Without fail, we get a call at See3 every week asking us to produce a “viral” video. “You know”, they say, “a video that will get a lot of views when we put it on YouTube.”

And every week, without fail, there is a sigh and a deep breath among the staff at See3 as we explain that maybe a viral video isn’t what you really need. Maybe, we say, what you really need is a video strategy.

The Siren Song of Viral

Nonprofit organizations work very hard to get their messages in front of new audiences. They work to get people to join their emails lists, to show up to events and to eventually become donors. Unlike other marketing efforts that take the actual hard work of building relationships, viral video seems like a short-cut to organizational riches.

The viral video story goes like this: A video will be uploaded to YouTube and it will (magically) catch fire. People will send it to each other and it will get so many views that it ends up in the “Most Viewed” rotation at YouTube, which will only bring in more views and next thing you know 1 MILLION PEOPLE have watched our video!

At this point in the story I ask, “And so what does that get you?” Well, they say, when 1 MILLION PEOPLE know about us, many will go to our website, sign up and be compelled to donate because our video was so good [funny] [sad] [moving] [powerful].

It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, it rarely works out that way.

Facts about Viral Video

You cannot predict which videos will be viral hits

We never promise viral hits because very few organizations are interested in being edgy enough, or off-message enough, to make their video a must-see. YouTube is littered with videos that the makers had hoped would be hits. The real viral video hits – the ones that get in everyone’s email — are, with some notable exceptions, videos with cute pets, people saying stupid things, sex appeal, and other qualities that rarely have anything to do with a nonprofit mission. (All of us should envy the animal welfare groups, because they have the unfair advantage of cute furry creatures.)

YouTube views do not translate into website traffic.

The average video length on YouTube is about 1.5 minutes while the average session time on YouTube is about 30 minutes. What this means is that the most likely thing to happen after someone watches a YouTube video is that they will watch another YouTube video, not enter in your URL to check out your website.

You need long-term supporters, not 1-minute sympathizers

A consumer product, such as Blendtec, gets a benefit from having lots of videos watched on YouTube because it helps their branding, which in a retail setting, translates into purchases. Nonprofits, on the other hand, are not sitting on store shelves. Organizations need to have online strategies that follow-up initial interest with real engagement over the long term. One successful YouTube video, even if it moves people while they are watching it, does not facilitate this engagement. It can be part of a strategy toward engagement, but it cannot be an end in and of itself.

You don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.

The people who are most successful on YouTube aren’t focused on making a single viral video. They are making a series of videos with a character or a set-up that is interesting and brings people back for more. In other words, they are building an audience through regular production of videos that tell stories. That’s what you should be thinking about. By investing in many videos over a long period of time, you are also much more likely to hit on one that attracts others to join your long-term audience.

People who like to watch kittens in paper bags may actually not be good donor prospects

The first question we ask about viral is, “Viral to whom?” The unspoken viral video assumption is that random people on YouTube are potential donor prospects. Some of them may be, of course. But it is likely that the people who spend a lot of time watching the viral video hits are teenagers, for example. You are better off identifying and speaking more directly to the audience who is most likely to already care about your core issues.

One of our biggest viral video hits was this video for the Maryland State Teachers Association. It only has about 2000 views. How can it be considered a viral hit? Because the goal of the video was to influence a debate about education funding and the state-level policy-makers and journalists that matter in that debate all heard about it, passed it on, and watched it. It worked.

Towards a Video Strategy

Viral is just another way of saying “word of mouth” and at its core it means that people pass the content on to one-another without the need for much intervention from the organization. In this sense, having viral marketing work for your organization is important. If you have really important, interesting things to share – and you share them in creative and interesting ways – then people will pass them on to their friends and increase your marketing effectiveness.

Where you should start with online video is to make a commitment to using this new medium to connect people to your work. You need to think about what the important and interesting things are and ask yourself, “How do we document this work?” You need to ask yourself why do you think what you do is important, and ask your staff as well. You need to then capture – on a regular basis – those important and interesting things. If you can find the funny stories, the creative metaphors, and turn your issue on its head once in a while, so much the better. But please, stop focusing on making a viral video and start focusing on making a viral cause.

Michael Hoffman is the CEO of See3 Communications and an expert in online video for nonprofits.