Viral video is always a hot topic. It’s great theater – an ever-changing, ever-evolving window into Internet zeitgeist that enthralls millions of us every day. Few viral video fans, however, have any idea how videos become popular.

I’ve been distributing branded videos online for seven years. My company has run hundreds of campaigns for the world’s biggest brands, many of which have reached tens of millions of users. It may surprise you to learn, therefore, that I think viral video is a fantasy. It is a flawed and outdated concept that does not reflect the larger reality of how some videos gain traction and become online megahits.

First, let’s review the popular perception, and then we can step into the factory and see how the sausages are made, okay?

The dream goes something like this: A few kids make a video and they upload it to YouTube. There, someone finds it and falls in love. He shares it with his friends; he posts it on Facebook, and pretty soon millions of people are talking about it. The Twittersphere is all a-twitter. The video has risen above the fray. It’s gone viral!

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It’s a great story, and like most great stories, it’s based on a kernel of truth. When a video is special people see it and they want to share with their friends. But the reality is, videos don’t reach audiences of 1 million people or more without the help of at least one major media outlet, no matter how good they are.

The media outlets I’m talking about are portals, content sites, TV shows, major blogs, or news publications. They’re necessary to create the scale that creates a “viral” hit. If you could look through the histories of the biggest viral videos, you would see them there. Every time.

Branded videos are no different. With over 60 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, finding an audience is no easy trick, even if you have a celebrity on the payroll. The viral monsters that we’ve known and loved are the products of large and well-funded digital marketing campaigns, not peer-to-peer sharing. Some brands use PR, some use “seeding firms” to try and drum up attention, and others turn to SEO marketing or display ads.

The most forward-thinking brands, however, have long since gotten over the whole viral video thing. They realize that the real value in online video comes from connecting with the right audience and generating earned media actions that are meaningful to their brands.

In some cases this means ingraining the brand in popular culture, but most brands need more than buzz to justify their budgets. Instead, they want to see Web site visits, store locator usage, coupon downloads, or other quantifiable consumer actions.

Achieving these results requires a well thought-out strategy with the right tools and partners. Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating your own game plan:

  • Define the earned media actions you want: A vague conjecture about “viral sharing” isn’t enough – you need to conceptualize the program with tangible goals that will deliver value and ROI.
  • Don’t get hung up on creating outrageous content: Big laughs and eye-popping special effects are great if they’re relevant to the brand, but how-to videos, recipe videos, special offers, and re-purposed TV commercials can be just as effective if they’re properly targeted.
  • Choose distribution partners wisely: The online video landscape is growing more complex by the minute, and it’s important to understand the differences in the various offerings.
    • Seeding companies and PR firms utilize their relationships with bloggers and other online influencers to spread video to their networks of followers and readers.
    • Social video companies put users in control by giving them virtual goods or access to premium content in exchange for watching a video ad.
    • Click-to-play ad units are an alternative to the standard pre-roll format that are housed in banner ads or on content sites. Advertisers pay for only for users that have chosen to watch their video.
    • Blog networks push videos to hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of bloggers, some of whom will post advertorial text alongside the video itself.
  • Ask the right questions: Whatever distribution route you decide to go, it’s important to make sure that your partner has clear and effective sharing tools, full transparency, and a pricing model that makes sense.

The bottom line is that there is more to “viral video” than meets the eye, and brands that take the time to learn the finer points can enjoy significant benefits that simply are not possible in other media.

Mitchell Reichgut is founder and CEO of Jun Group, the premier social video platform. Follow him on Twitter @jungroup.