How to Make a Video Go Viral. Seems Like Some Things Never Change

"How do you make a video go viral" is a favorite question of PR students everywhere. There are a lot of things you can try -- like having 140-character tweet-bites, memorable hashtags and so on -- but there isn't actually any sure-fire recipe. If there were then nobody would spend any money on advertising since everyone would be cooking to that recipe.

Come to think of it, there are two ways to make a video or anything else go viral, but they don't have much to do with social media:  plain old fashioned influence and money.

Last week's viral sensation Kony2012 has quickly become the most talked about topic in the PR world because it has been so amazingly effective. Two weeks ago the campaign to stop Joseph Kony was almost unknown; today thanks to Jason Russell's brilliant campaign it is the cause that almost everyone either supports or criticizes. Very few people have never heard of it.

On the surface this looks like a victory for social media, and in a way it is, but when you look a little deeper it becomes clear that the real reason the campaign went viral is because Russell wisely targeted famous people. You can read all the details in the New York Times piece "How the Kony Video Went Viral".  

In theory a video could go viral just because one person posts a video, two people share it, four or their friends share it and so on.  This perhaps might have happened occasionally with funny cat videos, but in reality making a video viral is much more difficult than you think. Richard Fisher of New Scientist tried to deliberately create a viral video in 2009, describing his experiments in Atomic dogs: The making or an Internet sensation

After experimenting different methods he discovered that even if a video is good the only way to make it go viral is to get some help from a person who has real influence. One share by a "sneezer" like this can give a video the push it needs to start trending, triggering a self-sustaining chain reaction. In the New York Times article they reveal that what made Kony2012 reach 40 million views in just a few days were the tweets by people like Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber, who have millions of loyal followers. 

There is another way to make a video go viral. Many people remembers the legendary "Tipp-Ex A Hunter Shoots  A Bear" video on YouTube, viewed at least 20 million times. This was actually a very expensive ad, relying on a custom YouTube page, some clever application design work and quite a lot of work with a film crew, talent and a guy in a bear suit. 

So the answer to the question How can you make a video go viral is pretty much identical to what someone might have said about a PR campaign before the age of social media: you have to have either Big Money or Big Influence. There is no magic shortcut.

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"the answer to the question How can you make a video go viral is pretty much identical to what someone might have said about a PR campaign before the age of social media"

I like this quote because I think that sometimes people forget that there are still PR and marketing companies out there that can still really help a piece of content, a video or whatever make it to the monitor screens of millions. However, there are lots of videos that are viewed by the millions that go viral and may as well not even know how to define the phrase, social media marketing (like David After Dentist, or Sophia Grace and Rosie's rendition of SuperBass). There's a link in my signature to a blog that dissects the more holistic reasons of why Kony 2012 went so viral. Social media marketing definitely has a lot to do with it, and of course the endorsements by celebrities like Rihanna do too, but it's not necessarily everything.
Andrew Hennigan said…
Yes, some people think of viral campaigns as a "free" alternative to conventional advertising and PE but in reality you still need people to make it happen.

And yes, I am sure the reasons for the success of Kony2012 are more complex, but I am also sure that we will be hearing a lot about this.
Evolve Media said…
Twitter has definitely changed the game on how videos go viral but its not just the celebrities and news organizations that pick the story up and rn with it because its currently the flavor of the week.
Andrew Hennigan said…
I'd agree that organic virality also contributes, but I don't see much independent research supporting the idea that it can happen consistently. The testing described in New Scientist highlighted the role of key influencers who "sneeze" a video into virality.

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