The Secret Strategies Behind Many "Viral" Videos

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This guest post was written by Dan Ackerman Greenberg, co-founder of viral video marketing company The Comotion Group and lead TA for the Stanford Facebook Class. Dan will graduate from the Stanford Management Science & Engineering Masters program in June.

Have you ever watched a video with 100,000 views on YouTube and thought to yourself: “How the hell did that video get so many views?” Chances are pretty good that this didn’t happen naturally, but rather that some company worked hard to make it happen – some company like mine.

When most people talk about “viral videos,” they’re usually referring to videos like Miss Teen South Carolina, Smirnoff’s Tea Partay music video, the Sony Bravia ads, Soulja Boy – videos that have traveled all around the internet and been posted on YouTube, MySpace, Google Video, Facebook, Digg, blogs, etc. – videos with millions and millions of views.

Over the past year, I have run clandestine marketing campaigns meant to ensure that promotional videos become truly viral, as these examples have become in the extreme. In this post, I will share some of the techniques I use to do my job: to get at least 100,000 people to watch my clients’ “viral” videos.

Secret #1: Not all viral videos are what they seem

There are tens of thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube each day (I’ve heard estimates between 10-65,000 videos per day). I don’t care how “viral” you think your video is; no one is going to find it and no one is going to watch it.

The members of my startup are hired guns – our clients give us videos and we make them go viral. Our rule of thumb is that if we don’t get a video 100,000 views, we don’t charge.

So far, we’ve worked on 80-90 videos and we’ve seen overwhelming success. In the past 3 months, we’ve achieved over 20 million views for our clients, with videos ranging from 100,000 views to upwards of 1.5 million views each. In other words, not all videos go viral organically – there is a method to the madness.

I can’t reveal our clients’ names and I can’t link to the videos we’ve worked on, because YouTube surely doesn’t like what we’re doing and our clients hate to admit that they need professional help with their “viral” videos. But I can give you a general idea of who we’ve worked with: two top Hollywood movie studios, a major record label, a variety of very well known consumer brands, and a number of different startups, both domestic and international.

This summer, we were approached by a Hollywood movie studio and asked to help market a series of viral clips they had created in advance of a blockbuster. The videos were 10-20 seconds each, were shot from what appeared to be a camera phone, and captured a series of unexpected and shocking events that required professional post-production and CGI. Needless to say, the studio had invested a significant amount of money in creating the videos but every time they put them online, they couldn’t get more than a few thousand views.

We took six videos and achieved:

  • 6 million views on YouTube
  • ~30,000 ratings
  • ~10,000 favorites
  • ~10,000 comments
  • 200+ blog posts linking back to the videos
  • All six videos made it into the top 5 Most Viewed of the Day, and the two that went truly viral (1.5 million views each) were #1 and #2 Most Viewed of the Week.

The following principles were the secrets to our success.

2. Content is NOT King

If you want a truly viral video that will get millions of people to watch and share it, then yes, content is key. But good content is not necessary to get 100,000 views if you follow these strategies.

Don’t get me wrong: the content is what will drive visitors back to a site. So a video must have a decent concept, but one shouldn’t agonize over determining the best “viral” video possible. Generally, a concept should not be forced because it fits a brand. Rather, a brand should be fit into a great concept. Here are some guidelines we follow:

  • Make it short: 15-30 seconds is ideal; break down long stories into bite-sized clips
  • Design for remixing: create a video that is simple enough to be remixed over and over again by others. Ex: “Dramatic Hamster”
  • Don’t make an outright ad: if a video feels like an ad, viewers won’t share it unless it’s really amazing. Ex: Sony Bravia
  • Make it shocking: give a viewer no choice but to investigate further. Ex: “UFO Haiti”
  • Use fake headlines: make the viewer say, “Holy shit, did that actually happen?!” Ex: “Stolen Nascar”
  • Appeal to sex: if all else fails, hire the most attractive women available to be in the video. Ex: “Yoga 4 Dudes”

These recent videos would have been perfect had they been viral “ads” pointing people back to websites:

3. Core Strategy: Getting onto the “Most Viewed” page

Now that a video is ready to go, how the hell is it going to attract 100,000 viewers?

The core concept of video marketing on YouTube is to harness the power of the site’s traffic. Here’s the idea: something like 80 million videos are watched each day on YouTube, and a significant number of those views come from people clicking the “Videos” tab at the top. The goal is to get a video on that Videos page, which lists the Daily Most Viewed videos.

If we succeed, the video will no longer be a single needle in the haystack of 10,000 new videos per day. It will be one of the twenty videos on the Most Viewed page, which means that we can grab 1/20th of the clicks on that page! And the higher up on the page our video is, the more views we are going to get.

So how do we get the first 50,000 views we need to get our videos onto the Most Viewed list?

  • Blogs: We reach out to individuals who run relevant blogs and actually pay them to post our embedded videos. Sounds a little bit like cheating/PayPerPost, but it’s effective and it’s not against any rules.
  • Forums: We start new threads and embed our videos. Sometimes, this means kickstarting the conversations by setting up multiple accounts on each forum and posting back and forth between a few different users. Yes, it’s tedious and time-consuming, but if we get enough people working on it, it can have a tremendous effect.
  • MySpace: Plenty of users allow you to embed YouTube videos right in the comments section of their MySpace pages. We take advantage of this.
  • Facebook: Share, share, share. We’ve taken Dave McClure’s advice and built a sizeable presence on Facebook, so sharing a video with our entire friends list can have a real impact. Other ideas include creating an event that announces the video launch and inviting friends, writing a note and tagging friends, or posting the video on Facebook Video with a link back to the original YouTube video.
  • Email lists: Send the video to an email list. Depending on the size of the list (and the recipients’ willingness to receive links to YouTube videos), this can be a very effective strategy.
  • Friends: Make sure everyone we know watches the video and try to get them to email it out to their friends, or at least share it on Facebook.

Each video has a shelf life of 48 hours before it’s moved from the Daily Most Viewed list to the Weekly Most Viewed list, so it’s important that this happens quickly. As I mentioned before, when done right, this is a tremendously successful strategy.

4. Title Optimization

Once a video is on the Most Viewed page, what can be done to maximize views?

It seems obvious, but people see hundreds of videos on YouTube, and the title and thumbnail are an easy way for video publishers to actively persuade someone to click on a video. Titles can be changed a limitless number of times, so we sometimes have a catchy (and somewhat misleading) title for the first few days, then later switch to something more relevant to the brand. Recently, I’ve noticed a trend towards titling videos with the phrases “exclusive,” “behind the scenes,” and “leaked video.”

5. Thumbnail Optimization

If a video is sitting on the Most Viewed page with nineteen other videos, a compelling video thumbnail is the single best strategy to maximize the number of clicks the video gets.

YouTube provides three choices for a video’s thumbnail, one of which is grabbed from the exact middle of the video. As we edit our videos, we make sure that the frame at the very middle is interesting. It’s no surprise that videos with thumbnails of half naked women get hundreds of thousands of views. Not to say that this is the best strategy, but you get the idea. Two rules of thumb: the thumbnail should be clear (suggesting high video quality) and ideally it should have a face or at least a person in it.

Also, when we feel particularly creative, we optimize all three thumbnails then change the thumbnail every few hours. This is definitely an underused strategy, but it’s an interesting way to keep a video fresh once it’s on the Most Viewed list.

See the highlighted videos in the screenshot below for a good example of how a compelling title and screenshot can make all the difference once the video is on the Most Viewed page.

6. Commenting: Having a conversation with yourself

Every power user on YouTube has a number of different accounts. So do we. A great way to maximize the number of people who watch our videos is to create some sort of controversy in the comments section below the video. We get a few people in our office to log in throughout the day and post heated comments back and forth (you can definitely have a lot of fun with this). Everyone loves a good, heated discussion in the comments section – especially if the comments are related to a brand/startup.

Also, we aren’t afraid to delete comments – if someone is saying our video (or your startup) sucks, we just delete their comment. We can’t let one user’s negativity taint everyone else’s opinions.

We usually get one comment for every thousand views, since most people watching YouTube videos aren’t logged in. But a heated comment thread (done well) will engage viewers and will drive traffic back to our sites.

7. Releasing all videos simultaneously

Once people are watching a video, how do we keep them engaged and bring them back to a website?

A lot of the time our clients say: “We’ve got 5 videos and we’re going to release one every few days so that viewers look forward to each video.”

This is the wrong way to think about YouTube marketing. If we have multiple videos, we post all of them at once. If someone sees our first video and is so intrigued that they want to watch more, why would we make them wait until we post the next one? We give them everything up front. If a user wants to watch all five of our videos right now, there’s a much better chance that we’ll be able to persuade them to click through to our website. We don’t make them wait after seeing the first video, because they’re never going to see the next four.

Once our first video is done, we delete our second video then re-upload it. Now we have another 48-hour window to push it to the Most Viewed page. Rinse and repeat. Using this strategy, we give our most interested viewers the chance to fully engage with a campaign without compromising the opportunity to individually release and market each consecutive video.

8. Strategic Tagging: Leading viewers down the rabbit hole

This is one of my favorite strategies and one that I think we invented. YouTube allows you to tag your videos with keywords that make your videos show up in relevant searches. For the first week that our video is online, we don’t use keyword tags to optimize the video for searches on YouTube. Instead, we’ve discovered that you can use tags to control the videos that show up in the Related Videos box.

I like to think about it as leading viewers down the rabbit hole. The idea here is to make it as easy as possible for viewers to engage with all your content, rather than jumping away to “related” content that actually has nothing to do with your brand/startup.

So how do we strategically tag? We choose three or four unique tags and use only these tags for all of the videos we post. I’m not talking about obscure tags; I’m talking about unique tags, tags that are not used by any other YouTube videos. Done correctly, this will allow us to have full control over the videos that show up as “Related Videos.”

When views start trailing off after a few days to a week, it’s time to add some more generic tags, tags that draw out the long tail of a video as it starts to appear in search results on YouTube and Google.

9. Metrics/Tracking: How we measure effectiveness

The following is how we measure the success of our viral videos.

For one, we tweak the links put up on YouTube (whether in a YouTube channel or in a video description) by adding “?video=1” to the end of each URL. This makes it much easier to track inbound links using Google Analytics or another metrics tool.

TubeMogul and VidMetrix also track views/comments/ratings on each individual video and draw out nice graphs that can be shared with the team. Additionally, these tools follow the viral spread of a video outside of YouTube and throughout other social media sites and blogs.

Conclusion

The Wild West days of Lonely Girl and Ask A Ninja are over. You simply can’t expect to post great videos on YouTube and have them go viral on their own, even if you think you have the best videos ever. These days, achieving true virality takes serious creativity, some luck, and a lot of hard work. So, my advice: fire your PR firm and do it yourself.

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