Thursday, February 21, 2013

Understanding Virality: The Top 10 Factors for Achieving Viral Video Greatness

A while back I came across a Mashable article entitled "The Top 20 Most-Shared Ads of 2012" based on data from Unruly, a UK-based video marketing and monitoring firm.  It's an entertaining list of ads and it's worth a look. More recently, the world witnessed the phenomenon of the Harlem Shake, whose crazy virality was documented by YouTube.

This all has me thinking about the drivers for virality. What's required to achieve viral video success? Can virality be planned or, at least, can the chance of virality be maximized?

Many people think Gangnam Style was an overnight success because of a catchy pop hook and fun video. However, there was a lot of strategic groundwork laid before the video creation and launch, including establishing partnerships with American artists like Will.I.Am and organically growing their YouTube audience over a long period of time.

So, what are the top 10 factors in achieving viral video success?

Defining Viral Success

First, how should you define viral success? According to the Unruly 100 Viral Video chart, to get in the top 100, a video needs about 10,000 shares in the first day, 75,000 in the first week, and 300,000 in the first month. But that's for the top videos in the world. Does your viral success need to be judged against the world, so you need to achieve 10,000 shares a day? Would 10,000 shares in the first month be a viral success for you?

Let's say my blog gets about 1000 visits per month. Given that baseline, 10,000 visits in a month would be a huge success. Your own unique business situation and goals will determine what target viral success is for you.

Strategic Success Factors

There are two groups of success factors that I call strategic and tactical.

Kevin Allocca of YouTube Trends gave an entertaining TED talk in which he identifies three factors required for viral success. These are what I call strategic factors, and I broaden them a bit from Kevin's:
  1. Have an unexpected hook. With the Harlem Shake, it was a great song hook combined with the strangeness of the format, with a person in a helmet grooving a little while everyone looks bored, then the group goes wild at the song jump.
  2. Encourage the community to participate. Any video that can be easily imitated, spoofed, or  somehow responded to will drive its distribution.
  3. Drive strong emotion. It could be shock, awe, surprise, curiosity, joy, or some other emotion, but the emotional content has to be there.
  4. Promote through tastemakers or curation. Kevin identifies examples of Jimmy Kimmel and others promoting videos to get them started on their way to virality. You may not need a Jimmy Kimmel, however. Your industry likely has its own trend setters with healthy followings.
It's pretty easy to assemble the list of strategic success factors, but the art is in the execution. Creating content with an engaging hook, that drives strong emotions, and encourages participation takes some level of creative genius. Promoting your video is a success factor that may be more predictable or controllable. However, there are other things you should do to maximize the likelihood of success.

Tactical Success Factors

Paul "Bear" Vasquez was simply the lucky recipient of a tweet from Jimmy Kimmel that launched his wild viral success for his double rainbow video. If you are striving for that success and don't want to rely on luck, there are several more tactical steps you should take:
  1. Be concise. There are several data that show that shorter is better. For instance, according to the Jun Group, social video ads of 15 seconds or less are shared nearly 37% more than those between 30 seconds and 1 minute, and 18% more than videos longer than a minute. The Harlem Shake videos are only 30 seconds, which means several can be viewed in a brief session.
  2. Make it a progressive series. Get viewers involved or emotionally invested, then keep bringing them back for more. The Old Spice videos are an example of this. Progressive series allow initial modest sharing to build up over time.
  3. Be searchable. Use appropriate keywords and optimize the video for those keywords. This helps maximize the reach by allowing someone who has casually heard about your video to find it easily.
  4. Promote on all social sites. The Jun Group also said that people share videos on Facebook 218 percent more than through Twitter and e-mail combined. While that may be true, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and even LinkedIn all have different sharing dynamics. Don't minimize your reach by focusing on one channel. That goes for your website and email campaigns, as well.
  5. Use a great title. Great titles increase clickthrough rate. 
  6. Use a great thumbnail. Sex still sells.

So, if you carefully follow these ten important rules, you'll achieve viral greatness, right? Well, a little luck wouldn't hurt, either.

(Images provided by Graph and network image by ddpavumba, dice by jscreationzs, and woman by artemisphoto.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Impact of Big Science Saturday

For long-time readers of this blog, you know that Big Science Saturday (BSS) was a part of our family for several years. Over those years, my sons and I probably performed 100 different experiments of varying complexity, but almost always fun.

As I said many times, my goal was never to steer the boys into science careers. I was really trying to do three things:
  1. Get them to wonder how things work and to ask probing questions.
  2. Teach them how to have a structured approach to solving problems.
  3. Show them that science can be fun.
Well, as life has marched on and the boys have grown older, BSS is no more, and I sometimes wonder if I achieved any of these goals.

As I now consider this question, I suppose I did have some success. For instance, those BSS times developed into our appreciation for robots, like those on the TV show BattleBots on Comedy Central. We're very intrigued by the upcoming SyFy show Robot Combat League, which will debut in a couple of weeks, which appears to have robot battles like those in the movie Real Steel.

But it's not just TV shows. We also seek out local robot events, like the FIRST Robotics competition coming up in April. And recently, Maddox even spent $130 of his own money on an Orbotix Sphero.

So, I suppose I have made some progress on goal number 3, associating science with fun.

Another effect of those many weekends of BSS can be seen in the boys' science fair projects over the years. Their science fair projects tend to be rooted in real-world things they have seen or heard about, rather than the standard old projects of studying how bread molds or using Coke as a cleaning agent.

For example, a while back I was telling the boys about an incident when a bird pooped on me when I was about eight or nine. That led to a conversation about how difficult it might be for a bird to poop on a specific target while it was flying. Maddox turned that into a clever science fair project that involved building a testing rig from erector set, complete with a long rail with a motorized traveler, a bucket on the traveler that dropped a marble at a specific position, and a little Lego guy as the target. 

It was a great project, although the principal of his school didn't think 'poop' was an appropriate topic, and suggested that the bird be a carrier pigeon dropping a message. Give me a break. Maddox went with an unspecified 'package,' and let people use their imaginations.

Their interest in basing science fair projects on real-world observations shows some success in achieving goal number one, wondering how things work. So, I suppose all of those BSS sessions have had some positive impact in terms of the original goals.

However, the most important impact of BSS was letting us spend some terrific family time together doing sciency things, and I see the results of that every day. That's really what made it worth the effort.

(Lab equipment image provided by renjith krishnan and bird provided by Dr Joseph Valks, both at Sphero image provided by Orbotix.)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Are LinkedIn Endorsements Meaningless?

Recently, Todd Wasserman of Mashable wrote an article stating that LinkedIn's endorsements have become meaningless. Feel free to read the article, but he's basically saying that, because endorsements are so easy to give (friction-free, in his terms), they're widely abused, so they have become meaningless. He cites examples of random endorsements he's received for languages he doesn't speak, or requests for reciprocal endorsements, as examples of their misuse. He then goes on to make the argument that they would be more useful if more effort was required to give or receive them (i.e. add friction to the process). Almost all of the comments on his article agree with him.

I disagree with both the argument that they're worthless, as well as the suggestion that making them more difficult to give would improve their usefulness. Fundamentally, I think they're serving their purpose well, which is to implement almost a 'wisdom of crowds' assessment of a person's skills.

First, let's remember to differentiate between recommendations and endorsements, because, as I've researched this a little on various discussion forums, they tend to be confused. Recommendations are the items where someone took the time to write something nice about you. Here's an example from the profile of Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn CEO:

In the language of the article, they are a high-friction activity, so should be viewed as having some value.  But you can help someone to write your recommendation. To me, recommendations are similar to references used when you seek a job. They're somewhat illustrative, but must be viewed with some suspicion and not heavily weighted in the decision process.

Endorsements are the little check-boxes on skills on your LI profile. At first I thought they were of little value because, as the shared article states, they're just too easy to give. But then I watched how the endorsements on my profile evolved:

Over time, certain skills on my profile clearly rose to the top: marketing strategy, digital marketing, online marketing, and lead generation. Those are exactly the skills that I believe I do best, and that I want others to know that I do best.

UNSCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT: Take a look at your own LinkedIn profile. If you have a solid number of connections, say a couple hundred, see if the skills identified as the most endorsed are an accurate representation of what you believe to be your actual skills, or if they at least reflect how you think the world may view your skills. I'd be curious to hear your conclusions in the comments below.

The Wisdom of Crowds?

So is this actually a small implementation of the 'wisdom of crowds?' In his book defining this concept, that the "many are smarter than the few," James Surowiecki points out that a diverse collection of independently deciding individuals is likely to make certain types of decisions and predictions better than individuals or even experts. Is that the case with LinkedIn endorsements?

Endorsements seem to fit the four criteria Surowiecki identifies as separating wise crowds from irrational ones:

  1. Diversity of opinion: Each person should have private information even if it's just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  2. Independence: People's opinions aren't determined by the opinions of those around them.
  3. Decentralization: People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
  4. Aggregation: Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.
Yes, you get the noise of the occasional friend that endorses every skill, or endorsements from people that don't know you that well and endorse you for something that makes little sense. Aren't those just 'eccentric interpretations?' And the bar graph display of endorsed skills seems to provide the evidence of the collective opinion.

Endorsements are a Valuable Indicator

Over time and over a larger population of connections, a true profile of your skills, as acknowledged by your peers through endorsements, should show through. And that can only be accomplished by making it very easy, or frictionless, to provide endorsements. 

Here's how I think endorsements should be used:

  • For a hiring manager, use the top few endorsed skills as a quick indicator of how others view a job candidate. If there's a mismatch between the skills endorsed and those required for the position, ask the candidate to explain that mismatch.
  • As a job candidate, confirm that the skills endorsed accurately reflect your true skills and how you want to be portrayed to others. If they don't, you can delete individual skills, or you can delete the entire endorsements section from your profile.