How to Make a Viral Video – 11 Tips to Create a YouTube Sensation

A viral video is a great way to bring attention to your business or show off your video-creating talents. And while it’s almost impossible to predict what will go viral, there are certain things that you can include in your videos to increase the odds that you’ll have a smash Internet hit on your hands. A viral video is any video that becomes popular by being passed from person to person via the Web. (It’s quite similar to a “meme,” which refers to any content that is passed along in the same manner.)

Marketers, entertainers, and videographers spend a lot of time trying to create videos calculated to go viral, sometimes with great success. One of the earliest examples from the early days of YouTube was lonelygirl15, the supposedly-true-life adventures of a girl being pursued by a mysterious illuminati-like cabal. The videos captured worldwide attention after they were revealed to be a hoax.

You don’t need to invent an elaborate fictional universe to make a popular viral video, though. The Internet’s most current viral video, Gangnam Style, a world-wide phenomenon starring South Korean musician PSY, not only has everyone making parodies, it’s created a new horsey-dance style gaining popularity all over the world. As of late October 2012, the music video had more than 530 million views on YouTube, making it the site’s third most watched video. Guinness World Records recognized it as the most “liked” YouTube video ever.

Want to gain such popular culture fame? Here are some ideas to keep in mind that can increase your chances of going viral.

1 – Keep Things Simple

Remember, with a viral video, your goal is to encourage viewers to share the video with their friends. So every time you start shooting a video, ask yourself: If I were to randomly find this video while searching Vimeo or YouTube, would it catch my attention? Would I watch it through to the end? Would I like it enough to want to share it with people that I know? To that end, viral videos should be easy to understand. If the action takes too much time to explain or requires knowledge of some backstory, chances are that most viewers won’t bother to pass them along. Keep things simple and to the point with crisp audio and clean images, so even the viewer with the shortest attention span can get what’s going on. Research shows that the best length for a viral video is generally between 15 seconds and five minutes.

2 – Interesting Content

Videos that have some sort of hook – whether they be cute, funny, or unusual – are much more likely to go viral. Consider Nyan Cat. In some ways, Nyan Cat is the perfect storm of viral video elements. It’s got something funny – it’s a cat with a toaster pastry for a body, flying through space on a rainbow trail to the tune of some wacky Japanese pop song. It’s got something cute – it’s a cat, after all. And it’s animated in 8-bit video game style, a style that appeals to the nostalgia of the key late 20 to early 30-year-old Internet demographic. You’ll want your video to instantly grab a viewer’s attention, so you will need to have something really eye-catching and memorable!

3 – Add Music!

Everyone loves music. Music videos can catch on for a number of reasons. Of course, the strength of the music carries the video into stardom. Sometimes, it’s more because the video has an innovative gimmick that tickles viewers’ fancy – OK Go‘s famous treadmill video is a good example of this. And sometimes, there’s viral stardom in just being terrible. Rebecca Black thought that she would get a record deal when she released her vanity project Friday online, but instead listeners couldn’t get enough of the ridiculous lyrics, silly party sequences, and over-autotuned vocals. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help you – purposely making a bad music video that still manages to entertain people is quite difficult. Not to mention the fact that, once people realize that you’re not genuinely bad, they may quickly lose interest. However, if you present your “bad” video as a parody of bad videos, then viewers might not feel cheated when they realize that you’re not actually as incompetent as they initially believed.

4 – Be Funny!

Humorous videos are the most likely to go viral. Everyone enjoys a good chuckle and, when something makes you laugh, you’re eager to share the joke with others. Of course, humor is highly subjective, so it’s hard to say what jokes will best resonate with the video-sharing community. Many of the funniest videos circulating on the Web document real-life incidents. The popular Winnebago Man videos, for instance, are simply bloopers from a circa 1980 Winnebago commercial wherein spokesman Jack Rabney continuously flubs his lines while growing more and more frustrated. Capturing moments like that requires a lot of luck. But staged videos also have a lot of potential. The Landlord follows actor Will Ferrell as he argues with his landlady, who happens to be a small child for reasons unknown. It’s a strange setup but it’s easy to understand and the gimmick isn’t any less funny for being scripted.

5 – Scary Videos Can Go Viral

The Little Fears YouTube channel gained sudden popularity by posting low-key videos, often showing mundane daily scenes, while a deadpan narrator recited unnerving urban legends. The combination worked, and the videos took off. A spooky horror video also has potential to go viral, but it’s less likely than a funny video. Everyone loves a good laugh, but only certain people like a fright. That will limit the audience for your video. Also, please be aware that a creepy video is not the same as a screamer. A screamer is a video or animated .gif that flashes an unexpected, grotesque image. In general, a scary video is an unlikely candidate for viral status, but it’s worth considering if you feel this is where your strengths lie. Take some time to study other scary videos that have gone viral; the atmospheric YouTube serial MarbleHornets is a good starting place.

6 – Connect Your Video to One that’s Already Viral

Have you ever noticed how, after you’ve seen one video go viral, you’ll see dozens of mash-ups, remixes and parodies jumping on the band wagon? People love to see videos that reference things they remember. It gives the viewer a sense of belonging, a feeling that they are “in on the joke,” that makes them more likely to look kindly on your video and pass it along to their friends.

More than 2000 spoof Gangnam Style videos were uploaded to YouTube at one point in just two weeks at its height of popularity. When you’re putting together a viral video, think about the contents of other recent viral videos and how you can take advantage of their popularity. Remember that memes get old very quickly, though, and it’s a rare viral video that can continue to enthrall audiences for very long. If you decide to take this copycat route to success, you will have to move fast to make sure that you strike while the iron is hot.

7 – Stunt Videos

This is a category of video for experts only. Some people believe that imitating dangerous stunts they see on television is the key to fame and fortune. If you have a genuine skill, this is a no-brainer. Videos of exciting skateboard tricks or tricky acrobatics could catch the attention of any viewer. But be careful! You should never do any stunt or allow yourself to get involved in capturing a stunt on video if you believe that you or anyone else might actually be injured. In some jurisdictions, you could even get in legal trouble for encouraging someone else to go through with a dangerous stunt. This may sound like obvious advice, but the lure of fame convinces some people to do stupid things. People may be equally quick to watch footage of unsuccessful stunts out of morbid curiosity, but those views won’t do you any good if you’re dead. Practice common sense and know your limitations.

8 – Shoot a Reaction Video

The reaction video is a close cousin to the meme-bandwagon video. A reaction video consists of footage of someone responding to something in an amusing way. Many reaction videos often involve surprising a friend or loved one with a grotesque or shocking image and filming their horrified response, but not necessarily.

Reaction videos can be sweet or cute as opposed to mean-spirited. For example, in one reaction video, the video creator showed his five year old daughter the film Star Wars and then asked her to respond to it. He then filmed her rambling but very matter-of-fact synopsis (“The shiny guy always worries,” she explained in reference to C-3PO’s visible anxiety.) Another popular series of reaction videos involves showing small children videos of various Internet memes and asking them to explain their appeal. (Most kids are, interestingly, not very impressed with things like Double Rainbow or Bubb Rubb.)

The important thing is that the reaction must appear genuine! A reaction video loses all its punch if it appears to be faked. But if you have a young child or sibling who has a habit of spouting adorable or hilarious non sequiturs, you might have the makings of an excellent reaction video.

9 – Connect Your Video to a Hot Pop Culture Phenomenon

Your video doesn’t have to reference a different viral video; you can also reference something that’s hot in general pop culture. Ask yourself, what’s big with the kids right now? For example, in early 2012, the Internet was abuzz over The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim video game, the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic TV series, and The Walking Dead (2010). If you were to incorporate any of these elements, your video would already have a built-in fanbase. You could even combine them in new and novel ways to increase the cross-over appeal of your video.

What about a video of My Little Pony running around the Skyrim world? It might not make sense to you, but fans of either franchise would go gaga. The advantage of this game plan is that you may find a wider audience, since your video could also appeal to people who aren’t intimately familiar with other viral videos. Pop culture trends are always shifting, so, while these properties may not be quite as ephemeral as some of the meme-derived videos, they are still transitory. Some pop culture events have proven to have remarkable staying power; so much that they’ve entered our cultural lexicon. For example, while the world may quickly forget the latest cartoon or video game – and the viral videos associated with it – you can be fairly confident that a viral video based on an enduring film like Star Wars will probably still have an audience months or even years down the line.

10 – Include an Animal

Everyone loves animals. Many of the most popular viral videos involve animals going about their daily business; videos as simple as a baby panda sneezing or two otters holding hands have managed to capture the imagination of millions of Web surfers. The good thing about animal videos is that they are usually remarkably easy to shoot; the bad thing is that, while they take little preparation, they do require a lot of patience. Much of shooting an animal video is just being at the right place at the right time and always having your camera ready. If you’re already a wildlife videographer who’s always shooting video of animals, then the chances are good that you’ll recording at just the right moment to capture something adorable.

11 – Make a Video Ripe for Remixing

Remember what we said about all those viral video remixes? A remix is a great way to take advantage of an Internet fad, but why not create that fad yourself? Certain videos seem to lend themselves well to variations. For example, Keyboard Cat is a video of a cat playing a piano. Not for real, of course, the cat’s owner is hiding behind the feline, manipulating his front paws to hit the keyboard. Keyboard Cat was possibly originally a spoof on a real keyboard playing cat, NORA the Piano Cat.

The Keyboard Cat video became an Internet sensation because it was so easy to append it to the tail of other videos and have it fit perfectly. The dominant theme of most “keyboard cat” remixes was that the cat would play the keyboard in response to some sort of injury or failure – so a video of someone slipping on a banana peel, a bicyclist rising into a tree, or a politician flubbing a debate question might well be followed by a clip of a cat playing his or her song. A short video that lends itself well to recontextualization is a prime candidate for going viral.

Three Things to Remember

  • 1. It’s easy to lose control of a viral video once it’s out on the Internet. Your video may become phenomenally popular, but what good does that do you if you don’t get any credit for creating it? A lot of people pass along videos without bothering to include any credit to the source, so don’t think that just because you place the video on your own webpage or YouTube channel that everyone will know it’s yours. It’s a good idea to place your name and website in the video as a bug or lower third, so that anyone viewing it will know who to thank.
  • 2. It’s impossible to predict with 100 percent accuracy what will appeal to peoples’ fancies, but you can help your video along by posting it in the right channels. Putting your video on your own private webpage won’t help you if you’re not getting any traffic. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to share your content. Try posting your video on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Digg, Tumblr, reddit or anywhere else that people are likely to find and share.
  • 3. Some of the most popular viral videos didn’t become that way by accident. Companies that spend thousands of dollars to create a viral video will also spend thousands of dollars “secretly” promoting it, using multiple YouTube accounts, forum sock puppets and other clandestine methods. Independent videographers may not have the same resources. Use what you have. Send to your friends, relatives and colleagues whom you think would appreciate it and ask them to pass it along. Be careful not to spam them, though! No one appreciates getting bombarded with time-wasting messages.

Remember, plenty of the most viewed videos came by their popularity just by having great content that people wanted to share. It may take some time to find the secret formula, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed at first! The rewards will make your effort worthwhile.

Mike Rosen-Molina is a marketing coordinator for Videomaker.

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