Mythbusting: Engineering a Viral Video (Image Source

Viral Video: What It Really Takes To Go Viral

Aren’t you amazed at how large of a backlog you can amass after only three workdays plus a weekend out of office? This is the situation I found myself in after SXSW Interactive 2013. During the event, I was lucky enough to sit in on several outstanding presentations. One of the most intriguing sessions I enjoyed was Mythbusting: Engineering a Viral Video. This session featured a panel of four knowledgeable video marketers, Bettina Hein and Rob Ciampa of Pixability, Eduardo Tobon of Diners Club International, and Kevin Doohan of Machinima.

During the session, each of the panelists took on several viral video myths and “how to”s. In this post, I am sharing the high points of the session.

Engineering a Viral Video

The team wasted very little time, immediately calling out that “viral” does not equate to “easy”. When you see overnight sensations, it is rare that the video went viral based on pure luck. A large number of leading videos aren’t viral at all, but heavily driven by purchased views!

The downside on purchased views is that it comes in bursts. They gave several examples to support the notion that a steady stream of views over time is far superior for business purposes than a burst. Good, useful content will behave this way and drive real leads, particularly in the case of a viral video.

So if views are a loaded metric, what should we be using? The panel suggested that shares on Facebook are a much stronger indicator of virality. After all, if no one shares a video, is that even worthy of being labeled viral? I think not.

What DOES Make Videos Go Viral?

The panel called out six key factors that help drive success for viral videos.

  • Social Outreach and Sharing
  • Relevance
  • Passionate Enthusiasts
  • Subscribers
  • Participation
  • Cross-pollination

Essentially, use relationships to seed content. Passionate enthusiasts will be all over relevant content, and will find it on their own. But don’t forget about sending to subscribers to your list or social graph. The actions you want to drive are participation (watching, sharing, talking about, etc.) and cross-pollination (using one tactic to bring attention to others).

Connecting To Your Target Audience

After the first 15 minutes, it was glaringly clear that relationships are the key to success here. They further outlined how to connect with your key target audience:

  • Make relevant content
  • Lobby tastemakers and find passionate enthusiasts
  • Build subscribership
  • Encourage participation
  • Use cross pollination of email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+

See the similarities? This is basically the flipside of the original set of bullet points, but with a little more “how to” included.

The Problem With Paying to Seed “Viral Video” Content

So, if paid views are behind many of the “viral” videos we see out there, we should pay to seed them, right? Wrong!

Paid seeding, while it may drive views, does not necessarily translate to anything viral. Watch out for the following issues when considering paid seeding of your video content:

  • Be careful of what you are buying. You should know where they will be placing your content before you sign on.
  • Insist that views come from your target audience in the right location. It makes no sense for a local bakery in Phoenix, AZ to pay for views in New Delhi or Timbuktu.
  • Ask how they will generate opt in views on social networks, mobile devices, and YouTube in particular. If they cannot justify how they do it, be skeptical.
  • Make sure the vendor doesn’t plan to drive up your views using bots, because that can get you banned from YouTube altogether. If someone pitches you on 1M views for less than $1,000, use your common sense and say “No thanks”.

Also keep your eyes peeled for “incentivized views”. There are vendors who pay real money or virtual currency to “buy” views. While this may drive volume, the quality is notoriously terrible, i.e. a waste of your hard earned money.

So, If Those Don’t Work, What Does?

The key is to do some serious strategic analysis from the outset. Start by analyzing the topic space:

  • How many people are actually watching videos in this segment? In some segments, online video is simply ineffective.
  • How long are the videos? What works for this audience, a minute, 3 minutes, longer? These metrics can vary widely between one vertical market and another.
  • What IS your target audience watching? How can you expand on that? Can you get into the head of your audience? Good business models typically fill a need in the market, so what need can you fill with your video content?
  • Take time to understand both the audience, as well as the competition. What is the sentiment around those videos? Are the videos getting the most views the type you want to emulate? Is it going out on social?

Believe it or not, real world virality is often much smaller of a splash than you may think.

Some Basic Pointers For Video Optimization

It is important to know what metadata is important for video content. The most successful online videos always spend time to make the most of the following factors when posting online:

  • Titles
  • Tags
  • Descriptions
  • Target links
  • Annotations

Once you post a video, you want to track YouTube search and social rankings. This is a very important step in analyzing what is working. Figure out how to reach your audience in a viral way, not by paying for views, if at all possible.

That said, paying for views is nothing to be ashamed of. Just be sure to do it right. Watch out for the gotchas listed above. If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

Think of your YouTube channel as your own cable network. Use social sharing, paid ads, and a variety of tactics to drive traffic to the channel itself. Once it is established, then the view count is something you can hang your hat on. YouTube ad placements are great, with True View, where viewers can opt out of videos if needed.

When you think of this as a cable network, you will be forced to get more creative with video lengths and formats. Don’t just stick to 30-second or three-minute spots. Sometimes, 10 minutes or an hour works when it makes sense for the material and target audience. Mix up the formats and approach. See what resonates with your target audience and do it! Even the time of day should be taken into account. This is often overlooked by even more savvy marketers.

At the end of the day, luck does play a part in all this. But you can’t truly control luck, so focus on the factors that are within your control. It’s exactly like the old adage says, “Luck is where opportunity meets preparation.” Position yourself for success, and take hold of opportunity when it comes your way.

A Few More Tactical Tips on Viral Video

The panelists were adamant that we should not post videos to Facebook natively. Their advice is to use YouTube as the hub, and always post there.

They admitted that Facebook videos do work better on Facebook itself. But a quick look at the numbers highlights the thinking here. Facebook has just over a billion monthly users according to Facebook themselves. YouTube on the other hand, has 4 billion videos views each day! It’s easily apparent that YouTube’s reach is massive in comparison to that of Facebook, even with the rapid growth the latter has enjoyed over the past few years.

Along that same line of thinking, an audience member asked if it is better to post just to YouTube or to pepper the online video sites as well. According to the panel, it is better to have a single video on YouTube and have that grow over time. They recommended against posting to a slew of video websites, because the video will rank better on YouTube with steady traffic growth. This relates back to the point about slow and steady being better than a “quick burst and fade” approach.


Have you ever tried to engineer a viral video? How did it go? Did you pay to play or get lucky? I’d love to hear some case studies from real world campaigns. Please share in the comments, or if you have a really good example, drop us an email at to discuss a possible case study writeup on the blog.


Mythbusting: Engineering a Viral Video (Image Source

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As Founder and President of Return On Now, Tommy Landry provides the vision behind our SEO and SEM methodologies. With over 25 years of business experience and a deep understanding of modern internet marketing techniques, he spends his time providing hands-on consulting, insightful content, and engaging public speaking appearances to Online Marketers of all skill levels.
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