A designer whose YouTube video was viewed more than 3 million times shares her secrets to creating viral content. By Karen X. Cheng (Designer, Exec)
I almost didn’t write this post. Because I wanted to keep the magic behind my viral video to myself. Because of my ego. Because I would have loved to brag that I just sat back and it took off on its own. But that’s not what happened.
I did a ton of marketing, and it started long before the video was released. Going viral was not an accident — it was work.
I tried a lot of things. This is what worked for me.
Don’t Be "Too Good" for Marketing
I almost didn’t put together a marketing plan. Because what if I did all this marketing, and then the video still flopped? That would’ve been embarrassing. Then I realized how stupid that was.
It’s better to try your damnedest and fail than to hold back and always wonder what if.
If you put all this effort into your video, why would you rely on luck for the last leg? Swallow your pride. Give your work a fighting chance. Put together a marketing plan. This article will show you how.
Understand How Things Go Viral on the Internet
You see videos on YouTube with millions of views and you wonder — where did they all come from?
Here’s how my video, Girl Learns to Dance in a Year went viral:
- First, I posted to Facebook/Twitter, and submitted it to social news sites like Reddit and Hacker News. I personally asked many of my friends to share it. I tweeted it at well-known dancers. I emailed bloggers who had covered other viral dance videos.
- Of all the things I tried, Reddit paid off. It got to the top of the GetMotivated subreddit. I did this by following the advice in this article.
Day Two: 800k views
- Bloggers who had seen it on Reddit the day before started publishing articles about it. First Kottke. Then blogs like Mashable, Jezebel, and Huffington Post.
- Blogs drove a ton of traffic. Each blog is a giant marketing engine with millions of readers and twitter followers. It’s in their interest to get the article as many views as possible, because each view is an ad they can serve up. Understand how the money flows. It’s all about clicks and advertising dollars.
Day Three: 1.8 million views
- It made the YouTube frontpage. I’m not sure how it got there, but I suspect the blogs were sending it so much traffic that YouTube’s algorithms picked up on it.
Try many things. You only need one of them to pay off in order for your video to go viral. For me, that thing was Reddit. Your thing might be different. Your goal is to get major blogs to write you up, because their marketing power is ridiculous.
Release on Monday or Tuesday
People watch YouTube videos when they’re at work. They read the news at work. Release your video on Monday or Tuesday to give it the whole week to gain momentum. Weekends are speed bumps.
I chose Tuesday because people are busy catching up with email on Monday. I got lucky with the timing because there wasn’t any major breaking news that day. Releasing on a slow news day will help you.
Mind your holidays, too. Don’t release when people are not at the office.
Figure Out Who Has a Stake in Your Video
If your video takes off, who are all the people and companies who might want a piece of the action? These people can help market you.
My YouTube descripton was full of links to possible sponsors — to the Lululemon and American Apparel clothes I was wearing. To the Lift app I used to track my dancing. To the BART train station I danced at. To the music I danced to. They’re all things I genuinely believe in, so I was happy to send traffic their way.
I contacted all these companies and asked them to share the video. Some of them shared, some of them didn’t. Try them all.
None of This Matters if Your Video Isn’t Good
You can get your friends to share. But only the strength of the content can get their friends to share. If you are serious about making good content, read Made to Stick.
Why will people share your video? People share things when they feel emotion. What emotion will your viewers feel?
Some emotions spread better than others. Emotions that spread: awe, excitement, amusement, anger, anxiety. Emotions that don’t: contentment, sadness.
Tell a Story
I’m a decent dancer for a year of practice but I’m nothing compared to the pros. There are thousands of dancers way more talented whose videos didn’t go viral.
Girl Learns to Dance in a Year went viral because it wasn’t just another dance video with cool moves and cool camera angles. It wasn’t about how good the dancing was. It was about how awkward I was when I started, and how I got better with practice.
And it’s not just a story about dancing. It’s about having a dream and not knowing how to get there — but starting anyway.
People want stories. That’s what all TV, movies, and books are. Tell a story.
Make Your Video Shorter
The first thing people do when they play a video is check to see how long it is. It helps them decide whether to watch it. Ten minutes: forget it. Two minutes: I’ll give it a shot. 30 seconds: Heck, might as well.
Make your video as short as possible while still keeping the heart of the story. The editor and I literally spent hours shaving off seconds to get the video down to 1 minute 51 seconds.
Short videos spread better.
Write a Viral Title
Here’s a quick test. How would you finish this sentence:
“Hey, did you see the video of __________”
Fill in the blank. That’s your title.
Here’s a bad title: My Journey of Dance, a Year of Movement Better: I Learned to Dance in a Year Even better: Girl Learns to Dance in a Year Best: Girl Learns to Dance in a Year (TIME LAPSE)
Know What You’re Willing to Compromise
What are you willing to do for views? Are you willing to compromise on your beliefs? If so, which ones?
I made a compromise. I believe that grown women should not be referred to as girls. Then I named the video Girl Learns to Dance in a Year. It rolls off the tongue better than Woman Learns to Dance in a Year. I had decided that was worth the compromise.
I almost named the video Asian Girl Learns to Dance in a Year. I’m really glad I didn’t do that.
You have to decide what you can live with and what you can’t. Figure this out before you release because once you hit publish, you can’t take it back.
What to Do Once You Go Viral
People will criticize your work. This is good because it gets them talking. There are lots of comments about how I’m a terrible dancer, or how I got worse on Day 365. People left racist and sexist comments. They even debated the definition of time lapse. Try not to let all this get to you. Controversy is good.
Viral videos have a short shelf life. You have 15 minutes of fame, and your job is to open as many doors as possible in those 15 minutes. Create as many opportunities as you can. Ironically, the week I released the video, I barely danced at all. I didn’t go out and celebrate. I went home and responded to as many emails and tweets as I could.
Make sure the media can get a hold of you, and it’s not hard to find your email address. Media interview requests will start coming in. Accept them. National TV may contact you. Feed the media beast.
Know where you want to direct your traffic. I linked to my blog, website, and Twitter from the video. They were all ready to go. One thing I messed up was I didn’t have an email signup form ready on the Dance In A Year website. I’ve fixed that now, lesson learned. Be prepared.
Why I Did It
I wanted people to see the video because it represents what I believe in.
When you watch a professional perform, you’re seeing them at their moment of glory. It’s intimidating because you don’t see how you could ever get to where they are. You don’t see the moment they started, when they were a beginner just like you. I wanted people to see the beginning.
The best response to the video has been all the people who reached out to me, newly inspired to learn. Learn dance. Learn guitar, Korean, beatboxing, drawing, parkour. That brings me a lot more fulfillment than the video view count numbers.
After hearing from so many people, I’m now working on a site to make it easy for anyone to make their own learn in a year projects. I’m really excited to see other people level themselves up in all sorts of skills.
None of this might have happened if I had decided to sit back and just hope it went viral.
Do you have any tips to add?
About the blogger: Karen X. Cheng is a self-taught designer at Exec in San Francisco. She learned to dance in a year. If you have a dream and don't know how to start -- start anyway. Learn more about Karen by visiting her website, or follow her on Twitter at @karenxcheng.