There’s a lot of confusion among brands and content creators about the difference between branded entertainment and viral video. Most brands want their videos to go viral, but these are two distinct terms in the online video ecosystem. The differences can be subtle but they become apparent when we define each one.

Branded entertainment

The Possibility Shop is produced by Disney and sponsored by Clorox

Typically, branded entertainment takes the form of a serialized or episodic Web show that receives some or all of its financing through a brand investment. Branded entertainment can certainly “go viral” if the content is high quality and the brand provides enough financing to help promote it. But branded entertainment is usually designed to secure audience through paid syndication, licensing arrangements or revenue share deals.

Some recent examples of branded entertainment are The Possibility Shop, a kids show produced by Disney and sponsored by Clorox, and Dirty Talk starring comedian Mike Rowe and branded by Motorola. Both of these efforts work to incorporate the brand into the story.

These videos are very unlikely to go viral. They may have provided value for the viewer by informing or entertaining them but they don’t elicit the emotional connection that compels people to rewatch the videos or pass them on to friends and followers.

Viral videos

On the other hand, viral videos are usually one-off video clips that have been designed for repeated viewing and sharing. These videos rarely establish a narrative and can be as short as 15 seconds long. Viral videos are sometimes launched with the assistance of a brand, but they are more likely to be produced by an amateur or by a studio for TV and repurposed for the Web.

A relatively early example is “Lazy Sunday” (no longer available on YouTube), a mock music video often credited as YouTube’s first true viral hit. In this case, the video was a Saturday Night Live skit that had been uploaded illegally to YouTube. But if you look at the top 100 most viewed videos on YouTube (and filter out the music videos), the vast majority of the all-time biggest viral hits are produced by amateurs (early examples include “The Evolution of Dance” and “Chocolate Rain”. In other words, budget often had very little to do with the video’s ultimate success.

Again, the reason these videos have gone viral is that they have made someone laugh, cry or squint in disbelief. They get shared because viewers want to pass on these emotions with someone else they care about.

When branded entertainment goes viral

Viral videos and branded entertainment sometimes overlap, as was the case with T-Mobile’s “Welcome Back” campaign, a branded take on the flash mob meme perfected by “amateur” content creators like Improv Everywhere.

A more recent example is “The Force”, a Volkswagen Superbowl ad starring a pint-size Darth Vader. The ad demonstrates that an emotionally resonant video combined with some major media dollars can generate 25 million online video views in a week.

Yes, this aired during the biggest television event in America, but the same agency, Deutsch LA, produced another Superbowl ad for the Volkswagen Beetle that has yet to generate 500,000 views on YouTube.

Why viral videos are not a content strategy

The lesson is that viral success is hard to predict and even harder to replicate. Even in the case of Improv Everywhere, some of their videos do better than others and none are guaranteed to go viral.

In fact, the more videos they produce, the more likely the market will become saturated with the concept, diminishing our emotional response. Part of what makes a video go viral in the first place is that the user feels like they have discovered something new and that by sharing the video with friends they are sharing that discovery.

Viral videos depend upon the perfect combination of creative genius, market timing and an emotionally engaged audience.In other words, you have to get lucky. Betting on a video going viral is a great way to set up your campaign for disappointment.

Branded entertainment is all about brands and content creators working together to tell a brand’s story in a compelling, organic way. Great branded content can achieve this goal and create value for brand and consumer whether it goes viral or not.