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When Does a Viral Video Star Go Back to Work?

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The impact of a “viral” YouTube video can be great for a brand, but is it a sustainable strategy for continued growth? I spoke with Brian Gallivan, the star of the wildly successful Sassy Gay Friend videos, about the short- and long-term effects of his YouTube reign (27 million views and counting since 2010).

Let me warn you before we move on. Brian* will not reveal the magic formula to make a viral video. Why? Because he created these videos without ever intending them to go viral.

Instead, he had a rather pragmatic reason for getting “sassy” on YouTube. Brian was a struggling actor/writer in Los Angeles who had just hired a new manager. The manager wanted to showcase samples of Brian’s writing. Brian thought of a few sketches he’d written and performed nine years earlier on The (super prestigious) Second City mainstage, massaged the scripts, and began shooting them for video.

The mix of classic literature, an opinionated best friend, and a sequined scarf created a hilarious trifecta for YouTube viewers. Brian’s interpretations of Romeo and Juliet and Othello got him nods in The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and The New York Times. To meet the demand for more Sassy Gay Friend appearances, Brian and his cast created more Shakespeare-with-a-gay-BFF videos as well as ones based on non-Bard works like The Giving Tree, The Bible (Eve), and Black Swan.

With this demand came the question that good brand marketers would ask: How do we monetize the success of Sassy Gay Friend? The Second City, the YouTube channel that hosted the SGF videos, began running ads before each video began. And then there was the MiO sponsorship.

The “liquid water enhancer” wanted in on the Sassy excitement and asked Brian to create a series of videos for it, with the product called out in each video. With the opportunity to fill his fridge and pay his rent in the same month, Brian agreed.

SGF fans did not take well to the overt product placement in these new, sponsored videos. “I wish I had done the videos without the placements,” he admitted. However, Brian dealt with the hand he was given, working with MiO to insert sly remarks about his endorsement in a few videos — accented by cash register “ding!” sound effects. In all, he made 10 videos for the drink mix before moving on to a writing gig for NBC’s Are You There, Chelsea?

Sassy Gay Friend adds MiO product placement to this spoof of The Odyssey.

That’s right. He moved on. Let me say it again. He moved on. Even at the height of SGF mania, Brian was hard at work writing original scripts for television. Remember: his agent had asked for these videos to get Brian TV writing jobs, not to earn him YouTube star status. After Chelsea, Brian joined the writing staff of ABC’s Happy Endings during its final season. He’s currently revising an original pilot about a Boston family for CBS that will star Joey McIntyre (New Kids on the Block, Wicked).

For businesses and artists looking to do “something awesome on YouTube,” let’s recap what we learned from Sassy Gay Friend:

  • Make a video like you’re trying to get a job with it, not to get “viral” with it. Showcase your best stuff to keep them coming back for more.
  • Once you have traction, try to monetize in a way that will resonate well with your target demographic.
  • Don’t quit your day job.

*I’ve known Brian Gallivan for nearly twenty years. It feels too strange to refer to him as “Gallivan.”  I’ll save it for the volleyball court– not here on my blog.

Headline Cover Photo: Canva


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  1. How refreshing to get the real story instead of all the hype about each & every online marketing idea, as they don’t all work … for all people (and that’s assuming you’ve done them right which is rarely the case). Thanks for a reality (and real) story

    • Lisa Kalner Williams

      Thanks, Tina! As with all social media marketing — and marketing in general — slow-ish and steady wins the race.

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