It’s always been kind of funny how a word that has nothing but negative connotations in a doctor’s office is also one of the highest markers of success in the online video world. When we talk about a video going “viral,” we talk about it spreading across blogs and being quoted on Twitter — we talk about the way in which it’s become an addictive, essential piece of viewing for anyone engaged in Internet culture.
Aiming for a viral hit, though, is akin to throwing a dart as best you can, hoping to hit the bullseye. There are some skilled darts players working in the industry — men and women who can break down the mechanics of viral video the same way a Marine can strip down a field rifle — but there’s no such thing as a 100 percent success rate: The number of elements that have to be precisely in line for a video to spread are numerous, the culture fickle. In short: It’s a terrible basis for a business model.
Fortunately, as the audience grows, the industry matures. The concept of the stand-alone viral video is finding itself eclipsed by more companies coming to realize that creating content for a central brand and working to build the audience for that brand should take precedence. That’s why, in 2011, it seems inevitable that the notion of “viral video” as a core element of the industry will fade away. The funny cats and footballs to the groin will never disappear from YouTube (s goog), but the focus instead will be on the creation of recognizable brands, producing sustainable content that can be connected with advertisers.
Really, the future is already here, if you look at the YouTube Most Viewed of 2010. Not only were music videos from major labels so popular that YouTube separated them into a list of its own, but of the remaining videos, only two were unrelated to any previously existing brand: 12-year-old Greyson Chance performing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi and Paul “Bear” Vasquez discovering a Double Rainbow.
What’s happened to those guys? Well, Interscope Records tapped Chance as the second coming of Justin Bieber, and Microsoft (s msft) featured Vasquez in a commercial for Windows Live Photo Gallery. They may not have been connected with brands at the time, but they sure are now. They’ve taken viral success and built upon it.
Also, at the top of that most viewed list? Two different Next New Networks properties: Auto-Tune the News and Key of Awesome. Companies like Next New, including the Cheezburger Network, Howcast and Machinima.com, were ahead of the curve in 2010, working to create sustainable, recognizable brands that audiences definitely kept coming back to, especially on YouTube, with each company responsible for some of the most-viewed channels on the site, earning billions of views in the process.
The same strategy goes for enterprising YouTube creators like Phil Defranco, LisaNova, Freddie Wong, and Annoying Orange, which have harnessed their view counts in order to build their online presences and create additional projects.
The viral video’s value isn’t going away — instead, it has become an essential part of strategy for creating these sustainable brands. Independent shows are already finding success with this: The series White Collar Brawler, for example, got itself a ton of media attention and a boost in overall traffic last October thanks to a playoff anthem video for the San Francisco Giants, which went viral just as the Giants were closing in on the World Series.
Old Spice represents another example of this: The first Isaiah Mustafa-starring ads were fantastic, but what really blew everyone away in 2010 was the blitz of response videos. Ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, essentially, took one ad and created one of the freshest and most memorable campaigns in recent memory, one that lasted several months.
At SXSW this year, YouTube’s Margaret Gould Stewart broke down the appeal of viral videos as this: “Viral videos are always tapping into something human — love, food, sex, failure… Something that people can relate to and share with others.” It’s true that connecting with audiences on that primal level is a surefire way to draw in traffic, but there are other ways to do it now.
Meme culture will always feed on finds like Double Rainbow, which create fresh inside jokes for the Internet set, and it’s doubtful blogs like Buzzfeed and shows like Know Your Meme, which track fresh eruptions in the viral space, will ever find themselves wanting for material. But the industry is growing up, figuring out what’s working. It has evolved beyond the viral.
Check out our interview with former Know Your Meme mastermind Jamie Wilkinson about the art of going viral below:
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