The Five Key Elements to Creating a Viral Video

01Oct12

Let’s say you’re a creative person, but you’re on the outside of Hollywood. You have an idea for a sketch/short/sit-com/movie/parody and you see hundreds of videos a day racking up millions of hit per video and you think, “I can do that. I WILL do that.”

And then it only gets 65 hits. “What did I do wrong?” you ask.

And I reply, “You most likely made something that did not include any of the key ingredients that go into most major viral video successes.”  YouTube makes it easy to UPLOAD a video, but it’s actually* just as hard to make a successful viral video as it is to make a successful major motion picture.

I’ve done my part in feeding that gaping internet maw. I’ve produced my own stuff, I’ve tried promoting my own stuff, and I’ve worked in the professional web video world. Since we’re talking about a medium that really has no set rules, I’d like to think that I am a bit of an expert. I also think about what irritates me a lot, so that lends itself nicely to discussing web videos.

And I should also mention: I’m talking about the low-budget type stuff. When there’s a budget or a corporate entity/integrated product programming involved, then you’re talking about money for advertising, and you make more of your own luck. I’m also assuming that you have a good idea. So if there’s a $50 budget, a good idea and you or anyone you know says, “I wanna make a viral video,” then you and anyone one you know should ask, “Do we have one or all of these things?”

1.) Interactivity. Studios have been pondering for eons (read: “10 years internet time”) about why viewers are less likely to sit through an entire movie on their computer as opposed to on their TV or on a movie screen. The problem has less to do with content and more to do with the way the audience is using the technology. For a TV or movie screen, the audience remains inherently passive. They sit, they watch, that’s it. The computer has always been an interactive tool. And thus, web videos need to contain some portion of interactivity. Otherwise (I guess) audiences subconsciously start thinking, “I spent $2000 on this MacBook Pro and I’m just staring at it? I have a TV to do that!” So when you’re planning out your web video, consider how to give the audience a means to participate. It can be as blatant as the “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style games I helped write at Maker Studios (such as “8-Bit ‘Glee'”), or it can work in sly ways. “Epic  Rap Battles of History” always ends asking for the audience to decide who won the battle AND for suggestions on who they should impersonate next. Back in the day, a series like Homestar Runner first got its legs through the Strong Bad Emails, where the villain responded to viewer questions. Even FunnyOrDie — which could be argued mostly makes static, stand-alone sketches — still asks you to vote “Funny” or “Die” on each video.

2.) Celebrity Recognition. This is a big help, for obvious reasons. It’s kind of annoying, but it’s too true to ignore: people like watching celebrities. Digging a little deeper, this can translate into “people like watching people they know.” When you think about it, your video of the talking cat marionette — while hilarious — would probably be watched by your immediate friends, and that’s it, because they are the only people who know you. There’s no real reason for anyone who doesn’t know you already to seek it out, nor is there much of a chance for the video to get passed along (outside of it having some of the other key ingredients) to people who don’t know you. But when you add in the element of celebrity, people can relate. People know who Bill Murray is. So if you have a video featuring a cameo from Bill Murray, the pitch changes from “Look at this hilarious web video I made” (which we’re all sick of hearing, by the way) to “Look at this web video I did with Bill FREAKIN’ Murray in it!” People know who Bill Murray is. They like him. And chances increase that the name recognition will fuel the video’s life. This includes the title of your video (if Bill Murray’s appearance is supposed to be a surprise, so you think you shouldn’t put his name in the title, you are wrong). This component can also be pushed to include non-real celebrities. “Star Wars” videos with Vader, Luke and Han thrive to this day (as “Chad Vader” proved). You put Batman in something, people might stumble on it, because people are always searching for Batman. So give your video some element of recognizable celebrity, and it might have a fighting chance.

3.) Topicality. This is a tricky one, because it requires a mix of production preparedness, a good idea, a great script, and a dash of luck. The type of video I’m thinking of is the College Humor clip about the BP Oil Spill. I’d have to do research (which I’m not going to do), but I’m fairly certain that it came out within the week of the event, so the chances of people looking for that very topic — and WANTING to talk about it — was very high. Mix that with the fact** that it was well shot, sounds good and was well written, and you can see why someone at the Huffington Post (there’s your dash of luck) picked up on it. The advent of Facebook and Twitter is that when news breaks, you can learn about it and discuss it instantly. So should it be with your video. By virtue of being on the internet, your web video can and should be part of a conversation.

4.) A Non-Waste of Time. Certainly this is relative, but it’s incredibly important. I’m not arguing for the internet-based ADD, but it’s foolish to ignore it and go on believing that your video is the one that can take its time. It cannot. Nor can it get boring. The good people at 5 Second Films have perfected this, providing a joke in just under 5 seconds (8 with the title, which is pretty important, since the title usually acts as both the hook and the joke’s set-up… such as in my favorite, “Job Island”). But there are plenty of other videos with runtimes well beyond 5 seconds — some as long as 120 seconds! YouTube actually offers a service to see just when viewers clicked away from your video, and I know on good faith that some professionals use this information to inform the structure of future videos. Basically, if they found their viewership was slipping at the 2-minute-mark, they would throw in a twist at the 1.5-minute mark. When I write it out like that, it sounds really hackie, but when you think about it, it’s a demand for creativity and imagination. And that doesn’t sound like a bad thing. If you’re still not convinced and you think your video can take it’s time, think about how impatient you get when a non-video page loads slowly. That impatience seems to accompany the content on that page as well, so if your video is “taking a long time to load” or even if it “stalls,” people will become more likely to just go to another site that will give them something instantly.

5.) Providing a Service. Might sound weird, but hear me out***. The reason the internet was created in the first place was to share information. It is primarily a research tool. Therefore, I hypothesize that when people log on to the internet, they are inherently after answers. Answers to “How many dogs can fit into a toilet?” but answers nonetheless. So your video would do well to provide some sort of answer, in some form — any form — in order to attract viewers. “How It Should Have Ended” is a perfect example, where they take movies and TV shows that tons of people are talking about and give a (mildly) hilarious alternate ending. Another classic example is the Red Letter Media reviews of the “Star Wars” prequels. For whatever reason, people (myself included, obviously) are still pondering “What went wrong?” with those movies, and the RLM reviews offer (very) hilarious and surprisingly insightful answers. The service provided in those reviews even defies conventional “anything beyond 2-minutes” paradox because the service they provide is so valuable****.

There they are. If you have a rebuttal or an exception, by all means share it. On a site like mine, that share might get you 6 more hits.

*I’ve done no research. Prove me wrong, viral video millionaires.

**Aka: “fact.”

***Like you were going anywhere. I love you, internet reader!

****Aka: “valuable.”

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