The 4 Elements of Getting Videos to go Viral

Note: This post is republished from the original posted on the Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence blog.

On November 24, 2007, a fellow named Dan Ackerman Greenberg wrote the kind of blog post that was either the dumbest of his career, or the most brilliant … depending on how you look at it.  The post was a guest piece for TechCrunch, one of the most widely read blogs in the world.  In it, he described the real tactics his firm employs to get their client’s videos to go viral and get at least 100,000 views.  He described the key steps, and even shared his firm’s philosophy that if they cannot get you at least 100,000 views, they don’t get paid.  Sound good?  Read on.

The real problem people had with the 9 points he shared in his post is that some were squarely in the category of what most people would call spamming behaviour.  He advocated creating fake profiles, launching multiple user accounts in forums and using built up “friend” circles on social networks to inflate views.  Bloggers and readers of TechCrunch were incensed … leaving more than 500 comments against his original guest post and triggering a follow up post from Dan to clarify his point of view.  Of course, the post generated big publicity for Dan’s relatively small firm as well … hence the dual views on whether you think this was a bad move, or a brilliant publicity play.

Either way, the easy thing to do is vilefy Dan for his inauthentic approach to seeding his client’s videos.  The only problem is, it obviously seems to work (if your end goal and metric is number of views).  Dismissing Dan’s approach on principle also obscures some real useful lessons that he shares in his post that anyone promoting videos on YouTube should pay attention to.  Which raises the central question – is it possible to intentionally generate lots of video views on YouTube, without employing the same underhanded tactics?  It is a question our team here has spent a long time thinking about, and the approach to doing this breaks down into four key factors of your video:

  1. Content – Is the subject matter and story compelling enough to get people to pass it along?  This is a different question to whether or not it is entertaining.  The real challenge on YouTube is getting someone to find your video, so it has to be shareable so people pass it between one another, otherwise it will get a few engaged views and then fade into obscurity.
  2. Optimization – This has to do with how long the clip is, how you optimize it, what tags you use, and when you submit it.  In this regard, Dan’s post has lots of good suggestions, from capping videos to keep them short, to making sure the exact middle frame is something engaging (which YouTube uses to generate your thumbnail), to submitting multiple videos at once so you don’t force watchers to wait for the next one.
  3. Outreach – Obvious, but often forgotten … a key element to getting a video viewed is finding the right influential people to tell about it and increase the chances that they may pass it along.  The best way to do this is to truly spend the time to find the people that the video will actually be relevant for and share it with them.  The worst way is to spam large groups of people and fabricate identities, which leads to the fourth key factor …
  4. Inflation – Unfortunately, a key element of Dan’s success in promoting his client’s videos amounts to what I would consider inflation.  Put simply, there are the views gained by spamming friends, creating fake profiles, or hiring “click monkeys” (low paid people paid to watch videos or click links to inflate stats.  One of the most distressing things to me is that many SMO firms are dedicating themselves to employing these types of tactics, bringing the entire fledgling category down with them.

Given the war that YouTube and most other sites are waging against fraudsters employing inflation and spamming, it is possible to craft an approach that avoids stooping to the fourth factor.  I am ready to admit that this may mean you don’t reach that elusive 100k number of views on YouTube.  The better question to ask is whether you really want 100k fabricated and fraudulent views in the first place.  Views beget views … meaning if you can get a swell of views you make it on the right pages or lists and get even more people to watch.  At the end of the day, a much better metric for success will usually be whether the right people saw your video … not whether you hit an arbitrary number of views.

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