The Shameful Strategies Behind Many Viral Videos

TechCrunch posted a very interesting guest post today by Dan Ackerman Greenberg, who talks about the tactics his company uses to drive people to view videos on YouTube.

Greenberg co-founded The Comotion Group, a “viral marketing” firm. He boasts that in the past three months he’s achieved 20 million views for his clients. However, I’m not linking through to their site, as quite frankly I don’t think they deserve the Google juice – the tactics he espouses are, quite frankly, disgusting.

First, though, the positives. The post does provide some very useful pointers for producers of YouTube videos:

  • Make it short: 15-30 seconds is ideal
  • Design for remixing
  • Don’t make an outright ad unless it’s really amazing
  • Make it shocking
  • Optimize the thumbnail image

However, Greenberg’s post also outlines a few “strategies” that I find disgusting:

  • Using fake headlines
  • Paying bloggers to post the videos
  • Spamming forums on websites
  • Spamming peoples’ comments on their MySpace pages
  • Spamming email lists
  • Fake comments by his company on videos to provoke controversy

Oh, and this classic:

Also, we aren’t afraid to delete comments – if someone is saying our video (or your startup) sucks, we just delete their comment. We can’t let one user’s negativity taint everyone else’s opinions.

Yes, you can. That’s called conversation. It’s a two-way thing.

This is exactly the kind of behaviour that I, along people like Todd, Brian, Geoff and many, many others, despair about. This is the kind of thing that gives marketers and PR practitioners a bad name.

Why am I going to town here? Because, even when confronted with the inherent problem with his tactics, Ackerman Greenberg continued to defend them.

In response to criticism about his fake comments:

What we do is grease the viral wheels. If that means commenting back and forth between fake users, who cares? It’s all about entertainment – we’re just making the whole experience entertaining, not just the video itself.

And again:

Beyond commenting back and forth to make the comment thread more interesting on each video, what exactly do you guys find so morally wrong here?

I’m not naive – I know this goes on all the time. The difference here is, Ackerman Greenberg has come out and admitted it, and I give him some credit for that. He also has some useful pointers, for which I also give him credit.

Still, the fact that this happens all the time isn’t an excuse for copying it. There are precedents for all sorts of unethical behaviour, but that doesn’t justify the continuation of those behaviours.

Deep down, I think Ackerman Greenberg knows this is wrong:

I can’t reveal our clients’ names and I can’t link to the videos we’ve worked on, because YouTube surely doesn’t like what we’re doing and our clients hate to admit that they need professional help with their “viral” videos.

How about: They’re afraid of being exposed?

Unfortunately for Ackerman Greenberg, as an enterprising commenter on the TechCrunch article found, his LinkedIn profile claimed:

Notable clients include: 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros Records, Fox Atomic, Walden Media, Yari Film Group, Nike, Oakley….

Ackerman Greenberg quickly removed this from his information once the commenter flagged it, but Google’s cache (posted here for future prosperity) reveals he did in fact post those names.

If Ackerman Greenberg & co don’t see the error of their ways, hopefully their clients will. This kind of behaviour shouldn’t be encouraged.


Update: Neville Hobson and Doug Walker have also posted good responses to this.

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.