Skip to main content

What makes videos go viral? Hint: Be authentic

  • Viral videos have been a shortcut to stardom for many
  • But what makes a viral video? Chance, mostly, says one expert (and showing failure helps)
  • YouTube has made the most of viral videos and advertisers want in
  • But though they can be lucrative, be careful what you wish for

(CNN) -- Judson Laipply didn't expect much from his cheaply made video, "Evolution of Dance." It was a calling card, a way for the "inspirational comedian" to get noticed, when he uploaded it to YouTube on April 6, 2006.

Four years and almost 150 million YouTube views later, it's changed his life.

Laipply, 34, has done the dance -- a medley of decades-spanning moves, from Elvis to OutKast -- for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and at an NBA playoff halftime show. He's performed at the Technical Emmys. He appeared in the Weezer video "Pork and Beans" (a video that featured several viral video stars, including the Mentos-soda spraying guys and Chris "Leave Britney Alone" Crocker).

"I was very comfortable where I was at, but when the video hit, all of the things that came with that -- the recognition, the TV shows, all those kinds of opportunities -- only added to what I had already been building on," he says. "It probably gave me about a 10-year career boost."

Laipply's story is the great viral video fantasy. It's the lightning strike that makes famous a young boy recovering from dental surgery, immortalizes a wedding party and offers performers exposure beyond their wildest dreams.

It's also completely unpredictable, says Tim Hwang, an Internet culture expert and the founder of ROFLCon, a gathering of online stars.

"The big ironic thing is that trying too hard doesn't get you far," he says. "In fact, trying too hard seems to dampen the ability to get you passed around the Web."

In fact, he adds, sometimes it's better to look like a fool: "A lot of viral videos come out of horrendous failure. ... If you fail really, really terribly, the Internet might give you a shot at being a viral star."

There's no lack of hopefuls. Every 60 seconds, 24 hours' worth of new video is uploaded to YouTube alone. As Matt Cutler, CMO of the online video data and analysis firm Visible Measures, observes, there are hundreds of millions of videos uploaded, embedded and cross-posted all over the Web; his company has tracked statistics on more than a trillion page views.

Hwang says many viral videos tend to "percolate to a certain point" before finding their way to a site such as Buzzfeed, 4chan or BoingBoing, at which point they get a dose of pixelated rocket fuel and are suddenly everywhere. Indeed, some videos may receive virtually no traffic for weeks -- until attracting the curiosity of a well-read blog, at which point things just take off.

'That's unbelievable'

That was Laipply's experience. Indeed, he created "Evolution of Dance" in 2002, three years before YouTube was founded, and didn't record the piece until 2006, at which point he put it on his MySpace page for his 500 or so fans.

After adding it to YouTube, he forgot about it for about a month, until noticing he'd received six or seven e-mails from the site about comments on his piece. By then, the piece had 30,000 views. "I remember being like, 'Wow! That's unbelievable,' " he says.

It got better. The next day he had 15 more e-mails and the page was up to 90,000 views. Then he went on a trip for three days with no Web or cell phone access.

"I get back and turn on my cell phone and it immediately starts popping, with text messages and phone calls and my voice mailbox is full, and almost all of them were my friends saying, 'What the hell's going on? I just got an e-mail, and it's YOU,' " he recalls. His brother informed him the video was up to 300,000 views, and from that point, "every single day, it was more and more and more," he says.

Naturally, these are the kinds of numbers advertisers would love to have -- especially given the low price of entry.

Some YouTube entries are from the usual suspects -- Nike, Apple, well-known names that also spend a fortune on TV advertising and have combined the two effectively. But the democratic nature of the Web allows shrewd small companies to play the same game, says Cutler, whose company compiles a viral video chart for the trade publication Ad Age.

"In specific categories you have smaller, upstart players who are much more aggressive in the medium," he says, mentioning that the fast-food chain Carl's Jr., for one, has "punched above their weight because they've been fairly innovative when it comes to social video."

A lot of viral videos come out of horrendous failure.
--Tim Hwang
  • Internet
  • YouTube Inc.
  • Apple Inc.

YouTube itself has gotten into the act. The Google-owned company sells advertising connected to its videos and maintains a partner program that allows users to make money off their page views, says YouTube Product Manager Shenaz Zack.

Though the program can favor people who supply regular content to YouTube, such as a makeup artist who uploads a regular lesson, viral video creators with one big hit can hop on board, Zack says -- and YouTube doesn't see itself in competition with other services.

"The 12-year-old who did Lady Gaga [Greyson Chance, who performed the singer's 'Paparazzi' at a talent show] had uploaded to Facebook and other sites," she says. "It's all based on community." Google's new initiative, Google TV, will further the goal, creating "a channel of me," says Zack.

The "me channels," no matter how limited, can be quite lucrative. Comedian Shane Dawson makes his living through his YouTube-posted videos; David DeVore, who posted "David After Dentist," told CNN his family has made in the "low six figures" off the video. Laipply has been able to up his fee and cut back his schedule.

'No one really has the keys'

However, there are limits. Politicians can gain visibility with viral videos, but also mockery. And, though the public will seize on clever advertisements and make them viral, the ads have to be "authentic," say experts. An apparently grass-roots viral video that's later revealed to be the product of a big company can prompt a backlash, says Cutler.

Hwang, who consults with The Barbarian Group digital ad agency -- which is responsible for the "Subservient Chicken" Burger King site, that, early on, hid its sponsorship -- observes that corporations are still finding their way around viral videos.

"Right now no one really has the keys," he says. "There are some people who seem to have a really good knack at it, but if you ask them what they do, their guidance would be extremely broad and extremely vague."

In fact, the reason Hwang began advising The Barbarian Group was that he had been doing analysis for Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, trying to quantify elements of Web usage. He believes the time is coming when video creators will be able to know what works, and viral videos will become more predictable -- just as music sites parsing songs are trying to determine, mathematically, what makes a hit.

"We have just enormous amounts of data now about what people do online," he says. "I'm fairly confident that, as we explore that data more and more, we'll understand how that process goes. And at some point, there will be a kind of data-driven science around hacking culture, or hacking social systems. The data will probably end up bringing better results than the whole host of viral video experts and social video experts you can get into a room."

In the meantime -- or should that be meme-time? -- video posters hoping for instant stardom shouldn't expect much. It's hard enough, after all, to capture lightning in a bottle even once.

And if you do, be careful what you wish for. Even in a fame-obsessed culture, your success can be as short-lived as your anonymity.

"It would have been very, very easy after the success of that video to go out to L.A. and parlay that into something different than what I was doing," says Laipply. "But if you look at anyone who ever has instant success like that, and then they try to parlay it into something else, it's very rarely successful, because you haven't spent the years learning and building and getting the talent that you need."


Most popular Tech stories right now