Surf's up -
A few weeks ago, while I was clearing out some of the bumpf and filler that pass for real messages in my Inbox, I noticed a pitch I had received from a PR agency working for a nationally known company.
"Please help promote our latest viral video," said the notice, pointing to a link where I could watch said video.
I clicked on the link. I watched it. I yawned. I stopped watching it ... after, I would guess, about 15 seconds.
If that video went viral, it didn't happen on my account.
Nor, I'm willing to bet, anyone else's. I never heard of the project again, and I certainly didn't come across it in any of the social networks that overlap with my own.
It's certainly not the first time a company paid some bucks to get "buzz" or "juice" through an online campaign, and had little to show for it later.
It also wasn't the first time I've been told to go look at a "viral video" that someone (usually a company or institution) has made. Sometimes, I've been impressed with what I've seen. More often, I've kind of shrugged and moved on to something else.
What's really struck me during those "meh" moments is this: simply calling a video "viral" does not make it so. To get a video, photo, drawing or any online item to take off and become truly viral involves a number of ingredients, and the first one is luck. There's also a clever title (for that clickability effect), content that can be quickly if not instantaneously grasped, something imaginative, a clean design, a cluster of early adopters ... to name just a few possible factors.
You also need to have a platform that makes viral-ness happen.
For instance, all the social media tools need to be in place, embeddable code should be in place and the item should be practically dying to replicate itself. They don't call it viral for nothing.
You're also going to need some good old-fashioned elbow grease. When a truly viral meme (the word applies to something that's passed around, and sometimes changed along the way) is happening, growth is measured exponentially. By that point, it's beyond anyone's control.
First, though, you need to stoke your own fire: send the link around, invite others to repeat it to their networks, mention it during idle conversation.
Just don't tell your friends it's viral, at least before that's actually happened.
Why? Because it's poison.
And it's presumptuous.
When something turns really and truly viral, it's because people make an emotional connection with it. They love that sense of discovery, the private joy that comes when you find something cool. Next is another very human impulse: the need to share.
It's word of mouth, the key fuel source on the web. Remarkably, it's most powerful when it's free ... and unforced.
It can also be breathtaking. Consider the case of Colby Chipman, the little boy in Paradise who - appalled when he saw his mother kick a toy penguin across the room - took immediate action. He made a sketch, called it "No Kicking Penguins" ... and a viral phenomenon that would sweep the world was born.
Some were drawn to the environmental message, perhaps, and others liked the off-the-wall humour. I think a lot of people just found it charming.
The innocence of the drawing was its greatest asset, and the campaign captured people's imagination. Getting posted (via an uncle) on Reddit helped, which helped spread the word - attracting media attention, which in turn got people talking.
Months later, I'm sure the site (www.nokickingpenguins.org) is still drawing traffic, and is raising money through T-shirt sales for the Autism Society.
You couldn't have designed it. That's something for marketing types to think about before they pre-emptively boast about their viral videos.
John Gushue is a writer and news editor for CBCNews.ca in St. John's. Twitter: @johngushue. Blog: johngushue.typepad.com.