Recipe for viral video: Tim Hortons, Elton John, and ungrumpy old men

Add doughnuts, stir heartstrings, and let simmer in social media til piping hot

What makes a great viral video? Wouldn’t a million social marketers love to know. But if Old men singing at Tim Horton’s (sic) isn’t an example of a sure-fire hit, I don’t know what is.

Now, you may be wondering why a dozen or so men of retirement age, singing Can You Feel The Love Tonight in a coffee shop in Oakville, Ont., filmed by an amateur on a cellphone, has the makings of a Canadian web sensation. (I’m sure you’re wondering, if you are one of the guys in the video.)

Consider it an object lesson in how the web works in the age of social media. Here’s what makes this video a sensation in the making:

1. Location. As in the fast food business, so in the viral video business: the secret to success is location, location, location. If you’re looking to tug the heartstrings of Canadians, start someplace that has emotional resonance—real, or marketed, it doesn’t matter much, as long as it’s Tim Hortons. (Can you picture this at KFC?)

2. Story. Content is king, goes an old online marketing  expression (is that a contradiction in terms?). In this case, the “content” is a heartwarming little tale about a talented bunch of ungrumpy old men. Instead of shaking their fists at kids playing road hockey, or running for the Conservative party, these guys sing. What a novel idea. We can sell that.

3. Familiarity. You know these fellows. You’ve seen them at your local Tim Hortons, endlessly taking up tables in the corner and talking baseball/convertbiles/politics, or whatever. Sober, avuncular, maybe a bit corny, churchy, and straight-seeming. It all works, because…

4. Surprise! As above, this is a scene we’ve all seen before—except the part where a bunch of bucket-listers break into a torch song by the world’s most famous gay guy, from a beloved Disney family musical, and absolutely nail it.

5. Optimism. The notion that a bunch of older gentlemen somewhere, sometimes just break out into song together hearkens to a (probably imaginary) simpler time, like the Fifties. As such, the video offers an antidote to the often dull, depressing suburban world many of us live in. Some call this stuff “glurge,” and depending on your taste it may or may not work for you. But trust me, they eat it up in internetland.

6. Authenticity. The first thing I did on investigating this video was to contact the guy who made it, to make sure he wasn’t in the marketing department at Tim Hortons. He’s not, at least not unless he’s a compulsive liar. He’s an ordinary dude named Danfi Parker, a biblical studies student and soccer player. He just wandered into a Tim’s one night, saw something cool go down, shot it, and shared it. You can’t imitate that. (Though Tim Hortons would be wise to capitalize on it.)

7. Shareability. Danfi Parker tried to post the video to Facebook right after he shot it on Monday night, just to show his friends. The file was too big, so he put it on YouTube. I saw it on Facebook a few days later, at which point it had more than a thousand views. I watched it, gave it a thumbs-up, and sent a link to my dad. (A hundred guys are sending it to their dads right now.) I also sent it to my friends, by email, my “friends” by Facebook, and my “followers” by Twitter. So did a lot of people. Cha-ching.

8. Quality. Spontaneous as it may be, quality is still at the heart of this video. Any old group of geezers wheezing any old song couldn’t pull this off. These guys are good. They’re a real group, The Entertainers. They do gigs. And they’re doing a great rendition of a nice arrangement of a superbly written, popular, familiar song from a much-loved production.

9.  Validation. Ironically enough, the secret ingredient that makes a feel-good organic grassroots video truly viral, is major media support. And that’s where this article becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: your friendly neighbourhood freelancer trolling the web for stories feels the tug at his heartstrings, makes a quick phone call to the video’s author, cobbles together a pitch to his editor, taps away at the keyboard for a few hours, and whammo… we’re on the home page, baby, watching the clicks roll in.

Danfi Parker may not be able to cash in on his efforts, and I bet The Entertainers still paid for their coffees, but this stuff is gold for online media outlets. Not to mention a certain doughtnut chain. And, um, me.

And there you have it: nine quick steps to Internet success. Somebody book that band, will you? Or at least buy them a box of Timbits. My conscience is killing me.