This Too Shall Pass — but you’ll want to watch it a few times

Thanks to @DaveWaite for passing this along. All the ingredients for a viral video: unpredictability, humor, authenticity… and senselessness. Wow.

Boone Oakley

The story of Billy, Marketing Director, courtesy of Aden Hepburn and his Digital Buzz Blog. Do you agree with him that it’s the most creative website ever?

Web Site Story

Best viral video I’ve seen in a while: thank you, Leonard Bernstein  and College Humor!

Laughingsquid link

Dark Knight. Why so serious?

As announced by Aden Hepburn, here’s a very interesting documentary about the Cannes Grand Prix viral winner: a promotional campaign for the rollout of the Dark Knight movie which got 10 million people around the world involved in not just internet observation and virtual participation, but games, scavenger hunts, cell phone interchanges, and massive public demonstrations.

As a demonstration of the organizing power of a digital agency, it’s really, really impressive. As a display of human ingenuity and cooperation, it’s truly inspiring.

As an index of what kinds of activities are able to get 10 million people motivated enough to shout, cheer, travel, and work together … well, it’s a little scary.

“Why so serious?” you ask me?

Well, here’s the documentary… you decide.

It does prove that people love what 42 Entertainment calls “immersive”. They love to participate, solve mysteries, be surprised, be the first, make an impact, do stuff in groups.

Now, if we can only make water, energy, or the environment our great authentic, immersive quest! I was thinking more in terms of compost toilets to reduce water use, electric cars to reduce oil consumption … you know, stuff that really makes a difference in our lives and our world.

I don’t believe in Harvey Dent. And I’m still sad about the authentic story that played out as a backdrop to this imaginary promo escapade.

The lowly DNA of Zack Tampax

In many ways the attempt to go viral with a product-placement movie for Tampax is indeed brilliant. As a father of 4 daughters and companion of one woman through 432 periods, I found it hilarious. As a video producer I felt the production values were balanced just right for a piece that is meant to live on the web… the lighting was restrained but certainly cinematic. The acting was good, which also means the director Randy Krallman did a very good job in casting, managing the shoot, and picking the most authentic takes. Technically, it was flawless, and the script introduced just enough humorous twists to give dramatic structure to a very simple story.

As a promotional vehicle, the Zack Johnson story from P&G also measures up well against the Chip and Dan Heath test (Made to Stick):

Is it Simple? You bet. Boy exchanges one body part.

Is it Unexpected? Entirely.

Is it Concrete? What could be more linear and substantive? Le River Rouge…

Is it Credible? Of course not, but even here, the production did a good job of selling an implausible premise by keeping the impact on Zack and his friends feeling authentic most of the way.

Is it Emotional? Absolutely! In fact, while some have questioned choosing a story about a boy as a vehicle for influencing the buying habits of girls, I would say girls will love this story more than guys. Girls will find Zack cute, for starters, and lines like “guys are pigs” and “uh oh” are huge points of resonance for that audience. It effectively dramatizes a very serious emotional issue for all girls, which guys are largely insensitive to. And it’s emotional for guys, too… because it comically portrays how difficult life would be for guys if they had to deal with that monthly routine. In fact, Emotion and Unexpectedness are the two greatest qualities of the Zack Tampax campaign in my view.

Finally, is it a Story? Why yes, that’s the whole point. Who would watch a story about a girl having her first period? But make it a guy, and suddenly it’s a story lots of folks are drawn to.

So Zack scores well on the Made to Stick scale.

“Is it Terrible or Awesome?” as Jessica Evans asks in the Thinkers and Doers blog. In spite of its technical excellence and devilishly clever execution, I’m going to say “Terrible!” Here’s why:

Look behind the story and the humor, and what you have is the feeling that you’ve just had a joke played on you. It’s not fiction; it’s product placement. It’s not art; it’s science wrapped up to look like art. Look into Zack’s DNA, and you find, not a hermaphroditic gene but the same double helix of 1950s materialism that gave us Ozzie and Harriet and Soap Operas. Or the 60s promotional genius that gave us The Monkees.

Zack’s DNA is the simplistic 30-second melodrama that has always cheapened broadcast advertising, and as Neil Postman warned, contributed to a TV pattern of “amusing us to death”: the notion that a complex human problem can be solved instantaneously by a material product. Whether we’re selling Charmin or Pampers or Tide or Tampax, the message is always simplistic and demeaning: your life can be turned around in half a minute by this Amazing Brand.

The appeal of the internet, and of YouTube videos in particular, has been that in spite of their primitive technical quality, they are at least authentic. Matt really is dancing in those places.*  Susan the dowdy spinster really can sing like that. So while the guys who put together Zack are no doubt the smartest guys in the room, the aftertaste from watching a kid with a significant problem walk out of class, glowing with contentment because he’s discovered Tampax, is not unlike the feeling of being “had” that I got when I learned how Enron worked. When we see smart people using their intelligence in a way that simply manipulates people’s emotions (fear of electrical blackouts; fear of bloody clothes) to get them to buy our product which, in reality, is no different than anyone else’s product … well, to me that’s a very lowly kind of DNA, and it’s not the kind of influence I appreciate seeing propagated on the internet. To me it’s more of a virus than an enlightened viral strategy.

*(Yes, there’s an equally discreet product sponsorship that came after Matt invented his own authentic, viral, shtick — but that’s the difference between The Monkees and The Beatles).

Going viral

Today I attended a webinar by Studio Daily on the business of producing web video. It featured segments by Thor Raxlen and Darren Himebrook of GuerillaFX, who have done a lot of Nike work; Pat Carpenter of Creative Bubble, and Avi Savar, founder of Big Fuel.

Thor is a director and partner at Guerilla (in New York); Darren has just joined the company from a series of cool agency gigs including stops at Butler, Shine, Stern, & Partners in Sausalito, Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami. Darren has been given the interesting title Integrated D-P/Digital Strategist, a reflection of his experience working primarily with video cameras and other digital gizmos to create visuals that will mostly live on the web, but could see the light of day in other more traditional venues as well. Thor was quick to state in the discussion that at Guerilla they strive to create “Media Agnostic Storytelling”… which I thought was a pretty cool phrase that nicely restates my own core philosophy.

While I was hoping to hear that clever insight that would give us a secret formula for “going viral”, all the presenters ended up simply encouraging digital storytellers like me with the observation that no one seems to have the process figured out… although clearly some have more of a knack for it than others! Listening today reminded me of the recipe for tiger soup: first, catch a tiger: “Going viral begins with story.” Check. “Use the proven rules of filmmaking”. Check. “Overproduce, and press the limits of creativity…” Check on all the generalities. Check, too, on the specifics: get not only the main action, but the impact on people around (the happening dimension), and their reactions. Gather timelapse footage with a 35mm still camera like the Canon Mark III whenever possible; (I do this all the time and use the Nikon D300). Shoot with the best quality possible, to allow it to be dumbed down for the web. But what will go viral? No real insights here.

One of the questions revealed that most projects the GFX presenters were discussing had budgets of $50k to $150k … that probably elicited a chuckle from most of the listeners, as it did for me. While Nike can afford to throw that kind of dough at digital campaigns — using special cameras, following Olympians around the world to get truly amazing footage, (see the Nike spots on GFX’s reel page), the Fords and Ford Modeling Agencies and Fordham’s of the world are trying to get their message out with 1/2 to 1/10th of those numbers. So when the GFX guys talked about cutting corners by shaving off some crew members, etc., a lot of us have already cut the AD and the Production Designer and are working lean and mean. Most production crews in this business, I suspect, are down to 3 or 4 guys, and “cutting corners” here would take us down to 2 guys [or a guy and his girlfriend 🙂 ] . I didn’t  begrudge the advice, though… just felt good that I’ve already learned how to stretch a creative dollar to the max.

I hadn’t been aware of the Phantom 250fps to 1000 fps video cameras that can be rented from Abel CineTek and others. But I have my own secret weapon for low budget situations: the Sony HDR-SR100 which has a “slow smooth shutter” mode in which the camera runs for 4 seconds at 120 fps and then saves it out at 30fps — giving 12 seconds of silky smooth slomo. Here’s an example:

Another method of stretching a budget mentioned by the GFX guys is timelapse work. The movies you can get from choosing the right angle and then compressing what happens  can be downright mesmerizing. Here’s an example of a dramatic weather pattern that I shot about a month ago. This is the kind of compelling, arresting footage that I could easily see going viral:

A few more nuggets from the webinar:

  • Keep digital storytelling costs down by getting the client and agency client to agree to make decisions on the spot or defer to your judgment. My comment: overthinking is usually a mistake when you’re looking for authenticity.
  • Surprise is one of the most important elements of any successful digital storytelling piece. (Chip and Dan Heath say this in Made to Stick … it’s the U of SUCCES  (Unexpected).
  • Get the editor involved the day shooting begins (this is one reason why “preditors” like me have an advantage)
  • Content drives visitors (here Mark Calamin is telling us what we already know, right?)
  • Don’t make it an ad. If it feels like an ad, viewers won’t share it (unless it’s positively stupendous)
  • Make the content valuable. This is especially true of items that we hope will have substance and a brand message attached.
  • Sometimes (often) the value is the connection with an audience that the movie generates. Case in point, Evolution of Dance by Judson Laipply. In my view the biggest reasons for his 120 million views are the songs he chose (and the deft editing of them); plus the impressive, polished choreography that he obviously rehearsed quite well.
  • At other times, the sheer joy of a spectacle captures us — such as the spontaneous excitement and infectious fun of Matt the Dancer
  • Bottom line, a strong emotional connection is vital… that’s the E of Chip and Dan Heath’s SUCCES formula for sticky content.
  • Choose the name and thumbnail well — without editing this is normally the middle frame of your YouTube video. The right name greatly increases contagion.
  • Create events around the video – there’s nothing like a spectacle that is shot and posted by a crowd of people with cell phones.
  • Have at least one more related or more in-depth video already done and in place before you start uploading the ones you hope will go viral.
  • When promoting with email, use link-bait like “Exclusive”, “Behind the scenes”, etc.
  • Solicit comments and make it easy to join in discussion or sound off.
  • Use brand ambassadors but make sure they’re genuinely interested. This is a big issue with me: I applaud the growing movement against paying shills to generate “grass roots support” (this is called Astro-Turfing)
  • Use the Related Videos box on your own YouTube channel to post more of your own material, and thus maximize the promotional value to your brand without losing the stream of viewers to all the other “stuff” that will be competing.
  • Do your SEO ahead of time, and get the search terms you want into the mix before you go live
  • You can change the tags during the course of the video. Perhaps as the content changes this will help attract or hold interest if your video lives on your blog, for example.
  • Don’t use “video” as one of your search terms. Use tags that relate directly to the content under consideration.
  • Use Hey!Spread to automatically spread a video to multiple venues. They also suggested “Lookscool” but that one has shut down.

Finally, all the participants suggested that there is no real difference between doing “viral video” and any other creative media tool. It all involves creativity, content, listening, and scaling a budget to the particular communications challenge. All agreed that no one in the business likes the term “going viral”, though we all use it since everyone knows what it means. Bottom line, we try to be authentic and find a way of communicating a message that will resonate with the people we need to reach for our clients.

It reminds me of Lincoln’s statement that “Only events can make a president”. That’s true, but Lincoln had has cronies filling the seats of the nominating convention, and Obama had his email and twitter-driven grass-roots organization. And both men had messages to present that were timely, relevant, and well crafted to appeal to the audiences they faced. When lightning strikes, we can’t control the storm but we can place the rods, ground them properly, and set up the measuring instruments to evaluate the juice when it hits!

Thanks to StudioDaily and all the participants for putting on a useful and informative webinar!

Humor as perpetual emotion

An open letter to Andy Beedle…

I’m an Andy Beedle fan. Love your sense of humor, admire your ability to assemble a creative staff and deliver a measurable marketing success to college clients.

I share your commitment to the college market, and share your perspectives on many issues related to marketing to Millennials, including the value of authenticity, self-deprecating humor, and the major wrong-headedness of the Appalachian State “HOT HOT HOT” video.

But I think you’ve gone a bit overboard in your latest email, Andy…

Every week, I get several calls from College and University enrollment folks wanting to talk about having us do a new and innovative project for their institution. I also get slightly fewer calls from other higher ed marketing firms that are intellectual property fishing trips disguised as “partnership explorations” where they ask questions about how we come up with our ideas for online campaigns and I say non-committal things like, “We work hard on a collaborative and generative process that is informed by the interests of the target demo.” I have no idea what that means, but it makes those calls mercifully brief.

[Andy then proceeds to advocate ways of achieving viral marketing clout through humor, humor, and more humor.]

First, Andy, I want to say that going viral via humor is a very dangerous branding strategy for a college. Yes, some of your efforts on your web site are laugh-out-load funny, including the Stickman animations for Kettering, and the George Mason mascot video. Brilliant. But Beedle, you’re a Boomer, and while Millennials crave immediacy, Gen Y literacy, individualism, and social interactivity (according to Forrester), they are not the irreverent rebels you and I are. They get along with their parents (80-90 percent), buy brands (90 percent), tolerate and even desire supervision and protection, build communities rather than protest injustices, respect branded institutions if they sense authenticity, and are in many ways much more conservative than we are from the inside out.

For that reason, while there’s no doubt they love to find goofy junk on YouTube to laugh at with their friends, they are not necessarily going to be dismissive of a credible, authentic presentation about a school. They seem to be much less hypocritical than we are about getting an education and a job. We cry “down with the establishment” while we build the most materialistic lifestyle in history; they are often turning away from lucrative positions in order to find meaning in volunteering or other lower-income pursuits.

Second, your attitude toward other marketing approaches feels like smugness. Ideas, freshness, have never been a challenge for me personally; speaking for myself along with you and your staff and many other marketers I know, there are plenty of folks who feel relentlessly creative and have no problem coming up with fresh, prescriptive ideas to suggest to clients. Those of us who choose to specialize in the college marketing arena do so, I would guess, out of a desire to focus on a demanding niche that requires a very refined and nuanced level of creative precision. As a class, college marketers from A-beedle to Ztories (my tiny company), and all the Lipman Hearnes and Stamats in between, have much more trouble getting their clients to take risks than they do finding fresh creative ideas to suggest to their clients. [Am I right on this, fellow marketers?!] So, Andy, my hunch is that lots of college marketing consultants have got to feel the same as I do, impressed with your creativity but not necessarily your artistry.

Third, and most important, humor can attract attention, but it can also cheapen the brand of anything that purports to be worth a $120,000 price tag. Does Michelin go for humor? Cuteness, friendliness, family values; but not funny. Do Lexus and Volvo attach humor to their brands? No, good quality is not funny. Safety is serious. A quality diploma is no laughing matter.

And so for getting unqualified, happy-go-lucky leads, your viral yuck-it-up stuff can fill an inbox. Maybe even bring in a bumper crop of applications. But if you want those Kettering applicants to matriculate, and stay for 4 years because it was a good fit, it seems to me there needs to be a serious and credible set of messages that address substantive issues with the kind of immediacy and Millennial literacy that other schools are able to do through more dignified marketing efforts.

When I scratch below the brilliant, viral Kettering search effort, I see media which fails to bolster its most basic claims vis-a-vis dynamic, engaged applied science. Nor does it authentically address the tough situations students who actually go there must face in an economically distressed community. Should colleges take a caveat emptor approach to their image, or should they attempt to be more transparent about their actual weaknesses as well as strengths?

And the chemical activity level of the humor I’m seeing here can produce unexpected results. It would be damaging to a school like Whitman to make fun of liberal arts as an aspiration. It would be destructive to a Hillsdale to get funny about its preoccupation with politics. These are critical dimensions, august ideals, which fill the very air at these institutions. For me, the essence of brand elucidation requires colleges to begin treating 17-year-olds as adults who are going to be making serious decisions based on reason and, yes, the western rational tradition rather than some funny but ultimately senseless zinger by the school’s mascot.

Has the bump in interest provided by Stickman been a benefit to Kettering? Short term, it seems positive, but how will it play long-term? Here’s my concern: the downside of associating Stickman to a college brand, is the junk which has now been attached to Stickman at the top of the search engines: Subservient Stickman.

No, I’m not advocating stuffy, predictable bureaucratese. Most college videos I’ve ever seen are unendurable. I’m advocating truthful and memorable storytelling. I have seen the benefits of credible, compelling, immediate, socially-interwoven rich media that builds brand equity.

“Authentic” and “sarcastic” are not synonyms. Making it authentic does not mean making it disrespectful, irreverent, or ironic. It means making the claims precisely and demonstrably true, without hubris or puffery. And communicating effectively with rich media requires an emphasis on appropriate emotion, not “facts”. It means story-telling with just the right mixture of humor, humanity, and gravitas.

Will these kinds of weighty communication efforts go viral? Not often. But they’re worth paying for because they have value.

Ultimately, aspiring to get the marketing equivalent of perpetual motion is not just fraught with risk; it could be downright foolish and create a perpetual emotion, a damaging double-entendre that sticks like glue and measurably hurts the most important thing a college has: its reputation.

PS — Andy, I hope to meet you some day and settle this little disagreement over humor methods with a friendly (and funny) contest… hot-dog eating? jousting? inflatable Sumo smackdowns? Or we could have a recite-off of our favorite aphoristic writers. I elect Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, Mark Twain and Piet Hein… 🙂