Why It’s Difficult For Videos To Go Viral, And Impossible To Predict

Why It’s Difficult For Videos To Go Viral, And Impossible To Predict

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So we should know by now that achieving viral status on a video should not be your goal.  But for the past few months I have read several articles trying to make sense of why a video does go viral.  Back in November, YouTube Trends manager Kevin Allocca spoke at TEDYouth about what makes a video become a phenomenon, and recently that video was posted to TED’s YouTube page.  The reasons he gives are nearly impossible to recreate unless you have connections, which is why the YouTube Creator Playbook plots out so many avenues to share your video with others, and even then you aren’t guaranteed anything.

Kevin Allocca’s TED Appearance: Why Videos Go Viral

Allocca fires off that oft-heard figure of “48 hours of video uploaded per minute,” and of that uploaded video, a microscopic amount of them go viral.  This is what everyone should understand before watching this video.  You can equate viral success with things like winning the lottery.

Here’s Allocca’s TED video:

Here are the three reasons a video goes viral:

1. Tastemakers

Videos like the “Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow” and Rebecca Black’s “Friday” were sitting on YouTube not being watched all that much until people like Jimmy Kimmel and Daniel Tosh got a hold of them.  How did they receive them?  Who knows?  Someone with six degrees of separation to those tastemakers brought it to their attention, and they liked the videos enough to share them and/or make fun of them.

There are probably millions of videos that have content that can be ridiculed in some way, but these videos tend to have something over-the-top that separates them.  In the case of “Friday,” well, we all know that the song is catchy in that horrible way, and it has a tent-pole day attached to it.  Allocca points out the view graph for the video and notes 5 different spikes in views all came on Fridays.

In the case of Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Rainbow…:

…I think we all have a basic understanding of rainbows, and they aren’t as magical to us anymore as they may have been to us as kids.  Yosemitebear revels in his discovery, crying, trying to make sense of it all with the ridiculed phrase, “What does it meeeean?”  He’s like a kid.  I think it strangely taps into our feelings of what it would be like to be a kid again, while at the same time realizing as adults that the rainbow for all its majesty, isn’t incredibly meaningful.

So while tastemakers did indeed shoot these videos to the moon by sharing them, they wouldn’t have been cultural phenomenons without some sort of content that conjures up some sort of strong feelings, even if that feeling is ridicule.

2. Communities Of Participation

I’d say that communities of participation don’t occur until the video has actually become a highly-watched phenomenon.  We saw this with “S*** Girls Say” earlier this year when that video climbed in views due to a very popular Twitter feed that numerous media outlets picked up.  That video spawned thousands of imitations, basically feeding off the craze but also boosting the original’s view count, becoming 2012’s first big copycat sensation.

Allocca mentions Nyan Cat, a video that has over 60 million views and has been copied over and over again with variation after variation.  The funniest part of the Allocca presentation is when he says the video is so popular, “Cats watched Nyan Cat,” showing a video of a cat watching Nyan Cat, and then showing a video of a cat watching a cat watch Nyan Cat.  The most astounding figure is that a three hour version of this looped animation/song had hit over 4 million views.  But Nyan Cat led to a whole bunch of international versions and spins, like this one:

What Allocca wants to talk about here is that this type of participation is completely different from any other media out there.  The people decide what is part of their pop culture, they can put their own spins on things and get their own audience.  It’s not like when we enjoy an episode of Mad Men, we go around making our own versions of it on YouTube.

3. Unexpectedness

Allocca mentions Casey Neistat’s video about bike lane law in New York City.  He got a ticket for not riding in the bike lane, so he made a video showing why being in the bike lane isn’t always the safest place:

It begins like an ordinary protest video, like we’re about to see why, in boring detail, why it’s nearly impossible to stay in the bike lane.  But Neistat takes the policeman’s order painfully literal to make a point.  And it’s hilarious.

Unexpectedness is what we saw last month with the “Henry & Aaron – IT’S A SNAP” video for Central Institute in Australia that has collected over 2 million views.  We’ve covered it before, but warning, this video gets pretty sickening towards the end (in a funny way):

Unexpectedness lends itself to being shared, because the people who share it with those who haven’t seen it also get the thrill of seeing an uninitiated person watch it for the first time.

The prevailing theme of these last two reasons (communities of participation and unexpectedness) is that content matters, even if the video doesn’t go viral right away.  Most of the inexplicably popular ones come from our culture wanting to make light of things that are unusual or bad, and enjoy them “ironically,” but the other half of them comes from people putting hard work into their content and getting the right people to watch it.  In both cases, it’s the content that makes people want to share videos, and there is something amazing, unexpected, and/or cringe-worthy to all of them.

Anyway, good stuff from Kevin Allocca at YouTube Trends.


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