Social media’s strength is in its ability to reach a broad audience, spreading information within mere seconds in a cascade of person-to-person referral. Nothing more powerfully illustrates this capability than viral videos, which spread near instantaneously across the net, challenging and engaging viewers.
What makes a video go viral? Some viral videos, like the Dove real beauty ads, which address gender norms and stereotypes for both men and women, become popular through their discussion of relevant social issues. The incessant tide of videos of hapless cats, cute babies, and friendly animals on YouTube make it clear that cute can still be capitalized upon, and weird and quirky has a currency all its own, as phenomena like Gangnam Style show. Increasingly, viral videos are also well-planned, complex creative projects, going from OK Go’s wildly inventive and popular music videos, to the recent “Live Test” series of ads created by Swedish agency Forsman & Bodenfors for Volvo Trucks. Videos are now also directly engaging their audiences, moving from spectacle to interactive experiences, as in the “24 Hours of Happy” music video created by New York agency Iconoclast for musician Pharrell WIlliams.
Both Forsman & Bodenfors and Iconoclast recently won Cyber Grand Prix awards at the Cannes Lions, and their triumphs further emphasize the direction that social media is beginning to take. Videos were previously, as mentioned, spectacle, and retained that function and use in marketing. Ads were used to capture viewer attention, and keep that attention in order to promote a product. However, do these videos create a relationship between the company and its consumer? Do they drive consumer-producer interaction and feedback at all? From heated debates in the YouTube section, it’s clear that if nothing else, the targeted viewers are perfectly capable of trolling and discussing company stances and marketing angles all their own.
In fact, applications like Foodspotting, Yelp, and TripAdvisor are signs of a world where consumers market to other consumers, tailoring and curating their own consumptive habits and patronage by interacting with other fellow consumers. In viral videos too, this shift can be seen–consumer interaction is becoming more and more self-referential, parodied, memetic. The landing of Harlem Shake is a perfect demonstration. While Harlem Shake is considered to have gone viral, it is more of a viral video meme. Unlike videos like Australia Metro’s Dumb Ways to Die, Harlem Shake won popularity through a consumer interaction with a product, rather than company promotion of a product or creative process. Where companies sold a story, or a good concept in their video ads, video memes like Harlem Shake simply sell entertainment, and endlessly spawn upon themselves, for example, Harlem Shake videos that end with a shot of Internet meme figure Slenderman, or videos that complain about the viral nature of the meme and how overdone it has become. With applications like Vine, anyone can shoot a video, or reach out to others, promoting another wave of video memes like the recent Wiggle.
And companies are breaking into this idea of consumer-to-consumer interaction, by speaking the language of consumers. Denny’s Twitter and Tumblr have become wildly popular for their hilariously witty posts, featuring, among other things, silly emojis, parodies of well-known songs and poems, and unrepentantly bad photoshopped GIFs, generally operating on the same self-referential, parodying level as those who use social media. Tumblr is a minefield of such interactions, spawning conversations completely held through GIFs, and memes like Doge and Spiders Georg. Twitter is getting in on the game, having finally allowed GIFs to be posted on its feeds. Fiat has also begun to attempt to reach audiences in a similar man with its series of Endless Fun ads, featuring a variety of GIFs on loop, invoking mixed reactions.
Should companies try and engage the consumer the way consumers interact with each other? How would this affect the way the relationship between the company and the consumer is perceived? In an age of entrepreneurship and small business where consumers are clamoring for more of a say in their products, or producing their desired products themselves, there could be a lot to learn from listening to the way consumers communicate and interact, not just as a demographic, but also on an everyday, social basis.