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How to Build a Better Viral Ad


Making an ad that costs nothing and reaches everyone isn't easy.

Water and viral advertising sound about as exciting as an old pair of shoes, unless you're stuck with foul drinking water and an ad to fix it that moves no one.

Advertising mavens filled the Paley Center for Media in New York Wednesday to learn how to make a good viral ad. To an outsider, the inside scoop on viral advertising comes down to this lighting bolt of an insight: Some ads work and others don't.

Here's a viral ad now on YouTube that works: "World Water Day", which was developed by Charity Water. It runs 2 minutes and 37 seconds. The ad generated thousands of dollars in donations, allowing the organization to drill new domestic water wells in Africa, Scott Harrison, founder and president of Charity Water, told participants of the Advertising Week seminar.

The theory of viral ads is simple, but the practice is complicated. Any number of minor slips can instantly kill interest in the ad, and it's sometimes hard to determine why one sticks and another doesn't.

First, the basics: A good viral ad defines the problem, tells a story, and calls the viewer to action. The ad tells a new or shocking story without becoming formulaic and boring, the death of many cutesy commercial pitches. That translates as a novelistic touch -- let the event or image speak for itself without pounding its importance through the viewer's head.

Unlike an advertisement on commercial TV, a viral ad on YouTube can run several minutes and develop a pointed narrative -- strengths shown in the World Water Day ad. But this creates new challenges because the story and the images must mesh to convey the message. Without a clear story line and sharp images, ads appear disjointed, draw scant attention, and therefore spark little or no response.

Steve Grove, head of News & Politics for YouTube, said non-profits often use ads to drive traffic to their websites. Successful ads are concise, emotional, and offer a call to action -- join an organization, write a letter, or make a donation.

Defined broadly, viral ads are just unpaid spots. The ads cost little to produce, at least by TV commercial standards, and run for free on the Internet, especially YouTube.

Viral ads are especially effective in reaching teens and pre-teens who typically spend more time online than with legacy media such as radio or TV.

"Digital is where kids live," Grove said.

Knowing your target audience seems like a given in advertising, publishing or speechifying. In advertising, this is dressed up as understanding the target audience's "DNA," or basic social characteristics, and putting the message in that context. In other words, don't talk Latin to a surfer.

While not explicitly viral, Toyota (TM) uses similar techniques and posts professionally produced ads for its gas-electric hybrid, Prius, on YouTube, allowing it to reach a key audience.

An ad for BMW hits all the right notes about success, wealth, and sex.

Both ads are long and chatty by commercial TV standards.

More importantly, both spin a tale beyond "buy this bucket of bolts" -- Toyota's is straightforward and serious while BMW's pitch is circuitous and humorous.

Panel members said viral techniques are infinitely adaptable if the organization making the pitch understands the social values of the target audience.

This suggests that those developing the ads will have short careers -- like professional athletes -- because values and interests change from one age cohort to another, and someone too old risks the digital equivalent of saying "23 skidoo" to the next generation.

But properly understood, the possibilities for viral advertising -- broadly defined -- are just about limitless.

"Even Smokey Bear has a Facebook page," Harrison said.
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