Josh Rinder really wanted to make his video go viral on YouTube.
The FedEx delivery-man had done it before. Two years ago he videotaped himself and his six-year-old daughter dancing to a Taylor Swift song in their living room in Aiken, S.C. The result had been picked up far and wide, eventually airing on Today.
But he hit the big time this month, when he and little Audrey danced to Justin Timberlake's new song, Can't Stop the Feeling. Rinder used Twitter to send the video to the superstar, and Timberlake then tweeted it himself.
"I started getting notifications on my phone that he'd shared it," says Rinder. "Within an hour it was up to 400,000 views." At the time of writing, the clip had been viewed 2.5 million times.
The multi-million dollar corporations attached to the song — movie studio Dreamworks which has produced Trolls, the movie that features Timberlake's song, and RCA, the artist's record label — are surely delighted with Rinder's unpaid, amateur efforts. The song is getting plenty of airplay on radio, but thanks to Rinder and the power of social media, it's now making its way to an even broader demographic.
"I've had people tell me that they'd never heard the song, and they never would've heard the song if it hadn't been for our video," Rinder told CBC News in a telephone interview.
It pays to go viral
No wonder marketers are in fevered pursuit of social media shares. If material is entertaining or interesting enough, people will share it with their personal networks on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That multiplier effect means a product or brand gets additional attention, with zero additional expense for the advertiser.
"There's a lot of what you might call volunteer advertising," says Matthew Johnson, education director for MediaSmarts, which bills itself as Canada's centre for digital and media literacy. The Ottawa agency promotes a curriculum for students from kindergarten to Grade 8.
"One of the trends we've seen is that marketers are putting more effort into getting consumers to spread their message," Johnson notes.
Case in point: when Drake released his new record Views From The Six, fans quickly discovered they could download some of the album artwork and use it into their own photos. Just as Drake had been Photoshopped atop the CN Tower for the record cover, consumers could Photoshop him into their own photos.
The Toronto rapper has been perched on people's shoulders, and creatively placed into shots of Darth Vader, Bernie Sanders and others.
Those results have been shared widely on social media.
"This is the new holy grail of marketing," says Tony Chapman, a marketing consultant and founder of Capital C, a Toronto marketing firm that attracted huge attention for its viral videos, before being bought by the MDC Partners agency. "You want the content you produce to be like a dandelion seed. You hope the consumer grabs hold of it and spreads it, and it starts to grow everywhere."
Chapman says that once upon a time, marketers were happy if consumers simply watched a commercial message. Nowadays effort is put into trying to create something people will watch and then post on social media. But the ultimate triumph is when consumers actually bring their own creativity to the product and interact with the brand.
It's not easy to achieve, however. "I've done viral campaigns that I thought were going to be huge," Chapman admits. "Then the video got 90 views, and 75 were from within our own agency."
When a video hits, clients are thrilled. "They get tens of millions of views and no one has to write a media cheque for it."
Snapchat, the photo application that's wildly popular with teens and millennials, has launched a tool that encourages social media users to connect with brands. Users have been playing with filters that allow them to swap faces with a friend or pet, or distort their appearance in an amusing way.
Now the app has introduced sponsored filters. If a user is at McDonalds, they can access a customized "geo-filter" that will add the company logo and other special effects to the Snapchat photo. Movie studios and other consumer product companies are also paying Snapchat to create filters for them.
Why do consumers play along with spreading corporate content? Johnson says often people are hoping they'll be given freebies from the company. Others are just happy to get attention.
"When you post stuff on Instagram and the brand retweets it, that's a very powerful multiplier," he says. "And if it's a brand that's popular, that gives you a lot of social credit."
But Johnson cautions that the line between advertising and real, non-sponsored content has become very blurry. Users don't often question the source of shareable material.
"Marketers are definitely taking advantage of those blurred lines," he says. "They know we're likely to engage more uncritically with advertising if we don't know we're being advertised to."
As for Rinder, he doesn't mind one bit that big companies are benefiting from his video. His wife does, though.
"She figures if the whole world has seen our living room, it would be nice to get something out of it."