A definitive listicle on how to make your video go viral (disclaimer: no promises)

ChewbackaNick Snelling shares his tips and strategies to boost your video views into the viral stratosphere. But first, he asks, is ‘viral’ really what your video needs to make it a success?

Ah, yes. The mythic ideal of going viral. That ole chestnut. Once the hallowed pursuit of every content marketer. Creating a video for a brand that gets seen, shared and liked so many times it spawns its own HBO series of memes, homages and spoofs.


In my case, the first example was a long-form Facebook piece I penned which clocked over 35,000 views and almost half as many shares. I forget the exact amount, because a few days later it became a Sydney Morning Herald opinion article only to score a mere fraction of the page views my initial post did (curiously, the original story has disappeared from my social media feed altogether, and I have no idea how).

The second was an illustration I shared by an artist called James Fosdike (and for the record, I attribute its 88,000+ views more to his powerful political cartoon than my accompanying rant).

Point being, as Social Caffeine’s Lori R. Taylor said the other day, “Going viral is not an outcome; it’s a happening. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Just remember, fans are vanity and sales are sanity.”

So, putting aside the flawed if not naïve premise of the goal (are we better off asking if the strategic purpose behind the video is really served by ‘going viral’ or should we be more concerned about how precise it is in reaching a desired audience and affecting change in their behaviour?), it remains an understandable question.

Is there really some magical secret golden recipe for crafting a viral video that clocks up more collective kudos than cute cats doing slapstick on YouTube?

In search of an answer, I consulted the oracle (read: I Googled it), and sure enough a guy called Kevin Allocca and his 2012 TED talk popped up. At the time, Kev’s day job was trends manager at Youtube. Holding court for seven minutes or so, he put going viral down to three simple things: “tastemakers” (we call them influencers in 2016), “communities of participation” and “unexpectedness”.

Of the three viral video examples Allocca cites, one is a beardy mountain man cackling hysterically at a double rainbow which inexplicably materialises over Yosemite National Park (imagine an early equivalent of the Chewbacca Lady, but not as funny), the second is Rebecca Black’s Friday (either an anomaly or an atrocity of the worst kind, I’m not sure), and the third is the infamous 8-bit pixel animation Nyan Cat (if you haven’t seen this, then my advice is save yourself a lobotomy and don’t click on the hyperlink).

Still, since Kev’s talk, the videos have amassed roughly 43.5, 99 and 130 million views respectively.

Keep in mind this was 2012, so the interwebs worked differently. In contrast to the pay-for-play arena it is now, back then, viral Youtube clips arose more out of the vagaries of chaos math than anything else. Which is why Kev’s logic sounds a bit nebulous. Really, unexpectedness?

At best, that seems like a rather simplistic interpretation of storytelling tropes or use of reversal to provoke engagement. I mean, imagine pitching a video nowadays to a brand manager with that as your ROI justification: “Rest assured, this video will go viral because it’s… [cue drum roll]… unexpected!” Huh?

[Disclaimer: Kev is now head of trend and culture at Google, so the guy’s clearly doing okay for himself, and fingers crossed he doesn’t blight us with bad SEO because we dissed his TED talk.]

Needless to say, the landscape has shifted considerably over the past four years. Not only is there a plethora of semi-pro Youtubers and amateur content creators crowding bandwidth, but social algorithms have changed everything.

The days of Youtube and Facebook feeds operating as some sort of chaotic meritocracy are long gone. What once went viral back then wouldn’t stand a chance anymore – and it’s not because the majority of video content now enjoys better production values or has become more sophisticated in design (although, in both cases a small percentage most definitely has).

Rather, it’s that: a) increasingly we now only see things the algorithms feeds us based on our past engagements and proclivity profiles, and; b) for branded video content to go viral now it requires a perfect confluence of factors.Filming at a Pop Concert

Which leads me back to my first question: what makes something go viral nowadays?

The first three things are obvious to any seasoned content strategist, but I will spell them out anyway…

1 / A healthy spend

Made a beautiful piece of content with high production values? That’s lovely. But unless you’re prepared to throw a hefty chunk of change pushing it on Youtube and Facebook (and other paid or owned channels), expect that it will sink like a stone lobbed into a pond.

These days, there is simply no point creating video content as a brand unless you’re also prepared to invest in keeping it afloat amongst the 500 hours’ worth of videos uploaded every minute. Money talks, and therefore a golden rule might be that whatever you spend on production you should match budget-wise with social promotion.

2 / Bang-on demographic targeting & SEO-whispering

This might seem like a total no-brainer, but the reality is social media audiences are now highly fragmented – our social feeds are formed by algorithms that collate all our viewing tastes, our political persuasion, our gender, our musical predilections, everything. So whatever a brand’s video is spruiking, making sure that it targets an audience of aligned or mutual personal interests as well as being properly structured keyword-wise for SEO is absolutely vital.

In other words, even if you hope to go mainstream or viral, first take the sniper’s approach rather than the scattergun.

3 / Changing it up: ongoing optimisation

This really ties in to the first two: If you’re assigning budget for promotion on social media to target specific audiences, then you’ve also got to be constantly monitoring your video’s performance and allocation of spend. Is it connecting with the audience you’ve identified? Is it resonating with one group more than another, and are there ways you can re-allocate spend in order to optimise engagement and proliferation of the content? For this, you really need a savvy social media team who will be vigilant in tracking the video’s performance daily if not hourly.

4 / Seed that sucker!

Proliferation and amplification of video content through old-fashioned PR and media outreach remains part and parcel of any self-respecting content strategy, just as engaging modern seeding services such as Outbrain, Taboola and LAVA can be effective (albeit with differing levels of success).

Likewise, a well-thought-out influencer element to any content strategy is vital – engaging influencers to share a piece of content with their own audiences can often be the nitro that every modern-day video needs to gain initial traction. So in that sense, ol’ mate Kevin Allocca still remains right about tastemaking celebs and the power of their endorsement (when they’re not sharing heavily filtered photo flat-lays of their breakfast or selfie shots in their ActiveWearTM, of course. Ahem).

Still, even with those first four boxes ticked, to maximise ‘virality’ a piece of video content really needs to satisfy audiences’ main drivers for sharing – and by that I mean does it: a) further the viewer’s own social currency by sharing it; and/or b) does it tell a compelling story in a cleverly crafted way? Let’s look at those now…

5/ Hook them quick (but don’t necessarily keep it short)

As attention spans on social media continue to dwindle, there’s an argument that you really need to capture a viewer in the first two-to-four seconds. Something about your video needs to grab them very, very quickly in order for people to bother investing more time. And for the most part, that remains true.

However, the default position for many content strategists is that any video over 15-30 seconds is going to be immediately thumbed past or quickly skipped over… unless it isn’t.

See, the problem with such a rigid rule is that the statistics which support it are drawn from average dwell time/attention spans before most people flick past a video – and really nothing else.

It’s like saying the average tree is only so and so height, and trees over this height always get chopped down. Do they? Or do we only see a few of said taller trees and because of their minimal presence we wrongly assume their minority also means inferiority, regardless of the fact more people can spot the taller trees from afar!

(Look, I’m sticking with this tree analogy, even though it’s slightly clumsy).

Moreover, the belief that ‘shorter is always better’ is fundamentally flawed in that the best, most memorable videos which have gone viral in the past (and by that, let’s say in the millions of views at least) are all around 2½ to 3 minutes long. So that would suggest that any slavish adherence to keeping your branded videos ‘snackable’ (I really hate that word) can be actually quite… well, short-sighted, so to speak.

So our next question might be why did videos of that average longer length go viral and quick 15-30secs videos didn’t? Which leads us to the next point…

6. Be (objectively) good

Speaking of nebulous assertions, I’m conscious that saying, “Hey, it’s simple, doofus – make your video objectively good!” constitutes pretty vague advice. And by good, I don’t necessarily mean high production values (although, as audiences become increasingly sophisticated and picky, the slicker the package the better). But brands need to realise that people on social media are for the most part cynical, indifferent and over-exposed. Nose-deep in their smartphone on their twice-daily bus commute, they need to ascertain almost instantly they will be entertained, informed and offered a new experience.

Therefore, to go viral, something about a video needs to be highly original, undeniably funny, quirky, compelling and offer immediate value. The most important thing is that people want to share it so others can experience what they did and so their own social currency is elevated. And why would they do that? Because…

7. Cool story, bro!

With most viral videos of a decent length, it goes without saying brands really need a proper understanding of storytelling and the archetypes that inform it. This cannot be understated. A lot of brand marketers mix up a compelling product offer with the nuts and bolts of what makes a great story. They are wholly separate things.

And so I would argue a well-developed and intuitive grasp on narrative techniques such as conflict, arc, reversal and indeed the fundamentals of ‘the hero’s journey’ have to inform any deliberate construction of a viral video. Intrinsic to going viral is that videos must trigger an emotional response. Which leads us to…

8 / Tug hard on those heart strings

When it comes to people’s decisions, psychology tells us that emotion wins over logic every day o’ the week. So, rather than simply ‘going viral’, forging an emotional connection between brand and consumer should be the end-goal of every content marketer.

And of course, in telling a story that moves, you may just go viral anyway.

Which is why we’re seeing many top brands already investing in ’emotional connectivity metrics’ (yes, that’s really a thing) in order to woo audiences via their soft spot.

But creating content of this level can be a very challenging thing to nail. It requires film-making and writing of considerable skill, empathy and nuance – and moreover, a brand manager with the courage to create it. But suffice to say, if you have a genuinely beautiful story that resonates with multiple audiences, it’s a sure thing it will be liked and shared, and your views will snowball exponentially.

9 /… And then the stars must align!

Yep, while I hate to say it, going viral is as much about blind luck.

No piece of content exists outside cultural, political and social context, and so the reality is that even with the most meticulous of planning some things still go viral for the weirdest reasons (for example, I still don’t pretend to understand the inexplicable appeal of the Laughing Chewbacca Lady – for a video where nothing happens for a very long time, it really breaks several cardinal rules of virality.)

So, sometimes it’s just a combo of whatever might be trending in pop culture and the sheer whimsical which is enough to project the most obscure and unlikely video into the social media stratosphere.

But can you plan for it? Other than what I’ve already outlined… not really.

That all said, if you do hit the sweet spot/funny bone/heart string and somehow manage to synergise all of the above, then you might end up with a video going viral. Prime examples might be the recent Paralympian ad We’re The Superhumans or World’s Biggest Asshole – both with significant spend, social targeting and optimisation behind them, both objectively if not undeniably good, and both telling amazing stories which deftly straddle humour and heart.

So, back to my original qualification – is going viral for a branded piece of video content really the ultimate goal?

On one hand, in terms of brand cognition and positive association, then yes, it can be great. And certainly, in the case of the two latter videos, the answer is a resounding ‘absolutely!’

With their uplifting altruistic aims and compelling human stories, their viral status is not only well-deserved but an ideal result from a brand perspective.

But going viral for viral’s sake should never be an end unto itself. I guess what I’m saying is that not all branded videos need to go viral to fulfil their purpose, reach their target audience or affect the consumer action intended, but they definitely require the requisite forethought, planning and investment to really hit their stride.

Despite a pathological aversion to the word ‘content’, Nick Snelling is head of content for integrated marketing agency Magnum & Co


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