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Anatomy of a Viral Video (Part 1)

Made a video--1 million views overnight MEME

So you want to make a viral video. You’re in luck! There are, in fact, a few tried and true strategies for creating a video with traction, and you don’t have to be rolling in money to do it. In this three-part series, I’m going to walk you through the elements that make a successful viral video so that you can get your message out there swiftly and effectively.

Part 1: The Meat: We’ll look at content, what works and the pitfalls some people run into.

Part 2: The Tools:  We’ll review what equipment and software that you’ll need, and what is overkill.

Part 3: The Strategy:  We’ll talk about how to market your viral video, as well as some unexpected strategies to help give it traction.

By the time you’re done, you will be equipped with everything you need to know to start creating your viral video. Good luck and let me know in the comments how it goes!

The Meat

The meat is your idea and how you express it. This is where the heart of your viral campaign is, and the element that will push or halt its potential for forward momentum. Your idea could just be a kernel or you may have already started a script. This guide will help you to mold your concept into streamlined vehicle for likes and shares, and future action.

The Golden Rule

Keep it simple, keep it short : Unless your video is funnier than a SNL sketch, it is very unlikely anyone is going to sit through ten minutes of it; even if the video has the production budget of a Marvel movie and was written by Joss Whedon. OK, maybe if it was written by Joss Whedon.

But the important takeaway is that the shorter the video it is, the higher the chances for it to go viral because people will actually stick around long enough to hear the punchline. If you have a lot of content that you want to share, split it up into a series of short videos. One minute is the sweet spot.  I’ll get into that below.

The moral: You never ever want someone to say, “It got better”.

Scene from a Monty Python film, quote: it got better...

Get to the point!

People have very short attention spans, especially if they are mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. Your video needs to start out clear and hook the audience immediately. Don’t spend time beating around the bush. It takes about ten seconds to lose 20% of your audience and 60 seconds to lose 40%. The faster you can get to the point, the less likely you will experience the dreaded “viewer abandonment”. The better the audience retention, the higher chance of shares.

“It takes about ten seconds to lose 20% of your audience and 60 seconds to lose 40%”

-The New York Times

If you tell your audience what the video is about, how the topic is relevant to the them, and what they will be able to do with the information—in the first ten seconds—you will have done more for your viral marketing than most anyone else. If you can then wrap the whole video up in 60 seconds, even better.

If you need to say more, try moving from one point to the next in 30 and 60 second intervals to continually renew your viewer’s interest. You might be able to string them along for a few minutes. But don’t get greedy! Keep in simple, clear, and short.

Funny Is Where the Money Is

Humor and tragedy sell. If you have someone on your staff who has a knack for wit or your story is inherently sad (cue Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel”), then you have the best potential for shares. My only warning here is that there is a pretty good chance your video idea isn’t as funny as you and your coworkers think it is. Workshop the idea with someone who doesn’t have a horse in the race, who will tell you if the idea is just “kind of funny”, or if it “pure gold.” Assume that whatever you create will be less funny than it was in conception, so if it’s only “kind of funny” to start with... Maybe try another strategy. (By the way, this applies to more than video)

Mary Poppins scene: Dick van Dyke hides a chuckle while Poppins looks at him archly

List it

So what happens if humor is not an option? Well, there are a couple other strategies to propel your video down the magical rollercoaster of viral social media. Lists is one. People love lists. Especially if they are combined with a DIY aspect (which I will go into below). A video that shares “Three Foolproof Ways to Get Rid of College Debt”, in three minutes, is going to have way more traction than “Understanding College Debt Strategies”, in the same amount of time, even though the content might be more or less the same. Which would you click?

Engage Your Audience!

Engaging your audience can be done a number of ways. The most common is a “Call to Action”, which is usually an invitation at the end of the video for the audience to subscribe, comment, follow, or sign up. However, the more engagement you can elicit, the better. Asking your audience subscribe is somewhat passive. Asking your audience to participate in the content (for example, by creating their own response videos. See Ice Bucket Challenge.) gives your individual audience members a voice and invites them to be part of a group or movement that interacts with each other, brings in people from other audience pools, and who knows, your viral video might create a living, breathing creature that evolves over time, roaming the internet and carrying your brand along with it forever!

Do It Yourself

Another way to invite audience engagement is to create a DIY element to your videos. DIY videos are a phenomenon that has really taken off in the last five years (thank you, Pinterest), but are limited largely to videos about, for example, how to replace a bike seat how to paint a leopard print nail polish design. There’s still a huge gap in the market for videos that teach broader concepts, like “How to Save Water with Every Day Tricks” or “Five Simple Ways to Help the Homeless Now.”

If you can teach someone how to do something in a very short amount of time to benefit their lives or the lives of others, you offer the audience the ability to customize their personal experience using your branded knowledge.

So, for example, let’s say that you want to warn people about the dangers of smoking. Instead of making a video of exactly that, which runs the risk of inducing yawns, why not make a three-minute video that tells people how to quit smoking using natural remedies? Or, how to break the smoking habit in 30 days? Videos that ask people to participate will always win over those that merely state facts.

Now, imagine a funny, DIY list video that invites responses…