One of the best things about the world of viral video is how frequently it changes.  There’s so much creativity that it sometimes feels like anything goes.  Of course, we all know that’s not actually true… it can’t be “anything goes,” or else all videos would succeed.  Even though they are mailable and constantly changing, there are clearly some rough guidelines for video producers that act as a set of viral video rules.  And one outfit is breaking all of them at once… and is still succeeding.

Red Letter Media – Viral Video Nonconformists:

I first heard about Red Letter Media about a year ago, when a friend shared a link to the group’s video review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (NSFW language!).  The video features a dull, Ben Stein-like narrator berating the film with an audio overdub not unlike a DVD commentary track.  It’s pretty funny, especially if you think the prequels suck, as I do.  But I was turned off by one simple thing:  time length.

You see, the review is practically as long as the movie.  It is literally the video of the film played over the reviewer’s droning critique of an audio track–it had to be split into multiple parts on YouTube.  My friend began bugging me in the following days, asking if I’d watched it all yet.  And eventually I just told him I had a hard time devoting 2 hours to a review of a movie I hated, no matter how funny it was.  But my friend swore up and down that it would be worth it.  So one Saturday evening… I watched it.  And I laughed an awful lot.

Then the Red Letter Media gang released their next masterpiece, the review of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (9 parts on YouTube, also with NSFW language).  And it was just as popular.  Each video in the review has at least several hundred thousand views, and most have one or two million.

Fast forward to today, when I saw this note over at BoingBoing regarding the release of the review of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.  (This time on instead of YouTube) And it seems these reviews are as popular as ever–seriously, just peruse the comments over at BoingBoing for a few minutes and you’ll see exactly how much people love these reviews.  And as I sat here thinking about these videos, something hit me that I can’t shake:  they’re breaking all the rules.  Seriously, if you were to take a Masters class in viral video creation and execution, you would be taught to do the opposite of what Red Letter Media does.

If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s a sample (I’m embedding Part 1 of the Attack of the Clones review, because I’m having trouble getting the new Sith videos to embed properly):

5 Viral Video Rules and Guidelines:

So let’s spend a few moments breaking down the various viral video rules these guys are breaking, and then we’ll try and figure out why they’re still having such great success:

Viral Video Rule #1: Keep It Short

Viral videos with short run times historically do far better than longer videos.  There’s an obvious reason for this… humans have crappy attention spans.  Get in, make ’em laugh, and get out.  That’s the motto. But Red Letter Media just gives time limits the finger, rolling out 7 or 9-part series that collectively run hours, not minutes.  It is the opposite of what we’ve all been taught to do, and that makes it a rarity in its success.  Long videos are supposed to fail, but this one defies the odds.

Viral Video Rule #2: Speak Clearly

Anyone who’s dabbled in online video production knows the first rule of narration:  speak clearly.  Most videos would go so far as to hire professional voice-over talent.  But even the best video bloggers know how to enunciate and speak with a clear voice.  The Red Letter Media narrator sounds like a cross between Ben Stein (“Bueller?”) and the “time to make the donuts” guy.  If you looked up “crappy narrator” in the dictionary, you’d find this guy.

Viral Video Rule #3: Avoid Copyrighted Material

Anyone who’s anyone knows that copyrighted material is a big no-no on YouTube.  They have their fancy Content ID system, which finds such material and then alerts the copyright holder–all without the help of a human being.  And there’s no more lawsuit-happy copyright holder (aside from the NFL) than George Lucas.  So from just the copyright standpoint alone, these videos break the rules of viral video.  In fact, I’m honestly not sure how the original reviews are still up, unless this is somehow classified as parody (which doesn’t seem likely to me, but I’m no lawyer).

Viral Video Rule #4: Reinvent Yourself

The best viral video creators are the ones who keep innovating… keep topping themselves by stretching their creativity… right?  Well, not these guys.  In fact, each review is identical in format and style to the first… there’s no innovation at all… just new jokes.

Viral Video Rule #5: Be Timely

It’s always a good idea for your viral videos to be current.  You want to play off current trends, news events, hot gadgets, or popular memes… it’s one of the best ways to get views.  Unless you’re Red Letter Media.  Then… you want to pick a piece of pop culture that’s 10-years-old.  I would be stunned that it worked if Star Wars hadn’t already shown itself to be timeless.

Conclusion – All Rules Have an Exception:

At the end of the day, these videos go viral for one reason:  Star Wars.  Star Wars has repeatedly stood the test of time in pop culture, continuing to be a huge draw for online content.  Just in the last year or so we’ve seen At-At Day Afternoon, Tom Tom’s Darth Vader commercial, a Lego Star Wars stop-motion classic, Galactic Empire State of Mind, and many more Star Wars-themed viral smash hits.  For whatever reason, Star Wars continues to be as big a draw as it was 40 years ago.

In particular, I think these reviews go viral because they tap into a specific kind of Star Wars fan:  the fan that loved the original trilogy, but hated the prequels.  And in case you live under a rock, there are a ton of Star Wars fans that hated the prequels (I am one of them).  In a weird way, these videos are a catharsis for such fans, as the reviewer says all the things they’ve always wanted to say themselves.

We also can’t forget to mention the humor, because these videos would have fallen flat immediately if they didn’t make their target audience laugh.  But aside from the humor–and “knowing your audience”–there’s almost nothing these videos do that follows conventional viral wisdom.  Yet they’re hugely popular.

There are rules for viral video.  And just like anything else, there are exceptions that prove the rule, like these reviews from Red Letter Media.  You’re always better off following the conventional wisdom than you are setting out to break every single rule.  You can certainly succeed without following the common logic, but the odds against you go way up.  And it’s worth noting that even when you follow the “rules,” there’s no guarantee of success.