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Virality, YouTube, and Metadata September 16, 2018 (0 comments)

r1.jpg One of the most prominent ways to promote one’s brand in the Information Age is by way of “virality.” Virality isn’t a new concept in branding or advertisement, but the internet provides an environment in which information can be atomized and distributed by individuals, rather than by magazine editors or billboard companies. But there’s a danger in thinking that viral advertisement goes hand-in-hand with traditional styles of promoting one’s brand. A magazine ad, for example, is laid out by creating an attractive image, making a brief argument (either explicitly or implicitly) on behalf of one’s service or product, and ensuring one’s brand is placed front-and-center. In this way, a sales pitch, a positive sensation, and the brand are all tied together in a reader’s mind. This traditional method of advertising is essentially passive: It waits in a single location, and potential customers have to run across it. The brand that utilizes this method is equally passive, though that should be read as a statement of fact and not a negative assessment. Viral brands function in a more active way. Consider recent success stories—Dollar Shave Club, GoPro, and Blendtec. Dollar Shave Club is a recent competitor in a razor scene long dominated by companies like Schick and Gillette; GoPro’s products are made to appeal to a somewhat niche audience (action cameras are primarily used for difficult-to-record extreme sports); and Blendtec competes with other companies for recognition in and dominance of the blender market. Despite the three companies’ differences in products, target audiences, and competition, they have one thing in common: Their viral videos have been viewed and shared by millions of people. At press time, Dollar Shave Club’s “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” video has 23.9 million views; GoPro’s “Best of 2015 – Year in Review” video has 5.4 million; and of Blendtec’s famous “Will It Blend?” videos, the clip in which Tom Dickson purées an iPhone 6 Plus in a blender racked up 5.5 million views.

Warning Signs From the Past

By any metric, those videos represent a tremendous advertising coup for their respective companies. But virality can be a double-edged sword in that regard—with so many people being exposed to a certain advertisement and having the ability to spread it and tag it with commentary, chances are good that an exploitative, cynical, or patronizing piece of viral media will be quickly recognized for what it is and will do more harm to a company than a poorly constructed passive advertisement would. McDonald’s attempted a viral campaign in 2012 in which the company invited Twitter users to use a particular hashtag to tell their positive stories regarding McDonald’s. The hashtag was quickly dominated by people making negative comments about the fast-food chain’s corporate structure, its relationship with communities, its products, and even the campaign itself. McDonald’s was forced to discontinue the campaign after a matter of hours. In 2006, Sony attempted to create a fake blog to drum up Christmastime interest for its handheld platform, the PSP. Ostensibly, the blog was created by two teenagers—Charlie and Jeremy—who were trying to cajole their parents into buying PSPs. The blog, which was written in a cringeworthy pastiche of teen slang, threw up so many red flags that internet detectives took the opportunity to hunt down the origin of the blog. They found out that the blog’s URL was registered to Sony and its affiliates. As the people of the internet began to mock and lambast Sony, the operators of the blog went into damage-control mode, attempting to use the same “teen language” to convince people that the blog was a genuinely grassroots project. They failed, and after some time, Sony and its employees were forced to reveal the truth to an irritated public. Toyota, in 2009, hired Saatchi & Saatchi to perform a prank-style act of viral marketing by allowing people to sign their friends up to be targeted. This campaign, called “The Other You”, targeted, among other people, a woman in Los Angeles. This woman was hit with threatening emails from a stranger who began to “stalk” her. Toyota’s hired advertisers created fake social media profiles for the woman’s fake stalker, and even sent her fabricated bills for “damage” that the stalker had done in her name. The woman suffered tremendous personal harm and was living in fear for her life, and needless to say, Toyota was hit with a $10 million lawsuit. It begs the question of what can be extracted from these viral advertisements for the benefit of retailers.

Learning From Social Engagement

The most common element of both successful and failed viral campaigns is that they are both conveyed by word of mouth, which includes digital environments like social media. Capturing word of mouth is essential to creating a viral campaign in the first place. Without that primary element, the question of “beneficial” or “detrimental” vanishes. If nobody is paying attention to one’s ad in the first place, it isn’t being spread to anybody beyond random viewers who happen to run across it. Viral campaigns that catch the most attention, for better or worse, are the campaigns that don’t read as ads in the first place. Compared to analog ads, people have been trained to tune out the lion’s share of internet-based ads. An Adweek Media/Harris Interactive survey shows that out of 2,100 Americans surveyed, six in 10 of them (about 1,260 of those surveyed) responded that they ignore internet ads more than any other kind of ad. Ipso facto, a viral campaign is going to be treated as nothing more than an internet ad by six-tenths of the online community if it reads that way off the bat. This is the proverbial kiss of death for any nascent campaign seeking to viralize a brand. Thus, retailers need to shake up their approach when they try to catch viral attention. Let’s analyze different methods that organizations have utilized to craft successful viral campaigns. It isn’t simply businesses that take advantage of virality to spread an idea. Social justice campaigns have taken advantage of viral campaigns through the years to promote a particular goal, effect social change, and raise money on behalf of a project. The LGBTQ community has proven to be a successful adopter of this strategy of virality. We can look to two recent LGBTQ-oriented campaigns to prove this: Human Rights Campaign’s “red equal sign”, and Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project”. For reference, the “red equal sign” was a digital (found usually on Facebook and Twitter) and real-world (usually in the form of bumper stickers) meme that was spread by the queer community and its allies as a form of awareness-raising in 2013, when constitutional questions surrounding the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 were set to reach the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket. Savage’s “It Gets Better Project” began in 2010 as a series of YouTube videos spearheaded by the columnist and his husband, Terry Miller, as an attempt to reach out to LGBTQ youth. The “red equal sign” campaign spread quickly on Facebook, catching the attention of celebrities like George Takei and Lance Bass, as well as politicians ranging from governors to members of the U.S. Congress. With the signal boosted by such prominent personalities, Facebook reported that the “red equal sign” campaign had caused 2.7 million users to change their profile picture to the symbol, and that the 25-30 demographic had registered the largest change to its pictures in terms of percentage. HRC noted that the origin of the campaign, their Facebook post on the topic, was spread to more than 18 million users’ news feeds, and that during the first 24 hours of the campaign alone, the post garnered more than 700,000 unique views. HRC was able to leverage the viral power of the campaign to boost the number of its followers on social media by 226,000 and convince 100,000 new people to sign its petition to the Supreme Court regarding the LGBTQ marriage cases. Savage’s “It Gets Better Project” began with the eponymous video being uploaded on YouTube, where it has since received more than 2 million views. The success of the project came about when Savage and Miller’s original video was shared thousands of times by social media users and attracted the attention of actors, musicians, politicians, writers, and business figures, who joined with other YouTube patrons. Between celebrity and non-celebrity uploads, Savage’s project grew to more than 50,000 videos. Savage was able to leverage the viral success of his campaign to create a foundation that was capable of attracting the attention, the funds, and the prominence needed to go international, backing LGBTQ outreach programs and pride parades in countries as far away as Russia, China, and Thailand. People are deeply motivated by social justice, and the internet has allowed people to feel intimately intertwined with cases of poverty, injustice, and equality. A viral campaign can easily spread among internet users if those users feel that the campaign is honest and has the possibility of making some kind of difference in the world. This sort of campaign, however, is very sensitive to honesty. Claims of cynicism or exploitation will spread just as virally as the campaign itself, as Kellogg’s learned so painfully in the United Kingdom. The Kellogg’s U.K. branch attempted to use Twitter in 2013 to viralize its brand with a “1 RT = 1 breakfast for a vulnerable child” campaign. Social media users were outraged by what they saw as implicit cynicism in the campaign: that Kellogg’s U.K. was essentially ransoming poor children’s breakfasts in return for social attention, and the negative repercussions of the campaign became the thing that spread virally, instead of the good word of mouth for which the company was hoping. The jewelry industry doesn’t usually have the same goals as the Human Rights Campaign, but players in the industry have successfully leveraged social justice to great effect in the past. One of the largest “ethical” campaigns in the industry has revolved around the issue of diamond sourcing. When the topic of conflict diamonds became a focus for public attention in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the jewelry industry responded with the formation of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. The industry held up the KPCS as the gold standard for an ethical diamond market until 2011, when the KPCS was denounced by several individuals and non-governmental organizations as being insufficient to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the market. Notably, in the wake of the KPCS controversy, many players in the jewelry industry turned to even more stringent diamond certifications, such as CanadaMark or Forevermark, or took it upon themselves to go beyond the KPCS, as brands including Brilliant Earth and Hume Atelier did. These brands and certifications have taken advantage of the idea of “social responsibility” in a way that promotes them as being good citizens of the world. A retailer looking to make a viral project using “social justice” as the tool for doing so might highlight its brand’s genuine commitment to positive social change. For instance, highlighting one’s pledge to only stock diamonds that go above and beyond the KPCS is a method that has worked for some companies. Explicitly welcoming the LGBTQ community is also a route that some companies have taken. Tiffany & Co. and Shane Co. are good examples of that company-driven outreach in the jewelry industry. But in terms of successful virality, 2014-2016’s popular “Ice Bucket Challenge” is perhaps one of the most successful viral memes in recent memory. The concept of being doused with ice water for a charitable cause shifted to specifically raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2014, and continued of its own volition for several years before the ALS Foundation (one of several ALS organizations that benefited from the increased attention), actively began to promote the challenge and direct it as a campaign. Celebrities, former presidents, and parliamentarians, among others, have taken part in the challenge, and the various ALS organizations have reported an estimated combined $140.2 million in increased funding thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Learning From Cleverness

Social engagement is one method of approaching virality. Appealing to surprise or cleverness is another method. When we say “cleverness”, it’s a term that speaks to the novelty of a campaign. As we mentioned previously, one of the primary reasons that people learn to “tune out” sponsored content on the internet is because people have been conditioned to associate the idea of internet advertisement with an obtrusive, boring sales pitch that distracts them from the content they were searching for initially. However, if sponsored content can engage an internet surfer by being clever—novel, unique, funny—that sponsored content can become a shared experience between people. Blendtec’s YouTube videos fall into this category. As people are social animals, we are inclined to listen to “narratives” that are shared by the people we trust enough to include in our social circles. Social groups are tied together with “in-group” experiences, and every member of the group is always on the lookout for unique material that makes that member accrue social currency from the other members. Blendtec’s videos prove to be a good model for this phenomenon because of the fact that the company took advantage of an idea that nobody had tried before. In its case, Blendtec wanted to semi-humorously showcase the strength of its blenders by “blending” all manner of bizarre objects in them. The idea was funny, it was unique, and it was exciting. There’s no real test that can objectively gauge how viral an internet campaign will be, but to capture those three things is a good sign that a campaign will spread through a discrete group. Blendtec’s videos were also successfully viral because they could transcend one group’s essential qualities. That is to say, any demographic would be comfortable watching the “Will It Blend?” series—the videos aren’t offensive and don’t rely on youth-exclusive jargon, meaning that older demographics won’t reject the series out of hand, but the videos are exciting enough to draw younger viewers’ attention. Thus, Blendtec’s YouTube campaign had the ability to begin in one demographic and spread outward to any number of them. Imagine college students running across one of the “Will It Blend?” videos and not only sharing it with their friends at the university, but sharing it with their parents (who might, in turn, share it with co-workers at the office) and their younger siblings. It’s difficult to pick out a member of the U.S. jewelry industry that’s taken advantage of “uniqueness and cleverness” as the basis for a viral ad campaign. We can, however, turn to China. Luxury brands in China have been taking advantage of the growing internet connectivity of a 1 billion-strong population by experimenting with creative and engrossing internet advertisements. The Qeelin company, in advertising for its new Xi Xi collection, put together a dance troupe to perform a modern artistic rendition of the southern Chinese lion dance. This approach doesn’t appeal to humor in the same way that Blendtec’s campaign does, but its uniqueness springs from Qeelin’s embrace of a cultural tradition that speaks to millions of Chinese internet browsers—and the company’s avant-garde approach to that tradition. Other jewelry retailers might take some inspiration from Qeelin and adopt an idea of “high art” that excites audiences enough that they want to spread such an advertisement to their circle of peers and beyond.

Learning From Information

The last general division of content that drives virality is “information”. Information is a broad category that ranges from National Geographic’s “7 Billion” video to random YouTube videos in which the creator tries to convince an audience that aliens walk among us, or that yetis stalk the woods of the Pacific Northwest. The appeal of information-driven virality is apparent: People surf the internet specifically to search for information. Thus, a company that specifically aims to attract attention by way of information is creating a path that most internet surfers were willing to walk down in the first place. The downside, however, is intimately related to the benefits. The internet provides a deluge of raw information to consumers in the form of social media posts, Wikipedia pages, news articles, and so on. Fifty-five percent of people on the internet are, according to Chartbeat, unlikely to spend more than 15 seconds of time paying attention to the information presented on a web page. To spread virally, information has to be valuable to a person. YouTube gives us many examples of information that’s been considered valuable by tens of thousands of people. Some of the most popular videos include buyers’ guides, compare-contrast videos, and “how-to” guides for perplexed consumers. “Inside looks” are very popular YouTube videos for the jewelry industry. As the Japanese poet Saitō Ryokuu observed once, “Elegance is frigid”. Elegance doesn’t have to necessarily be frigid, but injecting a little humanity in the form of welcoming potential customers into the nitty-gritty of one’s company is very similar to inviting potential customers into one’s store. It creates a sense of trust and personal connection between a company and its customers. As we mentioned before, one of the primary drivers of a successful viral campaign is convincing people of the forthrightness and honesty of your campaign.

Utilizing YouTube Metadata

Now that we’ve discussed what goes into successful viral campaigns, let’s turn to the second part of the equation. Content is king, but it’s also a fact that YouTube has about 87 million videos currently uploaded. A savvy retailer should exploit methods of catching people’s attention to stand out from the crowd. That can be accomplished with “metadata”. While information presented in the video itself is the “data”, “metadata” is the information about the information. When a person on the internet searches for a specific topic on YouTube, one’s video will come up, if it matches the topic, and the first interaction that person will have with the video is seeing its title in a list. Bland and jargon-rich titles are going to be passed over quickly—we already know that people aren’t willing to spend more than a few seconds contemplating something on the internet. The ideal title for a video is one that’s short, punchy, and offers concrete details. The watch company Audemars Piguet gives us a good example of this philosophy at work. Observe the titles of some of its most prominent videos: “The New Millenary #APWoman”, “The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar - The New Geometry of Time”, “Audemars Piguet - ROO STC Teaser”. You’ll note that Audemars Piguet has taken advantage of the previously discussed “cleverness” concept in its videos—many of them are art projects that take advantage of breathtaking aesthetics to appeal to the audience. But returning to the topic at hand, we can notice that Audemars Piguet has subtly placed attention-grabbing words in its titles, many of which are tied into the names of the products they are showcasing: New, Mille[nnial] Royal, Geometry, Teaser. With those simple words, Audemars Piguet can excite people with ideas of freshness and novelty, prestige, mathematical elegance, and exclusivity. A retailer looking to make a viral campaign might be tempted to be blunt, only speaking about the facts of its jewelry, but to stand out, doing research on aesthetically pleasing and exciting words may be a useful avenue for people looking to title their videos. A successful viral campaign also leads back to the company at every turn. This should be apparent in the campaign itself: A brand identity should be established immediately. But YouTube video-makers often overlook the simple fact that any information can be placed in the description box beneath the video itself. Ignoring descriptions means that a retailer is neglecting an opportunity to add another link to its website. YouTube also offers the ability to annotate videos, placing, as YouTube describes it, “text, links, and hotspots over [one’s] video”. While most YouTube patrons are apt to turn off annotations that occur during a video, there are opportunities to work annotations smartly into a video. For example, during the editing stage of creating a video, informational content can be added to an end slate: links to one’s website and social media accounts and links to one’s other videos. By doing this in the pre-upload period, the information can be placed in the video with the same level of polish and professionalism seen in the rest of the video. Viewers are more likely to trust in and engage with an end slate that seems professionally-made instead of some random annotation that pops up in the middle of a video, even if the two things contain largely the same information on the URL level. However, if a YouTube video suggests to viewers that they can find out more about the company’s other projects or products, it may be profitable to place small annotated video clips in the corner of the main video. These sub-clips can lead viewers to related content that they might find interesting. The rule of thumb in this situation is that an annotation in the video should make it better or more interesting. Tags might seem to be an afterthought for most video uploaders on YouTube, but in terms of virality, there are few things that are more important. Titles, the content of the video, and information connected to it are the factors that attract individual viewers, but for a video to spread, there needs to be an easy way for people to find the video in the first place and recommend it to others without having to remember the name of the video itself. Utilizing tags in that case requires a strategy that plays to the habits of internet surfers and YouTube’s technology. The best system of tagging is one in which the most relevant tags are placed at the beginning. For jewelers, this is the place to put the concrete information about their jewelry—words like “gold”, “ring”, “jewelry”, etc. A jeweler or its advertising team ought to consider which words generate the most buzz for its industry on YouTube. Also, it’s imperative that the tags include words from the title of the video, for the purpose of unifying the information in the video itself with the metadata framing it. After the high-search-volume words are frontloaded, the uploader can then insert a list of tags that are of descending relevance or are more specific than the generic, high-volume terms. After that, an uploader can insert tags that specify features in the video—businesses, people’s names, places, and so on. The tertiary sort of tag is the kind that will attract a very specialized audience. Tags that specify a video’s location in a series or a specialized piece of industry jargon should be included in this third category. Despite tags having a descending hierarchy of importance, one shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage of YouTube’s tag limit of 500 characters. After the three most prominent types of tags are attached to a video, there’s no reason not to think of creative ways to fill up the rest of the space with words. After all, the uploader of the video isn’t paying extra for that space, and one can never know which tag will be the one that really captures the most attention on any given video. Once the most obvious tags are put in, insert ones that might only be tangentially related to the video at hand: “quirky” for a humorous video; “stunning” for a video focusing on the elegance of a certain piece of jewelry; “exciting”, even, for a video that has some kind of action in it. The choices are infinite. The process of creating tags isn’t a one-shot thing, though. If an uploader is interested in the continued success of a video, an ear should be kept to the ground to keep on top of changes in search patterns on YouTube. For example, if search patterns start shifting, over time, from “lesson” to “how to”, it stands to reason that fewer people are going to run across a video that has the tag “lesson” attached to it. Being proactive in changing tags can help to ensure the virality of a given video. This article provides a long, but hardly exhaustive, examination of the concept of virality. YouTube and video campaigns were what we spoke about primarily, but a viral campaign doesn’t have to begin and end with YouTube. As evidenced with HRC’s “red equal sign” campaign, a viral advertising campaign can begin on any form of social media—Twitter and Facebook being the most prominent among the available options. While the information about YouTube metadata in this article may be narrowly tailored to videos, the canny makers of any social-media-oriented viral campaign ought to look into the lessons of other campaigns, both successful and failed, to see what can work for their specific goals.

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