Every week I try to keep track of as many of the viral video hits that emerge as possible–I know, I know… it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.  And while I do love watching online videos, there are reasons beyond entertainment that drive my actions.  I want to know what works and what doesn’t work.  I want to know why.  I want to get inside the mind of the viral video viewer and figure out what makes them watch a video–and especially what makes them forward a video on to friends.  By reverse-engineering a bit, we can begin to discover the common building blocks of viral video success, and then start applying them to our own efforts.

Without further ado, here are my favorite viral hits from this week

Abandoned Six Flags

Filmmaker Teddy Smith heard about the Six Flags theme park in New Orleans, which has been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina.  It’s run down, dirty, and completely creepy.  With the permission of city officials, Smith took his high quality video camera through the park to document it before it’s demolished in January.  The results are haunting, creepy, and very cool.  Take a look:

Theme parks are supposed to be happy places, filled with a sense of wonder and fun.  But when you shut one down for five years, the fun sort of melts away, replaced by a sense of discomfort.  Smith’s camera work aids the video’s overall effect on audiences–the guy’s clearly got talent, and so much of the “creepiness” factor comes from the way he frames his shots and inserts his slow pans.

Want to go viral?  Give people something they haven’t ever seen before.  It could be a stupid pet trick, a motorcycle stunt, or an abandoned theme park.  But giving the viewer something brand new to them ramps up the chances of them saying to their friends, “You have to see this.”

This video is also a great demonstration of how much a quality camera can improve your presentation.  Top-dollar cameras aren’t required for going viral, but they can be invaluable when the hook of your entire piece relies on the visuals.  This is one of the most visually interesting videos I’ve seen all year.  I couldn’t stop watching.

Cat Versus Alligator

Sometimes you captures something on film that is so bizarre and unbelievable that you don’t even have to try very hard to go viral.  The clip “Cat & Gator” is one such video.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a cat take on an alligator.  No one?  That’s what I thought.  But we can remedy that rather quickly:

I happen to be a big fan of cats.  They’re entertaining, and they’re really low-maintenance for an owner.  But I’ve never known a cat with guts like that guy.  I did see a cat stare down a Doberman once, and I thought that was impressive.  But a gator?  You probably could have told me this video existed, and I wouldn’t have believed you until you showed it to me.  Clearly the cat has no idea what this other creature is capable of–either that, or he’s got a death wish.

What’s best about this video is not that the cat stands up to the gators, but that he wins.  The gators retreat back to the water.  They’re as shocked as we are at the cat’s actions.

This video, like the first example, is showing us something pretty much unseen before.  And that’s always a good viral strategy.  Can you plan to film something like this?  Certainly not.  And I’m not sure there’s a business application for this kind of thing.  But that doesn’t eliminate the importance of the lesson:  Show your audience something new, something shocking, and something exciting.  If you do, you stand a much greater chance of them being impressed enough to share the video with others, which is the only way “viral” is ever going to happen.

Realistic CGI

I’m probably never going to stop touting the viral power of awe-inspiring talent.  When you can do something unique, that few others in the world could do, you start out of the gate much further along than your competitors.  It might be singing.  It could be athletic or artistic ability.  Audiences love seeing something that almost defies belief, and we love seeing exceptional talent.  In this final video example for the week, we have a bit of both.

The following video is entirely fabricated.  It’s all CG, despite how real it looks.  And that alone is mind-boggling.  Check it out:

I’m not sure I’ve seen something fake be so realistic.  Which immediately reminds me that somebody made this… some artist with an unfair amount of talent created this from scratch.  And all at once I’m even more impressed.

The friend who sent this to me still refuses to believe the original artist’s claim that the piece is entirely CG.  Showing your audience something that is hard to believe is a fantastic way to trigger the kind of social behavior that drives viral video–show them something that is so amazing they can’t help but send it straight on to friends.  You don’t have to be a computer animator.  You don’t have to hire one.  But think about ways you can surprise your audience, or impress them.

Honorable Mention

If I had more time, I would also have spent more time talking about these clips: