wasn’t enough for the song to be catchy and for the video to be visually arresting, says Barr. It needed to first be a hit in South Korea before it could go international. In order to boost their chances, producers assembled an inordinately viral-friendly cast, including a dancing kid from Korea’s Got Talent and a couple of famous South Korean comedians. The end result was a video that garnered over 500,000 views on its very first day on YouTube, and went on to rack up 1,888,397,879 hits (at the time of writing this).

But what else plays a part in reaching the holy grail of internet fame?

The Earworm Factor

Most of us don’t speak a word of Korean, but the English hook “Hey, sexy lady” in ‘Gangnam Style’ was as catchy as hell. And if we’re talking sheer catchiness, then the natural successor to ‘Gangnam Style’ in 2013 was Ylvis, with ‘The Fox’. For the most part, it’s your average Europop song, until the chorus kicks in and video viewers are assaulted with a combination of exceptionally irritating vocals and Lynchian weirdness. Sure, we didn’t exactly like the song, but as was the case with Rebecca Black’s skin-crawlingly bad ‘Friday’, we couldn’t get it out of our heads.

Inspiring Mimicry

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and this is truer than ever in the world of YouTubers. Take the ‘Harlem Shake’ craze. The original video reached one billion views twice as quickly as ‘Gangnam Style’, and spawned countless parodies and interpretations, proving that people love to get involved and feel like a part of something. There is a general consensus, however, that brands are better off avoiding the meme bandwagon, with commercial efforts being seen as the death knell of online creativity. As TIME said of Pepsi’s ‘Harlem Shake’ video: “Do you really want to open a can of soda after it’s done the Harlem Shake?”

The most recent example of a meme that inspires a multitude of homages is, of course, the Doge. Much like Grumpy Cat before him, the Doge’s furry image and broken English have been appropriated for just about every situation imaginable. The nature of this kind of virality makes it hard to predict what the next customisable meme will be.

Lightning Strikes Twice

While Barr’s study of ‘Gangnam Style’ shows that you can enhance your chances of going viral with a solid understanding of shareability and sound strategy, Psy’s follow up single ‘Gentleman’ didn’t quite set the world on fire in the same way. So is it really possible to engineer the same results over and over again?

Old Spice is one of the few brands that has managed to consistently go viral with its digital content. How do they do it? Well, a large portion of the credit must be attributed to the charisma of their spokes-model, Isaiah Mustafa, known to millions as the Old Spice Man. This month saw the launch of a new digital campaign starring the Old Spice Man and a series of spoof websites.

These sites advertise an array of fake products that mock the superficiality of modern male culture, from a solid gold Bluetooth headset to a push-up shirt that creates the illusion of a muscular physique. After just a couple of seconds on these websites, an alert sounds, and the screen falls away to reveal a full-screen video of the Old Spice Man, who sternly rebukes viewers for considering such ridiculous purchases, before prescribing Old Spice as the cure for this frivolity.

Greg Kumparak at TechCrunch praises the marketing team behind the Old Spice Man campaign, and points to a willingness to embrace different platforms (while retaining the same central brand story) as a factor in Old Spice’s on-going viral success:  “They’ve found a solid formula, and just keep finding a tiny way to tweak it and make it new. The first time? Traditional TV spots. The next time? Straight to YouTube, targeting the internet’s love for goofy humour directly. And the next time? Present them as answers to a Reddit AMA. After that? Prank websites.”

When you have a brand figurehead this strong, Kumparak says, you needn’t reinvent the wheel. Simply “tweak it and do it again until people stop laughing.”

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