The Viral Video Manifesto

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There is something of a paradox lurking just beneath the surface of Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe’s entertaining, useful and valuable book “The Viral Video Manifesto” – and it’s not the one in the book’s subtitle, “Why everything you know is wrong and how to do what really works”.

The paradox has to do with the very nature of viral videos and advertising.

For who among us has not been called into a meeting with an excited brand manager or CMO who wants to show us a video that is currently making the rounds of his friends on facebook. “Look at that” he says “it’s got 10 million views! And it was made for just peanuts! Why can’t we do that?”

About a third of the way into their book, Voltz and Grobe – the guys who gave us the Diet Coke & Mentos videos and who then went on to start the successful viral video studio EepyBird – explain just exactly why they can’t – or more precisely, why they won’t – do that.

“When you begin creating your own videos,” they write on page 75, “aim for content that’s different. Aim for content that stands out from the crowd. Aim for something mind-blowing. Aim for something weird. When you do that, you’ll be on track to having something unforgettable enough to go viral.”

And while clients think this is what they want, in fact, they don’t. What they want are the big results at low cost that they see someone else getting. What they want is to copy someone else’s numbers, without having to do what it took to get those numbers. But, as Voltz and Grobe explain:

“Being unforgettable means going out on a limb and trying something different. That can seem risky.

But the real risk in online video is in trying to play it safe. If you’re not different enough to distance yourself from the pack, your video won’t go viral and your entire effort will have been wasted. If your target demographic doesn’t find your video unforgettable, they won’t care and they won’t share, so don’t put your budget into television-style production techniques. Put it into making something unforgettable. That’s where you’ll see the return.

Are you bold enough to do that? Is your boss bold enough? Your legal department?” (p. 99)

It’s a fair series of questions, and frankly the fact that Voltz and Grobe ask them is what makes “The Viral Video Manifesto” better than most books on this subject. Because they have uncovered the most essential rule of any new form. The one that DW Griffith realized when he revolutionized the movie industry. The one that Ernie Kovacs implemented when he transformed the television industry. That this is a new form which people engage with differently than they do with other forms. Therefore it requires different rules to be effective – rules which may contradict the rules that have made you successful in other forms. These new rules will not only guide you to success, but they will provide you with new opportunities that those other forms do not provide. But they are not the old rules.

What are these new rules? Be true. Don’t waste my time. Be unforgettable. And, It’s all about humanity. On the surface they seem fairly obvious, but as you dig deeper into them you realize that what they’re really getting at – and by extension what makes the best viral videos work – is that they are stripping away the artifice of conventional video, because artifice is perceived in this medium as the moral equivalent of the press release. The sanitized, sanctioned and slanted communication of the corporation.

And in an environment where your video is competing with the drunken tweets of athletes that are breaking news on ESPN, with the cellphone videos of atrocities that topple foreign governments, with everything we’ve ever done that lives on the internet forever whether we want it to or not, it makes sense that the unfiltered is the lingua franca of the viral, for that’s what it is in the culture we live in.

Which is exactly, of course, what companies do not want to hear. They love filtered.

And that’s the paradox.

Can “The Viral Video Manifesto” help you resolve it? It can definitely help, because it’s packed with great examples via QR tags and case studies that will help you and your client understand just how nuanced a medium viral videos are.

Whether it gets you to that promised land of Diet Coke fountains, finger-biting Charlies, and sneezing baby Pandas, however, is up to you.

The Viral Video Manifesto by Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe was published by McGraw-Hill on 11/26/12 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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