Yes, You Can Buy a Viral Hit

Last Updated Oct 5, 2010 9:25 AM EDT

Forget what you've heard about successful video viral campaigns being part luck, part voodoo. It turns out that there is another key ingredient behind most crazy-large videos: money.

Big marketing budgets can buy you success in social media just as well as in traditional media. Just ask the Old Spice guy. One of the summer's biggest Web sensations came from a multimillion-dollar ad campaign started for TV.

Recent research by Harvard Business School marketing professor Anita Elberse found that the summer movies with the largest marketing spend also happened to be the most viewed video trailers on the Web.

"Most of the time, you have to spend money to make money online," Elberse tells Forbes.com. "This is not to say that viral hits can't happen of the blue. They do, but they are the exception."
That's right, the exception. Not the rule. And the strong correlation between budget and video popularity holds true in products beyond just movies, she says. "Without a budget, the chances of a video going viral are pretty slim."

So forget the idea that social media changes everything, that suddenly small players can compete on an even field with the Big Boys and Girls. Technology might give the small fry a better chance at competing, but in the end, money, as it often does when spent wisely, is a compelling competitive advantage no matter the media.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.