Going viral

My sister lives in South Korea. She doesn’t get to come home often, but what she discovered on one of her visits a few months ago baffled her. Gangnam Style was sweeping the United States. At first, she was confused. She said it was a popular dance in South Korean clubs, and she’d certainly heard it on Korean radio.  But that did not explain why I was asking her to teach me the dance during a TV time-out during a football game in LSU’s Death Valley last fall.

To me, the reason was obvious. Gangnam Style had gone viral. Traditionally, South Korean culture doesn’t have a big influence in the United States, which may be why my sister was so confused by 92,000 people singing the only part of the song they actually understood. The video became the first in YouTube history to surpass 1 billion views, crushing the record previously held by Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” (That video came in at a mere 803 million views.)

The Internet and social media mean that just about anyone can become a sensation overnight.  But that doesn’t mean that anyone can set out and guarantee they’ll be a sensation. Some of the best viral videos are a result of total accidents or someone having a camera ready at just the right time. Consider the following YouTube videos:

•    Charlie Bit Me – Five years ago, someone had the camera ready when baby Charlie bit his brother’s finger and “it really hurt, Charlie!” Now, they sell T-shirts and have had follow-up interviews with national media outlets.
•    Rick Roll – If you’re familiar with this one, you know I’m not doing it right. If I really wanted to “Rick Roll” you, I would have labeled this as a funny cat video or something. At some point, this 1980s music video became a joke, and it took off when Fox News “Rick Rolled” one of its anchors. I’ll be honest – I still worry when clicking unknown links from a few friends.
•    Miss Teen South Carolina – Sometimes, videos go viral because enough people saw it happen the first time. After Miss Teen South Carolina shared her knowledge of South Africa and maps while competing for Miss Teen USA, more than 17 million people either heard about it and turned to YouTube or just couldn’t wait to see it again.

So how can you ensure lots of people see, share and enjoy your content on social media? Although you can never force something to go viral – that would negate the point of increasing view counts by popularity alone – there are a few steps you can take to help it along.

1.    Create something viewers can relate to. You may have seen a few videos about things people say. If you live in Memphis, you’ve probably said a lot of the Things Memphians Say. If it’s funny because it’s true or very relatable, odds are people will enjoy it and want to share it.
2.    Put it in the hands of the right people. In early January, One Direction set out to reclaim their record for the most video views within 24 hours. They hoped their new music video “Kiss Me” would break the record taken from them by Justin Bieber. But they’re One Direction. They can do that. They have millions of plugged-in teenybopper fans following them on Facebook, Twitter and various other avenues. Most people don’t have such a loyal following, so getting the right media outlets, video stars and supporters on board is the best way to go.
3.    The snowball effect is not the same on the Internet. Once a video goes down, it’s rare for it to come back up. A video may rack up 2 million views in its first week – and only an additional 500,000 over the course of the next two years. With so much content available to them, viewers have to be pretty interested to keep coming back.
4.    The definition of viral success is relative. Sure, some people aren’t happy until they’re breaking records, but if I post a video of my cat that gets 5,000 views, I’ll be pretty excited. Set realistic goals just like you would with any other campaign or tactic.

Of course, there is no perfect science to viral videos. Sometimes, it just happens when it reaches a tipping point. Got any tips or favorite videos we missed? Leave them in the comments!