Viral Videos: A How-To Guide

Creating a video with viral potential isn't easy. There are a lot of great YouTube clips that don't make the cut, but those that do share certain commonalities, which created The Connectivist's How-To guide.

It was March 31, 2008, and Dave Carroll was on his way from Nova Scotia to Nebraska for a short tour with his band, Sons of Maxwell. Flying on United Airlines, the group was connecting in Chicago when Carroll saw the ground crew mishandling the $3,500 Taylor acoustic guitar that he had checked in. Upon arriving in Omaha, he found that the guitar’s base had been destroyed. Several months of phone calls with customer service reps proved fruitless, and Carroll ended up spending $1,200 out of pocket to repair his instrument. A frequent flyer, he then asked United to reimburse him with flight vouchers, thinking that would be an easy compromise. “I was really surprised that they said no,” he says.

There’s no exact threshold that can be pinpointed for a video to attain viral status

Frustrated and fed up, Carroll decided to write songs about the experience. His goal: to reach a million views on YouTube in one year. He recorded a music video for the first of three songs, “United Breaks Guitars” and posted the video to YouTube on July 6, 2009 at 11:30pm. He then emailed a link to his Facebook friends and personal address book. That would be the last time he would ever ask anyone to watch it. “The video went from six hits when I went to bed 30 minutes later to 300 on Tuesday morning; 5,000 by lunch; 25,000 by dinnertime; and a million by Friday,” he says.

United Breaks Guitars turned Carroll into a worldwide sensation. He had the one of the most popular songs in the world for several weeks. While the direct monetary rewards from the video were minimal—“If the same number of people had listened to that song on the radio I would’ve been a millionaire,” he says–before long he realized his fame could lead to significant gains in the business world. “It wasn’t just a big [view] count and a spike in CD sales like a lot of people predicted it would be,” he says.

Exactly four years later, the video now has more than 13 million views and has transformed Carroll’s career: He has published a book, founded a customer advocacy company called Gripevine, and travels around the world as a public speaker — all while continuing to perform as a musician. His video is the perfect case study for which elements are needed for an upload to go viral.

 144,000 minutes of video are uploaded to YouTube every day, and a tiny, tiny percentage of those go viral

What does viral mean?

144,000 minutes of video are uploaded to YouTube every day, and a tiny, tiny percentage of those go viral. There’s no exact threshold that can be pinpointed for a video to attain viral status—it’s more about reaching a whole lot more people than you ever hoped for. “It’s not as simple as one million views equals viral,” says Matt McLernon, a spokesman for YouTube’s Trends team. “If I’m sharing a video that’s just funny for Syracuse University graduates and 10,000 people watch it, I’d consider that viral. We look at it as patterns of behavior for how something gets spread or how something is shared.”

But if you’re looking for your work to go viral, there are certain commonalities that viral videos share. They are spectacles, showing things that are over-the-top and out of the ordinary. And they tap into human emotions. “There are certain things that we as people all love: We love laughing, we love music, we love being surprised,” says McLernon. “[Viral videos] are something people can react to or participate in, they’re something that are shared by people on popular websites, and they’re totally unexpected.”

Carroll’s video went globally viral because it was well produced, funny, and original. Perhaps most importantly, it also made people feel good about themselves by feeding into their preconceptions that airline customer service really is bad. In other words, you’re not the jackass customer–it’s them, not you. “There’s something about confirming our groupthink or confirming our bias on some level,” says Eric Patrick, a professor in Northwestern’s Department of Radio, Television, and Film. “If we see that United Airlines breaks guitars, even if it’s someone who had American Airlines lose a suitcase, they’re like, ‘See, that just confirms it. They’re losing our luggage, they’re breaking things, they’re incompetent—even though there’s not a very strong tie between the two.”

 True news stories are often the underrated species of viral videos

It’s all about timing an argument

Patrick knows a thing or two about why videos go viral—in 2009 he taught a class on the subject at Northwestern. He gave his students an assignment to create their own videos and try to get them to spread. Several findings came out of the project. “The first 24 hours and first week are huge in determining how far [the video] is going to disseminate,” says Patrick. “When you post a video, you want to get as many people looking at it in those first 24 hours as possible so it shows up in the Most Viewed spot on YouTube. Then it’ll get viewed more from there.”

Patrick’s students also found that user interaction with a video can help it spread. One technique they experimented with is called “astroturfing”—making it appear as if there is grassroots interest. They made videos that were shocking or politically themed and then created multiple avatars and posted comments on their behalf. “They’d make five different personas and have them fight each other,” says Patrick. “It was amazing how quickly they would suck all these other people into it. All of a sudden it starts to get a little sticky and take on viral qualities.”

Carroll didn’t astroturf “United Breaks Guitars”—it took on those qualities organically. “People weren’t just watching the video and forgetting about it,” he says. “What made my video different was that people would use it as a basis for a two-hour conversation. It was a jumping-off point for people to share their own stories about bad customer service and things like that. There was a passion behind the number of hits.”

“It became a news moment as much as an entertaining video,” says McLernon.

It should be newsworthy

True news stories are often the underrated species of viral videos. “They’re something that get overlooked a lot,” says McLernon. “We talk a lot about the funnies and the songs and other stuff, but there’s also video from the Brazil protests that will be shared virally and others that will become news moments.”

McLernon has also seen the rise of “infotainment”—quirky educational content—showing viral behavior (VSauce’s “How Much Does a Shadow Weigh?” has 4.8 million views on YouTube). And there has been an increase in democratized creativity—people riffing off popular videos to make their own versions go viral (the “Top 10 Best Harlem Shake Versions” vid has a whopping 56 million views) or combining viral videos, such as the mashup of Christian Bale’s infamous tantrum with the dazed and confused kid in “David After Dentist”. (Warning: the mash-up contains strong language.)

While enormous view counts and lots of “likes” help, getting that momentum to continue and having the popularity pay off tangibly are the real challenges that uploaders face. McLernon says the biggest shift he’s seen in recent years is a rise in users curating channels of content. “People are really getting smart about using YouTube to build a subscriber base,” he says. “It’s not just about putting out this one video and hoping other people find it, but really building an audience of people who love your stuff and want to see the next thing that you do.”

This mentality, along with the recent unveiling of Vine and Instagram video, has made video sharing a lot like Facebook and Twitter. “You don’t think of YouTube as social media, but that’s exactly what it is,” says Patrick.

I’ve always said, ‘dance with the one who brung ya in’”

With more people thinking strategically about their uploads, YouTube is providing a resource called the Creator Playbook. The Playbook Trends team studies the behavior of the most successful users and then shares that info. Advanced statistics on each individual video can also guide users to maximize their videos’ reach. “You may be a musical act in Florida and look on your analytics and see that most of your views are coming from Australia, so you may host your next video at an Australia-friendly time,” says McLernon. “More than copying things you see in other viral videos and hoping for [the best], it’s about growing the presence of your channel. You really want to connect with your audience.”

That connection has been a huge key for Carroll’s longevity as a viral video star. He has used his story to land public speaking gigs about social media and best practices in customer service. His company, Gripevine, helps customers get their complaints heard and resolved quickly by connecting them to company decision makers. And he does this while also continuing to stay focused on the job that’s most responsible for getting him this far: being a musician. “I’ve always said, ‘dance with the one who brung ya in’ and I really feel like singing and writing songs is where I’m most comfortable,” he says.

“United Breaks Guitars” made Carroll a poster boy for viral video success. But his story does leave one final question: With all his traveling engagements, does Carroll still fly United Airlines? The answer is yes, when the price is right, though he does make sure to take one special precaution: “I keep my guitar as close as possible.”