“Dumb Ways” is Smart Viral

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Are you one of the nearly 26 million views of “Dumb Ways to Die” since it debuted on YouTube earlier this month? I am responsible for at least 5, and that’s not counting the few more times I’ve watched in the name of “research” for this post.

Awesome, right? I think the astronaut holding his eyeballs is my favorite death, but the pilot and the kidney-seller serving as the percussion section for the chorus is my favorite aspect of the video. They recently added a karaoke version if you’re feeling inspired to sing along with an instrumental track. Why not? You’ll be humming it for days anyway.

It’s easy to see why this video is so popular, but I can’t help wondering how many well-meaning brand managers and marketing execs have turned to their teams after watching this and said “why can’t you make something like this?” or “why didn’t our last video do this well?” How many will plot their next campaign using this video as inspiration, only to lose sight of what makes this video great in favor of less-risky content that is sure to connect people to the brand?

What makes “Dumb Ways to Die” such a success? Quality. The animation is crisp. The tune is catchy. It somehow manages to be adorable and disgusting at the same time. Just as important: McCann and Melbourne Metro Trains were willing to let the train saftey message tag along for the ride instead of driving the ..erm.. train. The video doesn’t discuss train-related deaths until quite literally the 80% mark (okay, 77% but still), and doesn’t mention the brand until it’s 97% over. The YouTube channel isn’t branded. The tumblr is just as simple. The website goes into greater detail about train safety, but not until it’s given you plenty of other things to do as well.

The answer is simple: don’t try to be viral. “Going viral” is what happens after all the promotional momentum gives way to our natural inclination to share something with others. Your primary focus should be making quality content that evokes an emotional response and the impulse to share.

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