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 freedigitalphotos.net. Graph and network image by ddpavumba, dice by jscreationzs, and woman by artemisphoto.)
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