Jon Thomas
Jon Thomas
Communications Director

Three Secrets to Successful Branded Viral Marketing

Like the search for the Holy Grail, viral marketing success has been an elusive treasure. While we see a new wave of viral content every day, there’s no clear path toward creating the next big thing. If there were, I’d be teaching my cat ninja skills (maybe I already am) and filming my twin babies talking to each other while watching the money pour in.

As difficult as it is to create viral media, it’s even harder when it’s branded. Audiences typically wouldn’t dare be caught propagating viral content produced by a brand. It’s sort of like inviting your parents to your party: They may be perfectly fine people with a great sense of humor, but just the fact that they’re, well, parents makes them inherently uncool. So what’s a brand to do?

Most viral content wasn’t created to be that way. I surely hope David’s dad didn’t think of YouTube views when the dentist turned up the nitrous oxide or Charlie as he bit his brother’s finger. Most content that garners viral success comes from such humble beginnings, but does that mean it’s impossible for brands to create content that can spread like this?


Three Secrets to Viral Marketing Success

While few brands can claim they’ve achieved viral success on purpose, multiple times, an LA-based musical quartet OK Go can. OK Go is very well known, and it’s not because of their music—it’s because of their music videos, which have been viewed more than 100,000,000 times. Below are some lessons that can be learned from OK Go.

1. You Might Fail. Actually, You Probably Will Fail.

When OK Go presented their music video for “Here it Goes Again” to the Capitol Records’ head of digital marketing, he told them that if the video ever got out, they’d sink. It was a very real risk. There was no guarantee that the audience would find the video funny or entertaining and would pass it along to friends. OK Go’s video broke every pre-conceived notion of music videos, all the way down to its $5,000 price tag. However, the video was shared and spread with more than 50 million views. (Note: It has since been removed and reposted under the EMI brand with fewer hits.)

Lesson for Brands:

You’re not going to create content without the risk of it not going viral. That’s not to say you shouldn’t expect positive results, but be prepared to take a few swings before you hit a homerun. Every brand wants a plan to create viral marketing, but once you set that as a goal, you are destined to fail.

2. Create Wildly Entertaining Content.

Each one of OK Go’s videos keep the audience’s eyes glued to their screen. In their second video for “This Too Shall Pass” they constructed an intricate and massive Rube Goldberg Machine, in a two-story warehouse, which operated all song long. No matter who you are, it’s probably the biggest Rube Goldberg Machine you’ve ever seen.

Cost: $30,000.
Views: 31,000,000+.

Lesson for Brands:

Whether you’re watching them dance unexceptionally on eight treadmills or watching marbles collide with each other to the beat, their content is enjoyable. No matter what your content is, even if it is traditionally boring, find ways to make it entertaining to your audience, like hiring Richard Simmons and dressing your staff in 80′s workout clothes. Care about them first. What will resonate? What will cause them to proactively share your content?

3. Create Content That Can’t Be Found Anywhere

The content certainly entertains, but it’s the uniqueness of each video that truly drives virality. In their third video, “White Knuckles,” the band hired 50 dogs and trainers for a three-minute 36-second choreographed cup stacking/puppy fest. It’s obvious how much planning was necessary, and there’s no question that every one of these videos was painstaking and difficult. But the result is something you can’t find anywhere else. If you want to see a video like this, you can only search for an OK Go music video. Not to mention, the videos are so amazing that the behind-the-scenes and making-of clips received hundreds of thousands of views on their own.

Lesson for Brands:

Think about this the next time you repurpose existing content hoping for viral success. Be prepared to commit time and energy to come up with a unique idea. Your Old Spice parody will never create as much buzz as the original. It’s the same mistake the Columbus Dispatch made when it failed to harness Ted Williams’s viral wave (the homeless man with the radio voice). eBooks, webinars and blog posts are great, but there are so many already out there. If you hope to find success in branded viral marketing, you need to reach further than anyone else has.

Ultimately, brands need to move away from the idea of viral in and of itself. I even feel a little dirty having talked about it, like I’ve been writing about get-rich-quick schemes or how to lose weight without ever working out. Your goal shouldn’t be to create the next viral sensation. It should be to create useful, entertaining and relevant content that your audience will enjoy and proactively pass along to their other audiences, expanding the reach and exposure of your brand.

What branded viral marketing successes have you seen? What are some more elements of a successful viral marketing campaign?

  • mae

    This is all great but to me what Kswiss did with their Tubes campaign makes OK GO’s viral achievements look like participation ribbons. To build an entire campaign that people want to watch in a society that lives for DVR and Tivo is pretty remarkable in my opinion.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic post. Keep it up!

  • Jon Thomas


  • Jon Thomas

    Kswiss’ campaign was indeed successful (we even wrote about it), however you have to look at what they put into it: aka, a lot of money. All those paid endorsers, along with THE Kenny Powers. While no Nike or Reebok, they’re also an established brand with a built in following, far bigger than OK Go’s. 

    The combined budget of the videos posted above is $335,000. Considering their money spent and the resulting buzz around the content, I wouldn’t dismiss it as participation ribbons. I’m not even sure it’s fair to put them on the same playing field. It’s the same reason why I don’t believe the Old Spice campaign was truly as brilliant as everyone else makes it out to be. 

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  • Stephan Martinez

    Great article. I’m actually using OK Go for an undergraduate paper on viral marketing and this article helped me. I’m a bit perplexed by the band though. Do you think that while theyve gotten tons of Youtube views, that it’s translated well to mainstream success? I feel that a band with this many views on so many of their songs should be more successful and they’re a bit under the radar. Why do you think that is? Anyone…? lol 3 years later.