It's word-of-mouth marketing at its purest, a cost-effective way to spread brand messages and generate buzz.
But as video-sharing sites become saturated with mediocre content - and media giants crack down on copyright infringement - will viral videos retain their initial impact?
"I think they're actually becoming more popular," says Tony Obregon, director of social media in Cohn & Wolfe's San Francisco office. "Businesses are realizing that it's not so much about advertising. Viral videos are more about entertainment and connecting a brand with a customer's emotions. That's really powerful."
Another benefit of incorporating viral videos into a PR campaign, he adds, is that on sites like YouTube, "you can measure click-throughs, and even viewerships; you can see the ratings people give it. There's some metrics to success, and how well something's received."
Viral video efforts are a great way to get users actively involved with a brand, notes Mike George, creative director at Propane, an online division of Los Angeles-based production company Trailer Park.
"With a TV campaign, it's out there, and it's [not interactive]," he explains. "This, I can say I'll send to my buddy."
While viral video efforts can get lost if not driven via strategic seeding or tagging, George notes - almost like a standard online media buy - they effectively drive traffic back to a film's or TV show's main Web site. And that provides the client with "more PR bang for its buck," he says, as well as entertainment value and buzz far beyond that of a mainstream campaign.
Creativity in viral video is also limitless. "It's like the Wild West," says George. "You can do anything if you have the ability to get it done."
As with all new-media offerings, there's "a huge opportunity for viral video," says Eric Schwartzman, president of LA-based Schwartzman & Associates. "What doesn't work is when there's something subversive about who created it," he adds. "The whole governing logic behind new media is that it's straightforward."
Viral videos can generate buzz and offer entertainment value far beyond that of a standard PR or ad push
PR firms can use viral videos to reach consumers on an emotional level
Click-throughs and viewership can be tracked, thus offering clients concrete measurement results