Viral Video

Bad marketing makes me sick. From releases comprised of extreme hyperbole to buckshot-spray pitches and spam-filter clogging quantity, I am inundated with the bad and the ugly, along with the good. This week, I read a press release that had the profoundly poor taste to “leverage” the shooting at Virginia Tech in order to promote its video search engine. I won’t mention the company’s name here because I wouldn’t want to give them more attention than they deserve.

What is significant about the release, other than the depths to which those who aren’t good at their jobs will sink in an effort to get a little ink, is how it highlights the hottest marketing tool of the moment: user-generated video. From man-on-the-street news coverage to pseudo-journals by actress wannabes, DIY video is the “it” content medium du jour. Companies that get positive promotion as a result (think Mentos and Diet Coke) revel in the power of user-generated video and how it virally spreads the good word—making its way from inbox to inbox in much the same way a summer cold wends its way through a subway car.

As the nausea-inspiring example above illuminates, companies work frantically to figure out the formula for success. Yet it is that near-random nature of user-generated content that makes it so hard for organizations to wrap their marketing grip around. This week, I received three announcements from organizations sponsoring UGC video promotions. One came from Unity In Values, which launched its Mobile World Video Community, a user-generated video service that is kicking things off by collecting “video prayers for the troops.” Another, launched by, is called “myAccuWeather” in which users can “submit video forecasts from their own backyards.” The winner of the video challenge gets to visit headquarters to do a real forecast.

The third announcement really caught my eye: Thomson Gale is sponsoring an “I Love My Library” video contest until the end of June. The company is using its YouTube-hosted user-generated video contest to promote its new site, Librareo (, which is “dedicated to promoting, marketing, shouting from the mountain tops, and generally praising libraries, librarians, and the people who love them.”

I’ve always been a library enthusiast and I am a huge fan of my local library, particularly the children’s services division. Thomson may actually be on to something here, at least with people passionate about libraries. We library lovers may be a dying breed, but it only takes a small group of zealots to trigger a viral marketing outbreak.

Thomson Gale isn’t relying solely on the interest level of its target users on this one, though. The company will pay $5,000 to the winner of the contest along with $5,000 to their library. The company is stacking the deck as much as possible—target a devoted existing community, put a nice sum of money in the winner’s pocket, and feel-good money into a deserving library’s coffers.

Yet even while I admire Thomson Gale’s multi-faceted approach, what makes a virus virulent remains elusive. Choosing YouTube as a partner gives the project a bit of Generation-Y hipness, but I doubt that the YouTube set are the same folks rallying for local libraries. Maybe it will tip the other way; perhaps there are enough of us content-philes who will actually drag the video camera down to the library, edit our productions, and then register on YouTube to share our creations with the world.

It is the latter part where I’m usually stymied. Today, for example, I received a “chain letter” from Frode Hegland, CEO of The Hyperwords Company. This guy has a network. He mobilizes a virtual army when he asks for beta testers, so when he sends a plea to view and rate the new Hyperwords YouTube video, I know I’m one of many who promptly click through. His video had more than 3,500 views when I hit it. Okay, Paris Hilton washing a car has gotten over a million views in a year, but we’re only talking about a hot technology here, not a hot young heiress.

Despite a lack of nubile talent, the Hyperwords video is great. It effectively communicates the message and has charmingly low production values that make it fit right in with many of its YouTube kin. But, while I emailed Hegland back with my thoughts, I did not register to vote on the site. I lurked about and slipped away.

Perhaps viral video marketing will be a tool that only works compellingly with a specific generation (there are still people who respond to direct-mail marketing, after all). Or maybe it will just take the work of clever minds to find the right combination of an appealing theme, community support, and a touch of serendipity—like the right sneeze at the right place at the right time.