How to make a video go viral: 8 things you should know

The Holy Grail of low-cost marketing – a viral video – can boost your start-up’s exposure beyond your wildest dreams. Here’s how

Finding it hard to get noticed without spending big? Start-ups and small firms are continually on the hunt to achieve maximum exposure on a limited budget.

A good PR campaign is often touted as a low-cost alternative to advertising while an increasing number of businesses are utilising social media as another budget solution. However, viral videos, such as DollarShaveClub’s infamous video, can give you a level of exposure that even the most expensive and well-orchestrated ad campaign can’t match – people will share your video with their friends and family unprompted and this exposure can gather momentum and snowball into something spectacular.

The most viewed non-music viral video of all time, ‘Charlie Bit My Finger – Again’ is nothing more than a home video of two children fighting uploaded by their father, but it has garnered more than 630 million views on Youtube and become part of popular culture.

Entire marketing agencies have sprung up around the elusive goal of achieving a viral vision – if your small business’ video goes truly viral it could be the catalyst for success.

Of course, a necessary drawback of viral marketing is that you can’t guarantee it. Getting people to share your video of their own accord is more art than science, and even if you get all the ingredients right a video can still inexplicably fail to take off.

“There’s no ‘formula’ as such, because part of any successful viral is creativity and there’s no formula for that,” explains Matt Smith, co-founder of London viral marketing agency The Viral Factory. “Once you’ve got your kick-ass idea, though, then there is a formula for getting the rest right: it’s called careful planning.”

So while we can’t guarantee your video will become the next net sensation, if you follow the eight rules of thumb below you will give yourself the best chance of success.

  1. Generate ‘arousal’ moments. A 2012 study into the causes of virality found that content that provokes strong emotional responses such as anger, awe or sadness (what the report’s authors termed ‘arousal moments’) is far more likely to be shared than content that does not. Indeed, it is easy to link most of the most high-profile viral videos with the emotional responses they generate; ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ makes people laugh, for example, while the Kony 2012 mini-documentary provokes anger and sadness. Have a clear idea of what ‘arousal moment’ you are trying to generate when making a video; this should be helpful when creating your content.
  2. Focus on positive emotions. Another study into viral videos conducted by the British Psychological Society discovered that videos that elicit positive responses, such as joy or humour, were far more likely to be shared than videos that provoked negative ones such as anger or sadness. Although both positive and negative reactions are better than no reaction at all, you should keep your content positive and upbeat as a rule of thumb unless you have a good reason not to do so.
  3. The first seven seconds are crucial. Your video will be competing with billions of others for your target audience’s attention, so it’s vital you pique your viewer’s interest within the first few seconds. Avoid things like opening credits and lengthy intros; shock, fascinate or entertain the viewer as soon as possible to give them a reason to keep watching. “We reckon – based on intuition rather than hard data – that you’ve got about seven seconds of goodwill but by then you’ve got to deliver,” explains Matt Smith. “Audiences unconsciously respond to very small things, like the style of the video, in order to make decisions about whether to continue watching or not.”
  4. Remember your audience. To go truly ‘viral’, a video needs to generate its own momentum by being shared voluntarily by as many people as possible. This means widening your appeal, and if necessary, diluting your business’ message. “An important thing to remember about viral marketing is whilst the monetary cost can be very low, it isn’t ‘free’ in terms of your message,” explains Matt Smith. “The goal is simply to gain exposure, so you will have to sacrifice some elements of your branding and message to reach as many people as possible.”  Remember that you should be making a video that viewers want to share with not just their friends, but their mothers, fathers and children too, so surprise and laughter is good – shock and offence is not. Irn Bru’s widely-shared ‘Baby’ advertisement is a good example of content done well; the central joke of the advertisement can be understood by just about anyone with a grasp of the British dialect, and whilst the double-entendre is fairly puerile it is harmless enough that only the most puritan of viewers could take offence.
  5. Pick a good title. The first thing people will see about your video is the title, so it’s vital to pick a good one. Grab their attention and don’t shy away from hyperbole – would you be more likely to click on a video entitled ‘My son listens to music’ or the same video dubbed ‘Cute Baby rocks out to Aerosmith – best response EVER!’? Additionally, editorial titles like ‘10 Incredible Ways to [insert subject]’ tend to generate more clicks. “Good titles are really, really important,” says Matt Smith. “We sometimes consider the title at the stage when we’re deciding on ideas.”
  6. Timing is key. When your video is complete, don’t just upload it onto YouTube straight away – you need to think carefully about how you can maximise your number of views by releasing at a smart time. Avoid releasing your video during a big or breaking news story if possible – unless your content is highly relevant, don’t release during major events such as the Superbowl or 2014 World Cup. Matt Smith has more tips: “Avoid the Mondays and Fridays and periods where everyone is on holiday – summer generally sucks,” he advises. “One of the worst things that can happen is that you launch a campaign just before some big story breaks. We released a tech viral about three days before Steve Jobs died. It didn’t go well.”
  7. Target influential sharers. Not all sharers are created equal; news outlets and celebrities have enormous influence across the web and can share your video with millions of people at once. The now-famous ‘Double Rainbow’ video went for months on Youtube with just a small number of views until US late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel tweeted the link to his 90,000 followers; within a few days, millions of people had seen the video and the original uploader was being interviewed by national news outlets (it now has more than 38 million views). “The importance of influencers has always been high, and it’s getting higher,” says Matt Smith. “They are absolutely key to a successful launch – however, we’ve had mixed results with celebrities and Twitter as it’s so ephemeral. As a small business I would target influential news outlets, much in the same way as PR – give them a pre-packaged story they can get live in 10 minutes which will generate clicks for them. The Mail Online has surprisingly been a consistently strong performer for us.”
  8. Upload the video onto Youtube – but have a backup option. Whilst you have a choice of platforms to host your video on, Youtube is by far the most well-known and popular, and should be your go-to choice for hosting. “It is the platform that influencers and audiences are by far the most comfortable with -it has great sharing tools, and decent analytics, so I would absolutely recommend it in the vast majority of cases,” explains Matt Smith. “Just bear in mind that YouTube can – and will – pull down content without warning for a host of reasons, and this can trash a campaign. When we produced our Diesel Safe-For-Work XXX clip we did a deal with to host it – because of the content, we were pretty sure that YouTube would take it down and they did.”



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