If there’s one phrase that makes me wince when I’m talking to peers or clients, it’s can you help us make a viral video? Believe it or not, I hear it quite frequently. Not surprisingly, many corporate executives are now true believers in the power of social media and want to leverage the tremendous profile and marketing clout of YouTube. Unfortunately, you can’t make a viral video. You can make a video and try to help it become viral – meaning viewers will drive others to see it, share it, comment and eventually make it a media sensation well beyond YouTube. Ultimately, viewers decide what becomes viral through their actions and comments.

Though consumers have the power, there are things you can do to increase your chances of encouraging uploads and buzz. Look at the recent Old Spice YouTube campaign as a good example of a successful viral program. This hilarious campaign – which piggy-backed on a popular television ad – has become a new paradigm of how to drive positive word-of-mouth through a viral video campaign. According to media reports, the campaign has generated hundreds of millions of views and publicity across media channels, and there’s also evidence it has boosted sales. The true genius of this campaign was the timely, interactive nature of the conversation – with the Old Spice shirtless man responding to individual tweets, reaching out to influential celebrities and pundits and even making a marriage proposal on behalf of a Twitter fan.

So why did the Old Spice campaign work so well? Here’s my short-list:

– Though the campaign left plenty of room for spontaneity, there was a marketing plan underneath the whimsy designed to maximize reach and impact across networks and sites;

– The videos were genuinely funny, smart and original – the original ads were a great starting point;

– It was responsive – not only in general terms via comments on YouTube but via individual Tweets responses/posts and video content;

– It was designed as an integrated program that went beyond YouTube;

– It downplayed the Old Spice brand (I didn’t find any mention of the products outside the original TV ads);

– The campaign was human and touching – including one video of the Old Spice actor sending a personal message to his son – reinforcing that social media is about real people;

– The campaign knew enough to end on a high, and called it quits before the joke wore thin.

Another important lesson is that the Old Spice guy generated plenty of spoof videos. Video parodies created by viewers are among the most popular on the internet and often widely surpass the original ads in popularity – so be careful what you wish for. (Two recent examples are the hundreds of video parodies of the Tiger Woods and LeBron James Nike commercials.) Further evidence that what goes viral is not decided by marketers but by consumers. (FYI: check out this article for recent stats on the top viral videos on YouTube.)