Play It Forward, Chapter 1: Identifying Criteria for Success With Viral Video

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago AdvertisingWhat makes a video viral? What do the most viral clips have in common? And what lessons can we learn to insure our video work in this space is as forward-friendly as possible?

I want to spend this week exploring this topic and welcome any input you can share because fundamentally, those of us with deep experience in consumer video need to reset our expectations and objectives. As creative strategies migrate from focusing solely on the needs of broadcast network videos to the more specific demands of social network broadcasting, knowing what most encourages viewers to share and spread your video will be critical to brand success. Clearly, not all viral videos are marketing driven, but even those that aren’t can provide clues about the common denominators of viral success.

Why should this matter?  Why fret about something that while popular, still represents a proportionately small percentage of client marketing budgets?

Because the future of brand-building advertising–the classic television image spot creatives love to produce–will continue moving into this new space.  Creating engaging, entertaining, relevant video for brand advocates to adopt and forward audiences they select as relevant insures more impact for your message than a general broadcast airing. In a marketplace increasingly defined by affiliations, tribes or communities, marketers that create surprising, engaging video that speaks directly to those groups will find more return for their brand image investment.

Which means nothing less than a reinvestment in the kind of production that excites and pushes creative people.

The future of high-end video production will be vastly different, but it will also prove to be a hill of fun. We just must do our homework around strategies, techniques and lessons for building success in this new forum. Video storytelling skill is not platform dependent, it’s aptitude based. And it would be a massive waste to dismiss the skills and lessons so many of us acquired over the years, merely because we’re ‘television creatives.’

Vision is vision. And ideas either excite or they don’t. In every medium…


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


Rethinking Video from Broadcast Networks to Social Networks

As an industry, we have blathered about “Content” for so long that today, when it makes broad, immediately-obvious sense for mainstream advertisers to leverage it, many clients discount it’s mass relevance.  Shame on us.  With the massive changes brought by Facebook and other social networks, our audience now expects content to find them.  And not just content–good, relevant, engaging content.  After all, it’s been pre-vetted by their own trusted peers.

Element 79, Chicago Advertising, Dennis RyanAll of us view friend-forwarded videos everyday and yet the the perception of online video as somehow exotic persists.  We’ve allowed it to become the purview of highly-specialized marketing firms and that’s incredibly stupid.  Despite being oft-dismissed as no longer relevant, no other marketing organization has more experience creating emotionally-compelling, strategically-relevant video for clients than a ‘traditional agency’ that has perfected video-storytelling over decades.  Studies prove that viewers invest three times more time watching brand videos when they are shared by consumers.  With that kind of deep engagement, it’s no longer about using the web because it’s a cheap video medium–it’s leveraging the web because it’s a more powerful video medium.

Creating video content for social networks is not hard.  It’s not exotic.  It simply requires we adjust the messages we’ve long created to suit the medium.  We need to make ‘sharing’ the video strategy.

And whether we want to call that ‘content’ or ‘online video’ or ‘shareable stories’–the final measure of success here boils down to whether our video storytelling engages or not.  The traditional elements of story, production value, and visual editing most determine success or failure with online video.

Like it or not, those are traditional skills.

And if we want to reassert our value to our clients, it’s time ‘traditional agencies’ get back to another traditional skill–salesmanship.  Of ourselves.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


Brands Should Rethink “Social Media” as “Membership Media”

First off, no one using Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube thinks of it as “Media” anyway–a “Network” perhaps, but “Media” is a sociologist’s term: far too egg-heady to accurately reflect the highly-personal posting and exchanging experience.

No, to an ever growing share of the population, “Social Networks” are simply the next iteration of  e-mail: easy, practical places to share, create and define whatever content they wish to encounter.  Brands adept at adjusting their mindset to these new environments can interact in positive, sales-driving ways, so long as they never forget these platforms are “Social” first and foremost.

But that’s really, really hard to do when you have quarterly sales goals to hit.  It’s even harder when the ways of reaching consumers are new and constantly changing.  How can brands master a language that is less than six years old, far from defined, and not about us? And what exactly should you do with those people that, for whatever reason, decided to Like you?

You can start by rethinking “Social Media” as “Membership Media.”  These are people who joined your brand club–they’re your brand’s Membership.  Why did they join?  According to a study entitled “Facebook X-Factors” by ExactTarget that asked consumers that very question, the #1 response is “To receive discounts and promotions”--no real surprise there.  But the #2 reason, and trailing by a mere two percentage points, is “To show my support for the company to others.”

People Like brands on Facebook because they consider them a Badge.  It’s not only about couponing and free stuff, people Like brands for emotional reasons.  This is  classic brand advertising, adapted to a platform where marketers must cede control to be successful.

But ceding control is a far cry from ceding influence.  Adapting a “Membership Media” perspective helps crystallize various techniques of engagement.  These are no longer mere consumers, these are people who have self-selected into what Seth Godin describes as a Tribe.

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea… A group needs only two things to be a Tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” Seth Godin, Tribes

The badge is the shared interest.  And Facebook provides a way to communicate, one so powerful that the average user spends more than fifty-five minutes a day there.  Now if American Express has taught us anything over the years, it’s that “Membership has its privileges.”  So brands ought to be thinking of privileges to extend to their online membership.  What can they do to support and encourage the shared interests that brought these people together in the first place?  Many times, that won’t be product centric, but it must always be emotionally-relevant.  With your Membership, it’s less about being “On Strategy” and far more about being “On Story.”

Defining a brand Membership’s Story, finding ways to encourage the sharing and spreading of that story, and creating a strongly-Badged sense of belonging are the new challenges for brands in these social spaces.

New challenges deserve new creative thinking.  Would a brand invest in A level production talent for a video message they plan to only ‘air’ in free, online outlets, not in network television?  If they thought their membership would respond well to it, why wouldn’t they?  These people won’t simply be ‘exposed’ to the message, they’ll seek it out.  Then share it.  Maybe even add to it.

No one knows exactly where Brand Advertising is going these days, but if you can keep an open mind, it could really be fun.  We’re heading into lots of fresh powder…


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


The New Marketing Landscape of O.P.E.N. Media

In a culture where opinion has a mass channel and information spreads at unprecedented speeds, we need to rethink our notion of media mixes.  Today, a more holistic view could be O.P.E.N. media: Owned, Paid, Earned and unfortunately, Negative.

Element 79 Chicago Advertising Dennis RyanFrom the very beginning, a few marketers and brands have realized the value of the media they Owned.  Wheaties drew attention by putting athletes on their box, Bazooka Joe used his comics, and Apple has long sold their brand through the style-setting impact of their clean, elegant industrial design and packaging.  More recently, Uniqlo has done it through their ever changing, always fascinating websites and Anthropologie through one of the oldest and simplest retail mediums: the store window.

Advertising agencies developed to create content and strategize placement for Paid Media.  We’d buy TV and radio time, take out space in magazines, newspapers and billboards, and invest in sponsorships and events.  It required making choices about where you should place your creative bets, but by and large, it worked.  And still does.

More recently, the world of Social Media introduced the notion of Earned Media.  Smart brands invest time in creating relationships with influential people in the online and offline world, and earn positive public relations as a result.  Or they create content and provide it to news shows and video outlets for others to share.  In the end, a brand must do something worthwhile or interesting to encourage people to share their story; they must earn it (On a side note, some like to parse out Shared Media: the pass alongs made possible through services like Reddit and Digg.  To me, this is hair splitting: Shared Media is simply a subset of Earned Media).

And yet, there is a fourth Media all marketers need to keep in mind today: Negative Media.  Brands have always had to deal with cranky customers, with complaints and disagreements over return policies or product efficacy.  But these days, consumers can turn to a mass channel of opinion to post their grievance and spread their displeasure.  In this modern world of Immedia, news, stories and cultural moments spread with unprecedented speed through online ecosystems.  And few things spread as quickly as bad news–United Breaks Guitars, anyone?  If a story is presented compellingly or if it captures the public imagination, brands can quickly find themselves in trouble due to a virulent outbreak of Negative Media.  Dominos had those yokels blowing their noses on their pizzas, Toyota had the Prius problem, and a long list of brands knows what happened when Tiger blew his cover.

Negative Media is a relatively new phenomenon.  With the individual empowerment of Web 2.0 and social networks, the ability to spread opinion far and wide has never been cheaper, faster or more effective.  That’s why keeping an ear on the online chatter about your brand means so much these days.  A good social media policy can mean the difference between being caught by a story or getting ahead of it.

Negative Media is just another argument for converging traditional marketing and public relations, particularly Social Media.  Coordinating these disciplines from the outset of brand marketing enhances the impact of the traditional efforts that get brands recognized even as it activates the advocates to drive brand recommendation.  And it can insure all of these investments by continually monitoring online dialogue for Negative Media.

It’s a 24/7 world.  Now we gotta be always O.P.E.N.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


Yes, Brands Are Opinions, Even the Element 79 Brand

In today’s socially-networked, immediate-impact world, brands suffer when negative opinions spread unchecked.  When those negative opinions are unfounded or severely exaggerated, the damage can be massive (ask any ex-Bear Stearns employee about that one).

Because in today’s socially-networked, immediate-impact world, opinion trumps reality.  As soon as it forms, opinion spreads through mass viral channels like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.  And because it is opinion, it doesn’t require fact-checking.

Last week, I got a wake up call that this truth applies to our Element 79 brand as well.  In the finals of a new business pitch, a CEO mentioned that he Googled Element 79 and wondered when we were gonna merge with DDB?

We’re not.  Never were.  But due to a newspaper column written by a speculatively-inclined columnist for the Chicago Sun Times over fifteen months ago, that rumor popped up in our prospect’s search engine.  Worse, when I shared this anecdote with a few friends at other shops in town, they admitted hearing the same thing.  When the rumor mill, or at least irrelevant suppositions, can influence the outcome of new business, you’ve got trouble.

We’ve spent two years reinventing and rebuilding our agency.  And slowly, we’ve been regrowing.  Today we have about 110 people busy working to help our clients thrive during these tight times.  We want Cricket to leverage their national coverage into a leadership position for value innovation in wireless.  We want Supercuts to show the value of their affordable haircare so that if and when the economy turns better, people realize they don’t have to pay more to look good.

We want Amway to help people supplement their incomes and Central DuPage Hospital to be the first choice for superior healthcare — especially as they bring Illinois’ first Proton Therapy Center online this Summer.  And we want Harris to keep helping people realize how much better the right bank can be.

We also want to do big things for the half-dozen new clients we’ve brought in these past five months.  We want LasikPlus to show glasses wearers that this simple procedure can radically improve their lives quickly and safely.  We can’t wait for the private equity firm GTCR to launch their revamped website and concise brand story in May.  And we take inordinate pride in winning three new brands–Wolf Chili, Alexia, and Banquet–from our friends at ConAgra.

There’s an old adage about physicians taking their own medicine.  And so we’re also going to be taking some steps to clean up our online hygiene.

It wasn’t good news to hear.  But like criticism from a smart coach, it will make us better.  And that’s the daily goal.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


PS:  Michael Gabriel and Gus Gavino made the video above for a recent pitch.  Though we didn’t prevail there, the energy of this piece is just delightful.  The track is “100,000 Thoughts” by Tap Tap.

A Currently Accurate Graph Regarding Monetizing Twitter (“Because Top Ten Lists are for cowards”) included this with a list of other funny charts about the micro-blogging platform.  Like all great satire, there’s more than a drop of truth to the commentary.

By the way, “Food Trucks” refers to street vendors or mobile mini restaurants in major cities.  Twitter is often their only marketing as they tweet their current location or specials for their fan followers.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

And So, The Golden Era of Social Networks Begins To Dim…

If you are in your forties, you remember the early days of cable television when it did not carry commercials. And if you’re now a parent in your forties, you recognize just how saturated Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and the rest have become with their non-stop barrages of pop-up ads and relentless cross-promotion.

Marketers voraciously consume any platforms that aggregate a market, be it through broadcast or narrowcast.  Thus Fan pages and the ever-expanding reach of Facebook Connect, CMO Twitter feeds and iPhone apps.  It’s impossible to deny that advertising messed up cable when it was a nascent phenomenon, just as it will soon mess up Facebook, Twitter, et al.  That’s already begun to happen as those platforms scramble for ways to cash in on marketing dollars and ‘synergies’, but at the moment, the larger threat to Social Networks is legislation.

In Erik Sass’ provocative piece for MediaPost, he describes how the FDA is investigating the way over-the-counter pharmaceutical manufacturers leverage social media.  This government body has already announced that they are considering imposing a code of conduct; a possibility that prompted the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) to submit its own voluntary standards in hopes of fending off legislation.  The result has been loads of theoretical conjecture and debates over the limits of various marketers’ “spheres of influence.”

Pharma messages have always carried heavy legal constraints.  If you watched the Olympic coverage of the Four Man Bobsled Finals, you saw three different pharma ads for three different products, each saddled with a disclaimer that mentioned the same potential side effect of “suicidal thoughts.”  That’s a pretty strong deterrent in an erstwhile sales message; “On second thought, maybe I’ll just learn to live with my Restless Leg Syndrome, Doc…”

And so regulatory agencies will try to clamp down on social network messages, an act that will inevitably expand beyond marketers to influence and limit individual networking.  Safeguards, filters, guidelines: right now, they are set at the platform level but soon, expect to see them emanating from regulatory bodies.

I don’t think this because I’m a pessimist, it’s just that I’ve seen it before.  You know, back when MTV aired music videos.

Yeah, I know.  I’m in my forties.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Could We Declare a Ban on Lexeme Proliferation?

Between easily-excitable news organizations and attention-getting stunts on social networks, a raft of new word-forms spontaneously generates everyday.  This was my last straw:

It’s snowing in Chicago right now.  It snows a good deal in Chicago.  And yet, we’ve gone centuries without striving for ‘snowphistication.’

Please; if it’s not in the OED, and you’re not making a joke, think twice about creating a Frankenstein word.  We have over 800,000 perfectly good words to choose from already.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

You Might Not Understand Word Of Mouth Advertising, But Chances Are You Practice It

I’m a huge believer in word of mouth advertising.  The power of recommendation to close a sale makes the kind of intuitive sense that renders quantitative analysis expensively redundant.

Particularly when you read a story like the one printed in Section D of yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle.  It outlines how Facebook now directs more online users to content than Google does.  What they refer to as “friend-casting” information makes Facebook a huge force in directing the flow of web traffic, particularly to major portals like MSN and Yahoo.

This simply proves that when we make small talk on social media, we like to share what we’ve recently seen, read or heard (“The “My Sharona” guy from the Knack just died!”).  And since we’re talking to friends who know our interests, we’re likely to click on those links (“Oh my gosh–I didn’t know his brother was Dr. Kervorkian’s lawyer!”).

This constant digital connectivity has created a modern world of easy, fast and omnipresent recommendation.  With a few clicks, we can get an opinion about that movie we’re considering, a review of that book we heard of, a friend’s experience at that hot new restaurant.

Facebook, as an increasingly frequent touchpoint of our every day, provides a very convenient marketplace to trade those thoughts and opinions.  All of which leads some pundits to predict that social media will become the internet’s next search engine.  Maybe, but I think social platforms operate slightly differently, as a conversational dialogue.

Google informs you about what you find interesting.

But Facebook informs you about what your friends find intersting.

That’s social.  And it drives an increasing amount of choices these days.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Social Networking: Superpowering The Meme-ing of Life

At some point along the way, the notion of ‘an inside joke’ was rechristened as the far more intellectual sounding ‘meme.’  A meme is a fancy term for a catchphrase, concept or joke form that pops up and spreads seemingly spontaneously among certain groups.

You’ve seen memes on line, even if you’ve never called them by that name.  The LOL Cats have been an adorably-daffy theme for a long time.  The Courage Wolf is a meme, and a damned manly one at that.  Kanye West’s “I’mma let you finish” take-offs, the supered Hitler commentaries, the keyboard cat riffs: all of them set up an idea and then spurs a digital form of ‘top this’ that encourages people to jump in and contribute to the fun.  As links spread through emails. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook postings, the virulence of these memes expands exponentially.


Which brings me, however circuitously, to explaining the attached photos of Steve.  Steve is a two inch plastic elephant that our creative team found on the sidewalk outside the New Zealand airport when they first arrived last week.  He has been quickly adopted as a good luck totem for this shoot, earning the title ‘the pachyderm of positivity’ and being featured in an ever-widening array of digital portraits.  Over the past week, Steve has shown up everywhere they have: traipsing across a black sand beach, in the hands of Japanese tourists, on a deep purple cabbage in a field of produce.

The internet can be a magnificent source for information.  But add the lighthearted sociability of social networks, and it’s suddenly a highly-amplified source for amusement and sharing.  In a very human way, meme-ing brings meaning to life as people look for ways to connect with others through the social delight of creativity.  A smile or a laugh is powerful currency in a social network, which is why any decent meme accelerates so quickly when introduced there.

And so, should the Steve the plastic elephant meme ever start trending toward ubiquity, I’ll be sure to name-check him in my Facebook update.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79