How to Improve Your Web Ad's Chance of Going Viral

Still from the Pick Them Back Up campaign Courtesy Procter & Gamble

Question: You wrote about making money on Web videos. What about ways to make our company’s online advertisement a hit? We hear about ads going viral—what’s the best way to make that happen?

Answer: Wouldn’t it be great if there were a simple prescription that could guarantee your Web ads would turn into viral videos, shared online from one social media account to another until you had a hit of Gangnam Style proportions?

Unfortunately, there is no secret recipe that can truly predict what is going to catch on with the online masses, which is why so many carefully constructed, expensive Web marketing campaigns fall flat.

There are, however, a few things to keep in mind that may help save your online ad from becoming a dud:

Grab attention: “Ingredients for a viral video include an element that immediately hooks viewers,” James Percelay, co-founder of New York City digital marketing agency Thinkmodo, writes in an e-mail. If your ad is unique and surprising, it will be remembered. And something that sticks in viewers’ minds is something they’ll want to share with friends and family.

Make it emotional: “Think about the Dove Beauty Sketch ads and how wildly popular they were,” says J.T. Hroncich of Capitol Media Solutions in Atlanta. “Google’s Dear Sophie ad is another one—it showcases the product’s features while beautifully telling a story.”

Keep it short: Under two minutes in length—and not too slick—is the way to go. “Polished production values can diminish the impact of a viral video,” Percelay writes. You also don’t want overt branding or a heavy-handed sales pitch that will turn viewers off.

Use inspiration and humor: Make viewers laugh and show how someone overcame an obstacle. “Or just acknowledge regular people doing something really remarkable,” Hroncich says. “A great example of that is the Proctor & Gamble ads about the mothers of Olympians. We sometimes take for granted the little sacrifices parents have to make to help their children achieve greatness. It was nice to see the people behind the medals and what they endured to get their kids to that point.”

Be strategic: Release your ad at a time when your competitors’ ads aren’t being released and you’ll need fewer views to climb to the top at YouTube, advises Alexander Debelov, chief executive of online ad platform Virool. You can also beta-test your ad with a sample of viewers and improve it with their feedback.

Keep it going: “When you see the pace of video views starting to slow, use more paid ad views and reach out to your biggest fans with new incentives for social sharing,” Debelov writes in an e-mail.

But not everyone advises falling back on paid placements. Percelay says his agency won’t do it. “Thinkmodo never engages in this practice because it believes that generating an artificial audience does not effectively reach a brand’s desired consumer,” he says.

“Organically earned views are the only ones that really count and are able to create a true viral effect for your marketing initiative.”

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