June 1, 2016, 3:50 PM

What makes a video go viral?

Most retailers’ online videos don’t take off online. But merchants can improve the odds their video will go viral by following some well-established techniques.

It took less than a year into his job as brand manager at TigerDirect for Steven Leeds to grow frustrated with the brand’s marketing strategy which—at the time, in 2013—largely revolved around newspaper print ads that highlighted the electronics retailer’s sales.

“Our ads weren’t reaching the type of audience we wanted,” says Leeds, who is now senior vice president of marketing at TigerDirect’s former parent company Systemax Inc. (Systemax sold TigerDirect last November.) Given newspaper readership demographics, the ads were largely reaching consumers older than the 18- to 32-year-old technology fanatics who are the retailer’s target customers. He believed that even if the retailer’s target customers saw those ads, the content of the ads wouldn’t excite younger consumers and turn them into brand advocates.

Leeds had a different idea: Create a funny online video showcasing a TigerDirect store with the hope that it would take off online.

For $50,000, roughly the same amount the retailer spent on one week of newspaper ads, Leeds developed a video he called “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek.” The video featured two YouTube stars, Rhett and Link, battling to check out at a TigerDirect store. As the two seek to convince the clerk to check them out, they cheekily sort out the differences between “bookworm” nerds and “hipster wannabe” geeks who, the video says, have “got brains and a personality.”

The video attracted more than 12 million views in its first two months, which helped the retailer build brand recognition and showcase its physical stores.

TigerDirect’s experience shows that with the right message, online videos that take off can produce results. Viral videos have helped a retailer like Dollar Shave Club build its brand and others, like American Greetings and TigerDirect, garner millions of dollars in free media coverage and build connections with their target audiences.

Although most videos retailers post online don’t go viral, when retailers and marketing experts examine the commonalities among those that take off and produce significant results, they find several recurring threads: The videos spark an emotional response, they’re finely tailored to the merchant’s targeted demographic and they’re often accompanied by a concerted effort—via ads or a well-organized public relations push—to ensure the video gets seen. In the case of “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek,” for example, the contract Leeds signed with Rhett and Link guaranteed the video would receive 1 million views from Rhett and Link-related YouTube channels.

When an online video takes off online, the retailer can reap rewards for years; roughly two and a half years after TigerDirect posted “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek” the video has attracted more than 30 million views, with 18 million of those views coming after the initial two-month push. That’s why Leeds believes in the marketing power of web video. “When you advertise in the newspaper, that paper ends up in the recycling bin the day your ad runs,” he says. “When you run a commercial on TV, your ad only lives as long as you’re paying for the spots. But a video can live forever online.”

Industry estimates suggest that there are around 500 hours of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute. With so much competition for consumers’ attention, most online videos garner few views.

When Leeds got the go-ahead to test an online video, he was determined to avoid that fate. But he wasn’t sure how. He only had the vague idea that the video should help more consumers learn that TigerDirect operated physical stores.

The first thing he did was identify who he wanted to reach: 18- to 32-year-old men who identify with the “gamer lifestyle.” Because those consumers spend their time on websites like technology news site Engadget, design and technology blog Gizmodo and media site Mashable, Leeds spent hours examining the target sites’ content to gather a clear sense of what types of content they feature and what topics their readers click and share.

“Rather than pay for ad space on the sites, we wanted to see what types of content they typically pick up,” he says. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we get on their sites for free and get distribution beyond our own site.’”

The analysis found the sites posted several rap parodies and regularly featured “nerdy” and “geeky”-themed content. As he pored over the stars of the videos featured on the sites time and again he saw the same comedic duo: Rhett and Link, the so-called “Internetainer” pair whose daily morning YouTube talk show, funny music videos and sketches have attracted more than 14 million subscribers to their two YouTube channels (at the time, the duo only had about 1 million subscribers). After watching several of their videos, Leeds decided he wanted them in the video.

TigerDirect spent roughly $50,000 for Rhett and Link to create “Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek” with the guarantee the video would get 1 million views. The hope was that the guaranteed views would give the video a push to get it started.

Almost as soon as the video appeared on YouTube it caught on, and a number of sites picked it up. The majority of viewers, 69%, watched all of the nearly four minute-long video. And even without a clear call to action—a misstep Leeds addressed in a subsequent online video that went viral—”Epic Rap Battle: Nerd vs. Geek” drove about 800,000 direct clicks from YouTube to TigerDirect.com within the first two months, Leeds says.

For a retailer, a view or click is only worthwhile if it ultimately leads to sales. But driving that sale requires a retailer to not only entertain, but to incorporate an “essential truth” about a brand into their online videos, says Mitchell Reichgut, CEO of video advertising vendor Jun Group, which has helped create a number of videos that went viral.

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