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How to Make Your Video go Viral

I’ve been lucky enough to have success with some of my videos on the internet. Not huge, brain-exploding-millions-of-views-overnight, but enough to draw attention and give me a smile. Oh, and one which got me flown around the world to make videos for one of the world’s largest companies. It’s a good story, but first, the basics:

Option 1: Get lucky

If you have the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, then perhaps you can film a kitten being cute while someone attractive in the background does something amusing and unexpected. And while of course you can make your own luck to some degree—place the kitten, befriend attractive people and convince them to hang around near your kitten—this is largely not something you’ll be able to predict, control or repeat.

Option 2, Part 1: Have a good idea

The best way to get someone’s attention is to show them something they’ve never seen before. Novelty, in its best sense, tickles a part of our brain that makes us happy. By creating something truly new, or at least partly new, you’ve got a better chance of creating something that people want to share.

Option 2, Part 2: Make something people like

For a video to be shareable, it should be something people want to send to their friends. This is one of the hardest hurdles for corporate messages seeking “viral” status. As many people don’t want to watch or endorse ads, viral corporate messages have to be very cool indeed for people to want to send them to their friends. If you’re making a video just for the fun of it, you’ve got a better shot.

Viral Video #1: Airport

Way back in 2004, I started creating an animation in Flash, just for fun. Word-free except for the title, the idea was to use public domain AIGA transportation symbols to create a (Creative Commons licensed) video to tell the story of a man flying home to his wife. Without words, it was universally understandable, inoffensive, and cute. Music was made in GarageBand and/or Soundtrack Pro, and each shot in the film was exactly four seconds long, to let a constant rhythm drive the action. I did it in my spare time, and finished it off in 2005 before putting it on my own site, to little acclaim.

Promotion is key

If I’d simply left the video there, likely it would have stayed there, unseen and unloved. So I submitted it to the Sydney Film Festival, where it was accepted and shown as part of the Oz Digital Shorts program. While it was great to see it on a big screen in the Sydney Opera House, at the end of the day, that meant that a hundred or so more people saw it. Festivals do perform a useful function, picking the good from the bad and presenting it to an interested audience, but numbers online are simply much higher. The real breakthrough came when I showed it to the sci-fi author Cory Doctorow, one of the editors of boingboing.net.

The 2006 post that kicked it all off.

The 2006 post that kicked it all off.

Explosion

I’d volunteered to show Cory around my hometown of Brisbane during a speaking visit, and he’d accepted. At the end of the day, I gave him a copy of my showreel; he watched it, liked the video, and asked for a link he could put on boingboing.net (thanks, Cory!). That’s where it exploded, with thousands of views an hour on my own site. Most unexpectedly, someone from Microsoft saw it, asked me to make a film for them, and then flew me around the world to make more animations and live-action films for them.

A still from the hand-drawn animation I made for Microsoft.

A still from the hand-drawn animation I made for Microsoft.

The Portable Film Festival liked it, and it played as part of the 2006 animation lineup, ultimately finishing in joint second behind the Oscar-nominated Maestro.

Airport was played at the Portable Film Festival.

Airport was played at the Portable Film Festival.

I was also featured in the local paper, and made many more contacts as a result of talking to their photographer. Stills from the animation have also been included in a graphic design compilation book—check out page 34. Best of all? One of the two original designers of the AIGA symbols asked for a copy of the film.

Look, ma! I’m in a book.

Look, ma! I’m in a book.

Viral Video #2: All The World’s A Stage

Back in 2012, I began a project with my then four-year-old daughter, in which she recited lines from Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech one at a time, as she grew up. Each line was recorded in a way that referenced the line itself, so “they have their exits and their entrances” was recorded next to a door, while “and so he plays his part, the sixth age shifts” was recorded on her sixth birthday as she sat in front of her cake. It’s fun, it’s literary, and it was a great family project.

While I’d never seen Shakespeare presented this way, the original germ of the idea was the wonderful “Oh, the Places You'll Go!” video (not quite safe for work) in which attendees at Burning Man recite lines of a Dr Seuss poem. 

By the end of 2013 we’d recorded all the lines, and assembling the edit (in FCP X, of course) was a sharp reminder of both how bad internal camera microphones can be, and the important of color correction when matching one shot to another. Finally, in 2014, I made some music in Logic Pro X, finalized the edit, and put it online. I don’t have a huge following on Vimeo or Twitter, but I announced it there and to friends on Facebook.

Here’s the finished timeline in FCP X — there were a few unused takes.

Here’s the finished timeline in FCP X — there were a few unused takes.

For a wider audience, I also submitted it to boingboing.net, because I thought that’s where it might find its most sympathetic audience, and Cory wrote about it (thanks again, Cory!). So it proved, with several thousand views just on Vimeo, and requests from agencies that wanted to represent the video, offering it to media on my behalf and sharing any income earned.

So far, it hasn’t made the same impact as Airport did, but it’s been featured in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph as well as The Shakespeare Standard, and hopefully inspired some similar pieces. It’s absolutely not “Kitten falls in bathtub LOL” but it was never going to be. I’m happy if my daughter is smiling—and she is!

Her teeth have even grown in a little since this was taken.

Her teeth have even grown in a little since this was taken.

So how can you make a viral video too?

1. If you can’t rely on luck, come up with something original.

2. Execute it well enough that people aren’t distracted by the flaws.

3. Promote it to relevant influencers through whatever means they prefer.

4. Make it easy to see and to share.

5. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (An oldie but a goodie.)

Conclusion

Many people have of course made videos that have been seen far more than mine; I’m hardly an internet star. And you can chase that fame if you want, but unless you get very lucky indeed, it’s not going to be a way to make a living. Instead, use viral videos as a tool to get your name out there, to open doors, to enhance your own creative profile. Then get back to making something new.

Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson | Articles by this author

Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.

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