One of the best generators of traffic on the web, undoubtedly, is a viral video. It's every teenager's secret fantasy and every PR agent and Marketing professional's dream.
The problem is, everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame but few know how to pull it off.
Below, I attempt to describe what it takes to make a viral video, by using Will and Jaden Smith's appearance on Graham Norton's TV show in the last week of May as my case study. The video has 15 million views at the time of writing and is probably the best six minutes of TV entertainment you will see so far this year.
You'll need to watch the video to make sense of what I write below if you haven't seen it already.
I should point out - before I start - that I've never had a video go viral and the information below is presented purely as observations of my own.
This is because, from a personal standpoint, I'm a fairly private person so don't idolise the 15 minutes of fame, and from a professional standpoint I have yet to work with a client that has the courage to make a serious but bold attempt.
I've whittled it down to three key aspects surprisingly:-
- Understanding of the target audience
- Intensity of emotion evoked in the viewer
Some would argue that length matters as well, but I've deliberately chosen to ignore this point as I feel it's quite obvious that a long video has limited viral potential due to modern lifestyles.
Understanding the target audience
Smith appeared on Graham Norton previously and to his surprise discovered the audience was very much willing with his "Fresh Prince" theme rap song. For his next appearance, knowing that 'Fresh Prince' and the associated themes resonated with the audience, he stuck to them resolutely.
Of course, the first time round, Gary Barlow understood the audience, and knew they had a love for the "Fresh Prince" theme song, so Smith got lucky by proxy. But he was clearly determined to not only repeat it, but beat it for his second appearance.
Intensity of Emotion
Interestingly, I believe the emotion one chooses matters little - though disgust and cringe are likely to have limited lifespan in terms of virality - but what does matter is the level of intensity evoked. The more intense the emotion, the more likely the virality.
I'd say Will and Jaden were going for surprise and delight with their appearance on Graham Norton. You'll notice the father and son duo played it smart by 'dialing up' the intensity steadily. Too much too soon and it might have been difficult to compound the level of intensity.
Here's how they 'dialed up' the intensity of emotions bit by bit
- The British public hadn't seen Jaden rap much before. (delight)
- Father and Son rapped together for the first time (delight)
- Jaden was competent (delight)
- Will demonstrated he has still 'got it' (delight)
- Jazzy Jeff made a surprise appearance (surprise)
- Alfonso Ribeiro made a surprise appearance (surprise)
- The whole team did the famous dance from one of the most popular episodes and even roped Graham Norton into it (delight)
But most importantly, they made sure their immediate viewing audience had a good time - Awe!
Any attempt to create virality, always needs a helping hand. Nothing ever goes viral purely on its own. This is why we need outposts.
An outpost is an interaction point (or an endpoint) between the content creator and the target audience. They act as multipliers in any good strategy.
This point in the video is very telling. Will Smith made it very obvious as part of his rap, that he'd identified the right outpost for orchestrating content that had the potential to go viral. (He explains that he noticed the last YouTube video had 8 million views).
It's all about doing your homework and being bold
There is an important point to note about being bold, which is why none of my clients so far have made a serious attempt at creating content that evokes an intense emotion.
Smith and the Fresh Prince cast had plenty of brand inertia to build upon but they could have gotten this very wrong. There is an untold number of 'failed comeback' stories for previously successful celebrities. A bold stunt (if you will) such as this poses a significant threat to their career.
Fear of vulnerability is what holds most people back in creating bold content. Smith took a bold risk and won.
Once you understand the above, you can clearly see that Will Smith had done his homework, so there was little doubt this was going to be a YouTube hit. Maybe even proving that more than an Actor, Will Smith is in fact a bold Marketer - as are most successful celebrities.
For any future viral videos you see, or when recalling those you've seen previously, do try to compare them against my litmus test. You'll be hard pressed to find viral videos that don't pass it.