The New Science of Viral Ads

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TEAMWORK Creative people aren’t the only ones needed in radicalinnovation groups

DEFEND YOUR RESEARCH Hard-to-read type improves readers’ recall

VISION STATEMENT Technology adoption affects national wealth

COLUMN Erskine Bowles on making sacrifices to invest in America’s future

The New Science of Viral Ads

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ILLUSTRATION: CAMERON LAW

Five techniques can help companies make commercials that people will watch and share by Thales Teixeira t’s the holy grail of digital marketing: the viral ad, a pitch that large numbers of viewers decide to share with family and friends. Several techniques derived from new technology can help advertisers attain this. In our research, two colleagues and I use infrared eye-tracking scanners to determine exactly what people are looking at when they watch video ads. We also use a system that analyzes facial expressions to reveal what viewers are feeling. These technologies make it possible to isolate elements that cause people to stop watching and to nd ones that keep them engaged. In addition, they make it possible to determine what kinds of ads are most likely to be shared and what types of people are most likely to share them. Here are ve big problems online advertisers face, along with solutions that have emerged from our research. PROBLEM eyes. They also focus on logos. This isn’t the boon it might seem: The more prominent or intrusive the logo, the more likely viewers are to stop watching— even if they know and like the brand. Why? People seem to have an unconscious aversion to being persuaded, so when they see a logo, they resist.

When people watch ads, they focus on a few things, such as the actors’ mouths and

Prominent Branding Puts Off Viewers

weave the brand image throughout the ad. Experiments have shown that this can increase viewership by as much as 20%. One of the best examples of the technique is March 2012 Harvard Business Review 25

The solution: Utilize “brand pulsing.” Smart advertisers unobtrusively

IDEA WATCH

Coca-Cola’s animated “Happiness Factory” ad. (Like all the other videos referenced in this article, it’s available on YouTube.) It depicts a fantasy version of what happens inside a Coke machine when someone inserts money. A Coke bottle is shown repeatedly, but each appearance is quick; you can almost imagine that the story would work without the bottle. In fact, a good question to ask when conceiving an ad is: If I removed the brand image, would the content still be intrinsically interesting? If the answer is yes, viewers are more likely to keep watching. PROBLEM

After recording viewers’ expressions with video cameras, we use automated technology that measures the distances between various parts of the face to identify smiles, frowns, and other expressions that correlate closely with emotions. (Previous research relied on human coders; automating the process improves accuracy and allows for a much larger sampling.) After analyzing thousands of reactions to many ads, second by second, and tracking exactly when people stop watching, we found that keeping viewers involved depends in large part on two emotions: joy and surprise. To maximize viewership, it’s important to generate at least one of these responses early on. Traditionally, though, advertisers have constructed narratives that escalate toward a dramatic climax or a surprise ending. Such commercials may have worked on TV decades ago, but today’s online viewers need to be hooked in the opening seconds.

People Get Bored Right Away

Getting time-crunched viewers to watch a 60-second ad is no small feat, but it won’t PROBLEM necessarily make the ad go viral. Experiments I conducted on my own demonPeople Watch for a While strate that even though people may enjoy But Then Stop Although the Mr. Bean video initially suc- an ad themselves, they won’t always send it to others. In particular, I found that alceeds in attracting viewers, it doesn’t keep though shock may get...
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