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The new science of viral ads


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  • 1. TEAMWORK 30 DEFEND YOUR VISION COLUMN 38 Creative people RESEARCH 32 STATEMENT 34 Erskine Bowles on aren’t the only ones Hard-to-read type Technology adoption making sacrifices to needed in radical- improves readers’ affects national invest in America’s innovation groups recall wealth future FIRST The New Science of Viral Ads Five techniques can help companies make commercials that people will watch and share by Thales Teixeira I t’s the holy grail of digital marketing: the viral ad, a pitch that large numbers of viewers decide to share with family and friends. Several techniques derived from new and to find ones that keep them engaged. In addition, they make it possible to de- termine what kinds of ads are most likely to be shared and what types of people are most likely to share them. Here are five big eyes. They also focus on logos. This isn’t the boon it might seem: The more promi- nent or intrusive the logo, the more likely viewers are to stop watching— even if they know and like the brand. Why? People technology can help advertisers attain problems online advertisers face, along seem to have an unconscious aversion to this. In our research, two colleagues and I with solutions that have emerged from our being persuaded, so when they see a logo, use infrared eye-tracking scanners to de- research. they resist.ILLUSTRATION: CAMERON LAW termine exactly what people are looking The solution: Utilize “brand puls- at when they watch video ads. We also use PROBLEM 1 ing.” Smart advertisers unobtrusively a system that analyzes facial expressions Prominent Branding Puts weave the brand image throughout the ad. to reveal what viewers are feeling. These Off Viewers Experiments have shown that this can in- technologies make it possible to isolate ele- When people watch ads, they focus on a crease viewership by as much as 20%. One ments that cause people to stop watching few things, such as the actors’ mouths and of the best examples of the technique is March 2012 Harvard Business Review 25
  • 2. IDEA WATCHCoca-Cola’s animated “Happiness Factory” fanity, one employee immediately curses PROBLEM 4ad. (Like all the other videos referenced in because he knows the money will be used People Like an Ad butthis article, it’s available on YouTube.) It to buy Bud Light. Both videos hook people Won’t Share Itdepicts a fantasy version of what happens instantly. Getting time-crunched viewers to watch ainside a Coke machine when someone in- 60-second ad is no small feat, but it won’tserts money. A Coke bottle is shown repeat- PROBLEM 3 necessarily make the ad go viral. Experi-edly, but each appearance is quick; you can People Watch for a While ments I conducted on my own demon-almost imagine that the story would work But Then Stop strate that even though people may enjoywithout the bottle. In fact, a good ques- Although the Mr. Bean video initially suc- an ad themselves, they won’t always sendtion to ask when conceiving an ad is: If I ceeds in attracting viewers, it doesn’t keep it to others. In particular, I found that al-removed the brand image, would the con- them watching. That’s because the joy though shock may get people to watch antent still be intrinsically interesting? If the the video creates is delivered at a fairly ad privately, it often works against their de-answer is yes, viewers are more likely to constant level. We’ve found that ads that sire to share the spot.keep watching. produce stable emotional states generally Bud Light’s “Clothing Drive” ad uses the aren’t effective at engaging viewers for same cast, setting, and general structure asPROBLEM 2 very long. “Swear Jar.” Here, an office worker tries toPeople Get Bored Right Away The solution: Build an emotional create enthusiasm for a charity drive by of-After recording viewers’ expressions with roller coaster. Viewers are most likely to fering a Bud Light for every article of usedvideo cameras, we use automated technol- continue watching a video ad if they ex- clothing donated. The characters respondogy that measures the distances between perience emotional ups and downs. This by removing clothes they’re wearing, andvarious parts of the face to identify smiles, fits with psychological-research findings the scenes that ensue contain increas-frowns, and other expressions that cor- about human adaptability. When we come ing degrees of nudity (private parts arerelate closely with emotions. (Previous re-search relied on human coders; automatingthe process improves accuracy and allows Videos that deliver constant levels offor a much larger sampling.) After analyz- joy or surprise don’t engage viewersing thousands of reactions to many ads,second by second, and tracking exactly for very long. Advertisers need towhen people stop watching, we found thatkeeping viewers involved depends in large build an emotional roller coaster.part on two emotions: joy and surprise. Tomaximize viewership, it’s important togenerate at least one of these responses into a warm home on a cold winter day, or obscured by black bars). Like “Swear Jar,”early on. Traditionally, though, advertisers when we receive a pay raise, we experience “Clothing Drive” garnered high viewership.have constructed narratives that escalate pleasure, but the feeling is transitory; the But unlike “Swear Jar,” it was not widelytoward a dramatic climax or a surprise end- novelty soon wears off. So advertisers need shared. The nudity was too Such commercials may have worked to briefly terminate viewers’ feelings of joy The solution: Surprise but don’ton TV decades ago, but today’s online or surprise and then quickly restore them, shock. Consider Evian’s “Roller Babies”viewers need to be hooked in the opening creating an emotional roller coaster—much ad, which features computer-generatedseconds. the way a movie generates suspense by al- infants roller dancing to a hip-hop song. It The solution: Create joy or surprise ternating tension and relief. uses all three strategies suggested above.right away. Two videos stand out for elic- The “Swear Jar” video makes skillful The brand is relatively unobtrusive but ap-iting these emotions at the start. In one, the use of the roller-coaster technique. The pears frequently throughout the 60-secondfamiliar Apple spokesman is joined by Mr. opening scene, which sets up the ad’s con- spot. Within seven seconds of the opening,Bean, who dances crazily for the remain- ceit, lasts just 15 seconds. The remainder viewers see an infant on roller skates mov-der of the spot. (The video, it turns out, is of the 60-second spot consists of seven ing his head rhythmically, like a rapper—anot an official Apple ad but a well-crafted scenes with bleeped-out profanities, each scene that’s sufficiently surprising to hookparody of Apple’s “Get a Mac” series.) conveying its own surprise and humor. By them. The rest of the spot consists of 11Bud Light’s “Swear Jar” ad opens with a delivering a fresh dose of these elements different scenes of infants executing de-surprise: When an office sets up a jar that every six seconds or so, the ad holds on to lightful dance moves. Unlike the Mr. Beanworkers must pay into as a penalty for pro- its viewers. video, in which the dancing is continuous,26 Harvard Business Review March 2012
  • 3. HBR.ORG FW: HEY, CHECK OUT THIS AD UTILIZE “BRAND PULSING” COCA-COLA—“Happinessthis ad cuts from scene to scene, modulat- Factory”ing the viewer’s joy and offering repeated ANALYSIS: Instead of puttingsurprises. “Roller Babies” has been viewed the logo front and center, this ad weaves it unobtrusively through-more than 50 million times on YouTube. In out—a tactic that can increasethe world of viral ads, that’s a home run. viewership by 20%. YOUTUBE VIEWS: 5.4 millionPROBLEM 5People Still Won’t Share the AdEven when an ad has been perfectly tai-lored to go viral, only a subset of those who OPEN WITH JOYwatch it will share it. In fact, my research APPLE (PARODY)—“Mr. Bean”shows that whether or not an ad is shared ANALYSIS: Unlike traditional TVdepends as much on the personality types ads that build to an emotional climax, this video elicits joy in itsof viewers as on the ad itself. opening seconds, immediately The solution: Target the viewers hooking viewers.who will. I’ve identified two attributes of YOUTUBE VIEWS: 5.5 millionpeople who frequently share ads: Extrover-sion and egocentricity. The first is hardlysurprising, but the second is, at least on theface of it. Why would egocentric people beinclined to share—an act that’s usually as- CREATE A ROLLER COASTERsociated with helping others? I believe that BUD LIGHT—“Swear Jar”in many cases it’s because they are look- ANALYSIS: Eight scenes, eaching to increase their social status. Their with its own punch line, deliverprimary aim in posting or e-mailing an the interrupted doses of joy andad link isn’t to make others joyful; it’s to surprise needed to sustain view- ers’ interest.display their own taste, media savvy, andconnectedness. YOUTUBE VIEWS: 5.5 million It’s hard to target viewers on the basis ofpersonality type, but that’s apt to change associal media evolve. For instance, compa-nies are already placing ads on the pages of SURPRISE BUT DON’T SHOCKFacebook users who frequently post links BUD LIGHT—“Clothing Drive”and are reaching out to Twitterers who ANALYSIS: The relatively lowhave large followings. The ability to find number of views suggests thatthese archetypal sharers will become just people felt inhibited aboutas important as the ability to reach certain sharing this ad with family and friends.demographic groups has traditionally been. YOUTUBE VIEWS: 1.9 millionAS VIEWERS gain increasing control overwhich ads they sit through, advertisers willhave to become more consumer-centric. USE ALL OF THE ABOVEThey’ll need to think harder about the EVIAN—“Roller Babies”value a video offers to the viewer, instead ANALYSIS: This ad has every-of considering primarily how well the thing: It opens on a joyful note,video serves the brand. The result will be cuts between scenes for an emo-ads that are both more effective and more tional roller coaster, and isn’t too edgy for people to share.enjoyable. HBR Reprint F1203A YOUTUBE VIEWS: 51 million Thales Teixeira is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. March 2012 Harvard Business Review 27
  • 4. Harvard Business Review Notice of Use Restrictions, May 2009Harvard Business Review and Harvard Business Publishing Newsletter content on EBSCOhost is licensed forthe private individual use of authorized EBSCOhost users. It is not intended for use as assigned course materialin academic institutions nor as corporate learning or training materials in businesses. Academic licensees maynot use this content in electronic reserves, electronic course packs, persistent linking from syllabi or by anyother means of incorporating the content into course resources. Business licensees may not host this content onlearning management systems or use persistent linking or other means to incorporate the content into learningmanagement systems. Harvard Business Publishing will be pleased to grant permission to make this contentavailable through such means. For rates and permission, contact