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Viral Video Helps Market Products

Want to make a big impression with a tiny ad budget? Try creating videos customers will forward to each other. Here are three case studies of small businesses that have used viral video to market their products.

Actor Gary Busey sits in a director’s chair against a plain white background. “Last month, Congress gave protected status to the polar bears, but not to the grizzlies or black bears. What if we created a line of hair dye for these bears so they could look like polar bears, and be safe from the hunters?” he asks. “That is brilliant!”

Is this any way to sell a telephone/voicemail service?

Yes, according to Siamak Taghaddos, co-founder and CEO of GotVMail, a service that provides a single phone number for multiple phones (including mobile) and can forward messages to e-mail. Busey’s riff on bears is part of a series of 30-second videos the company commissioned as a way to promote its product and build brand awareness—an effort that has been hugely successful, Taghaddos says.

“My business partner and I always want to do things differently,” he notes. “We could have hired an ad agency and read advertising blogs, but if people are talking about something, it’s been done before, and it won’t be unique and different.”

The idea for the Busey videos came about during a brainstorming session among GotVMail’s founders, in part because the company’s cartoon-figure mascot is nicknamed Gary. Busey is known for being outrageous and off-the-cuff, and Taghaddos and others at GotVMail thought this made him a good fit. The company targets entrepreneurs, he says, and “at the end of the day, entrepreneurs are so focused on business that it’s good to have fun with it,” he says.

Taghaddos created the videos by flying to Hollywood and hiring a studio and camera crew at a fraction of what an ad agency would have cost, he says. GotVMail booked a single day of Busey’s time, provided him with some basic ideas and guidelines, and let him loose. By the end of the day, the company had 40 30-second videos in which Busey discusses business ideas such as sticking a fake “hybrid” sticker on an SUV, or the 360-degree view of an elephant. In many, GotVMail is never mentioned at all, though a company logo appears at the end of each video.

The company uploaded the videos, one at a time, to YouTube, ran them on its own site, and provided a widget that would let users run the videos on their own sites or blots. The videos got a lot of attention Taghaddos notes. “We got mentioned on [the popular media site] Gawker, and on TV,” he says. In all, he adds, the videos got more than 100 media mentions and more than 400,000 viewings that did indeed raise brand awareness for GotVMail.

One key to the campaign’s success, he says, is that the company carefully thought through what the videos were meant to achieve. “You have to first understand what your core purpose is,” he says. “Our core purpose is that our service and our company help entrepreneurs. So if we let them have some fun, we’re still going back to our core purpose. Don’t launch something just for the sake of getting a lot of views.”

Beak performers

When the animal health site WebVet wanted to promote its site, it decided to hold a contest called “Birds on Broadway” to find entertaining videos of parrots and other pet birds talking, singing, dancing, and otherwise showing their chops. “One critical thing we learned from avian specialists is that by the time a bird seems sick it’s probably close to death,” says WebVet president Hope Schultz. The best way to tell that a bird is in good health is if it’s active and talkative, and the contest was intended to underline that fact, she explains. It was also geared to build interest in the site and help recruit talented birds as possible representatives for the company.

WebVet launched the contest with a press conference on the street in Times Square, complete with live birds, Schultz says. The contest garnered some television coverage, but WebVet also made sure to send the info to bird clubs, bird websites and blogs, as well as to everyone who had uploaded a pet bird video on YouTube. Schultz soon found links to the contest were coming from all over, including hundreds from Twitter, as well as bird sites. The company posted video entries on the site for visitors to vote on, and at this writing seemed inclined to declare two tied first-prize winners, Ty, a surprisingly articulate African Grey parrot and Boozle, an Amazon Yellow Napes parrot who can sing “You Are My Sunshine” all the way through. The contest has definitely built traffic to the website, Schultz reports.

Making sure bird groups knew about the contest was an essential step in the process, she says. “Anyone can have a great idea, but you have to figure out how to get it to the marketplace,” she notes. “You have to know what your strategy is and how to actually tap into affinity groups and encourage them to participate. Follow-through is very important.”

The making of a president

At the height of the presidential election season this year, Paltalk, a group video chat service was looking for a new way to build its 4 million-plus user base. “Paltalk’s been around for 10 years and we’ve tried lots of stuff,” says Joel Smernoff, president and COO. Earlier this year, the company founders came across a new technology that allowed for dropping new text into existing video, and used it to create a fake news item about a surprising presidential candidate. It then created a page where users could drop in any name they chose and have the video e-mailed with the subject line, “You’re in the news…?”

To disseminate the videos, the company sent the link to 1,400 of its most frequent and loyal users, about 200 high-tech industry insiders, and members of the press. “That’s it,” Smernoff says. “It exploded from there. We’ve had 8 million views to date.”

The name Paltalk is never mentioned in the video, though the video notes that the surprise campaign got its start on “a popular chat site” and briefly shows Paltalk chat rooms. After the video is over, the user is offered a chance to send it to his or her friends, from a page that does sport the Paltalk logo and provides a link to the service.

This reticence is completely deliberate—and a prerequisite for any successful viral video campaign, Smernoff says. “We were light with the branding on purpose,” Smernoff says. “People spread viral campaigns around because they’re fun. They don’t want to be marketed to heavily.” Users do understand, he adds, that the videos are sponsored by companies, he adds. “People are okay with that—if you have a really light touch.”