How to Approach the Creation of Viral Marketing Content

Hartley Brody
Hartley Brody




If you've ever put content on the internet, then you've probably felt that fleeting moment of anticipation that comes when your content goes live. Your heart beats a bit faster as you watch the video upload or the article publish. Will people like it? Could I have improved it in some way? Who should I share it with first? Will it go viral?

As someone who's been professionally putting content on the internet for the last few years, I've seen my fair share of it fall flat. But every once in a while, everything lines up and a piece of content takes off, racking up views as it races across the internet. In this article, I'm going to look at a few videos that I've been a part of at HubSpot, talk about how they performed and why, and then dive into some takeaways that'll help you get on the road to creating an awesome viral video for your company.

A Couple Notes on "Going Viral"

First of all, I think it's good we agree on a definition of virality, just for the sake of working off the same definition throughout this post. When I talk about a piece of content going viral, it doesn't necessarily mean it's achieving views in the millions. It's more about achieving an extremely high volume of views -- even if it's not in the hundreds of millions -- in an incredibly short amount of time. More on that in the next section, though.

Also, this post will focus on viral videos, though keep in mind any piece of content can go viral: Blog posts, infographics, images on social media, you name it.

Finally, remember that there is no way to predict that a piece of content will definitely go viral. This post is simply finding trends that became apparent to us after looking back on what worked, and what didn't, when trying to make something go viral. Even following all of these well-reasoned, but only best-ish practices, you still shouldn't go to your boss and say you're about to make the next great viral video. Instead, let your success be a pleasant surprise ;-)

fakeit3The Dirty Secret of Viral

I have a secret for you. Viral videos don't always spread like you might think. When people imagine creating a viral video, they expect that everyone who watches it will pass it on to at least one other friend, who will then pass it on to at least one more friend, etc. In this way, the number of people watching it at any given time will grow exponentially and you'll get that exponential viral growth chart that everyone dreams of. With this school of thought, only a few people need to see the content at first, before the "viral growth" takes over and spreads it to millions.

In reality, though, that's not what happens. 

Most of the content you and I watch and read on the internet, we never share. Even if it's really well done, most people will smile or nod ... and then move on to something else. Only a small group of people who see your content will actually share it. In this way, the content fizzles out very quickly over time.

For example, check out these charts of new video views per day from some of our most popular videos, over the first approximately 20 days of launch:

views per day for inbound style

See that strong start, and the pretty quick fizzle-out over a short period of time? We saw something similar -- though at a smaller volume, with our Alanis Morissette cover:

views per day for you oughta know

Even some of the most famous "viral" videos didn't see the type of exponential growth you'd expect. Here are the number of new views per day for the Gangnam Style video, also over the first approximately 20 days, and one of the most popular Super Bowl commercials from a few weeks ago (with data graciously provided by ChannelMeter -- A YouTube analytics service):

views per day for the ram super bowl 'farmer' commercial

The Super Bowl commercial followed a similar growth pattern as our two videos, but Gangnam Style was a little wonky -- seeing a slower start and more spikes before petering out:

views per day for gangnam style

According to ChannelMeter's CEO, Eugene Lee, "Most videos we track see about 75% or 80% of views in the first 3 to 5 days." So, it might seem like viral content is a pipe dream, out of reach from even the most savvy of marketers. But fortunately, you can fake it.

The most important component of virality is seeding it with a large audience, all at once. If you know it'll fizzle out over time, you need that first generation of viewers to be as large as possible. Promote it on social media multiple times throughout the day. Send a memo to all your employees, encouraging them to share. Send an email to your evangelists -- especially the ones with large social reaches. Spend a bit for some sponsored promotion for a few hours.

It's important that you do all of this at once, to create an initially large pop, and get as many people watching your video in that first generation as possible. People who might ignore your content the first time will grow curious when they hear about it a few more times that same afternoon. I mean, no one wants to get left out, right?

While having a large first generation is important, it can also generate secondary lift. Many services like YouTube will often feature "popular" content in various places, so drawing a ton of attention to your video quickly will make it more likely to get featured. You also stand to gain some press and PR if people think that your content is taking off. It's much less likely this would happen if you spread your promotion out over a few days.

All of this also helps explain why Gangnam Style didn't follow the same growth trajectory as the other videos -- because it wasn't necessarily a marketing campaign. The other three videos above came out with, well, a bang. And that was on purpose. Gangnam Style is one of those viral videos that started from the ground up -- and frankly, that's the hardest kind to make.

So whatever content you invest time in, you need to go all-in with promotion when it first launches in order to get that viral ** pop **.

HubSpot Case Studies

Now, I'll talk a bit about some of the videos I've been a part of at HubSpot. If you want to skip this section, go for it, but I will be referring to some of these videos in the last section. If you've never created a viral video but are interested in doing so for your own company, this section might be helpful -- just to get an idea of what the process of creating a video that you hope goes viral looks like, and how it can differ from video to video.

SEO Rapper (March, 2011)

I first heard about Chuck, a.k.a. The SEO Rapper, after a few of his videos had made the rounds on the HubSpot Marketing Team in the spring of 2011. We reached out to him, worked on some lyrics, and then flew him out to Boston for the video shoot. It ended up taking much longer than I expected -- coordinating and producing both the song and video took weeks leading up to the video shoot, and another few days of editing afterwards.

For promotion, we reached out to our email and social subscribers to let them know about the video. We also paid for some promotion on StumbleUpon, thinking each stumble would help drive up the view count. What we didn't realize at the time was that YouTube requires viewers to watch a certain portion of the video before it counts it as a "view," so the thousands of sponsored stumbles we paid for didn't yield nearly that many views. Oh well, lesson learned.

Almost a year later, the video has 19,000 views, which is a bit lower than what I was expecting. However, it does occasionally come up in conversation with our leads and customers, and has earned us a bunch of "street cred" as a cool place to work.

'Gangnam Style' Parody (September, 2012)

As Gangnam Style was taking off last summer, I saw it a few times before I really understood what an impact it was going to have. By the time the video was really gaining traction, we decided HubSpot should make our own parody -- both for fun, and to ride the trend. We wanted to release our version quickly, so we did all the planning and filming in two days and then our rockstar video & production team worked over the weekend to get it edited and published.

Again, we promoted the video on our social channels, but held off sending to our main email lists. We also wrote a blog post on our inbound marketing blog, and that post helped the video spread, considering the blog's large readership. Promotion within the company was also huge -- pretty much every employee posted it to their own personal social networks.

The video got picked up by BuzzFeed, as well as a few news publications like BostInno, Bloomberg Businessweek and the Boston Herald. In the first week, the video garnered an impressive 95,000 views, as well as hundreds of comments and likes. Five months later, the video is just shy of 200,000 views.

While the SEO Rapper video might have helped us earn some of our first street cred, this video kicked it up a notch and really got people talking about us. It's even (allegedly) helped us close a few deals and comes up in sales calls all the time. 

Harlem Shake (February, 2013)

This was a trend that was taking off quickly that we wanted to be a part of. While we jumped on this one before we really knew whether it'd become mainstream, it was clearly worth making the video, even if it was just for some fun. You can't underestimate good office morale, after all. From the time we decided to do it until the moment it was live on YouTube was maybe 18 hours. A quick company-wide email was all it took to get a bunch of people excited, and then filming and editing was super straightforward. It was really a no-brainer to make this video since the time and production cost was so low.

The video is only a few weeks old right now, so we've yet to see how far the waves will travel. It got 12,000 views the first week and has been climbing along slowly but surely since then. The demographic that this viral video trend targets doesn't line up as well with our target customer persona as most of our other videos, so this one was more for the "cool factor" than helping much with branding and awareness among our targeted personas.

Lessons Learned From Trying to Go Viral

Throughout all of these projects, we've made some mistakes and learned a ton about what it takes to make a great video. In general, making your own viral meme out of nothing is much harder than meme-jacking another trend (find out why, below). So if you want to get started, you should probably focus on the meme-jacking style of video for your first attempt. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Find a Unique Angle to Create "Combined Relevance"

In some of his research, Dan Zarrella found that the number one reason people share things is because of personal or audience relevance. Think about the last time you posted a video on someone's wall. It probably wasn't just because it was funny or interesting or particularly well done, but because you thought the video was extremely relevant to that person. You watched it and thought "wow, <insert person> would love this!"

So if you want your video to be widely shared, it has to be relevant to a lot of people. One of the easiest ways to make your video relevant is to find some common idea, and combine it with a unique twist that surprises the audience and makes your content stand out among the rest. That's called "combined relevance." 

If you look at the Harlem Shake videos with the most views, for instance, you'll find that they're the ones that took the Harlem Shake idea and catered it to a particular audience, like the "UGA Men's Swim & Dive Harvard Shake" (30.8 million views), or the "Harlem Shake (original army edition)" (49.4 million views). Pretty much anyone who swims competitively has seen the UGA version, and I imagine many armed service members have already seen the army edition, and probably the one for their particular branch of service as well. By putting a spin on it, these versions suddenly became very relevant to a particular audience, and have racked up more views than the original videos themselves.

If you're early enough to jump on a trend, you can go after a huge niche; if you're a later arriver, you'll probably have to go after something smaller, like your industry or even company. For instance, when we made our Gangnam Style parody, we called it "Inbound Style" hoping to make something that would be relevant to, and shared by, inbound marketers. When we launched the Harlem Shake video, we intentionally didn't call it the "HubSpot" edition because that would've been too small a niche for combined relevance -- though in retrospect, perhaps going for a niche audience would have helped our video reach more people within that particular group.

Come up with a specific audience you want to make your version relevant to, and put a spin on it that would appeal to those people. You might end up seeing better results from it than if you made another generic version.

Strike the Right Balance Between Execution, and Production Value

Video production can take a long time if you let it. Between planning and choosing a location, and casting, filming, and editing, you could spend days or weeks working on the video if you don't force yourself to move quickly. Your video should have a single person directing everything -- either the person who's most excited about the concept, or the person who has the most experience making videos -- or else you'll suffer from too many cooks in the kitchen.

It's also a good idea to invest in a bit of production value. A tripod is a must, and you probably don't want to shoot it on your smart phone. Shaky or grainy video ruins the experience. We've debated whether it makes the video look more "authentic," but it always comes out looking better when we use better equipment and pay more attention to the cinematic details.

If you don't have a dedicated video person, you might want to accumulate some basic video equipment -- like a decent video camera, a tripod, and some lights -- along with a laptop loaded with some solid video editing software so that you can work quickly to get everything put together.

Get the Timing Right

Trying to get timing right for a viral video often comes down to luck. Launch too late, and the trend is over and no one cares. Launch too early, and you risk people not understanding the idea, or you find out that you picked a concept that never turns into a mainstream meme. 

Despite the unpredictable nature of timing, there are still a few things to keep in mind:

  • Make execution happen quickly. It's good to have some sort of video "plan" in place to make video creation even faster. Don't worry about getting everything right. It's usually fine to sacrifice a little bit of quality -- hey, most of us aren't Spielberg -- to get it out at the right time.
  • Make promotion happen quickly. As I mentioned earlier, you want to promote the video quickly to give it the big bang it needs to get off the ground. Once you start to promote it, you need to work all of your marketing channels simultaneously.

Proving the Business Value of Your Video

As fun as it can be to make a goofy video, your boss might be wondering what the value really is. After all, you're going to spending some work hours on this that are taking you away from your day job, so to speak. "Get back to work and do something productive!" he or she might say.

That's why it's important to approach viral video creation with agility. Do a good job, but don't invest thousands of dollars or tons of man hours in your first couple attempts if your boss isn't totally on board with the experiment. Work out the production and promotion kinks first, and see if you can get any quick wins that help bring your boss on board with the occasional attempts to go viral.

As data-driven as we are, we still haven't quite come up with the best metric to track the ROI of making these videos. But everyone feels it. When you put out fun videos, all of the following things may happen:

  • More people apply for jobs. Top talent wants to have a fun, pleasant work environment. Show them that they can and you'll win a lot of excellent candidates. We've had a number of comments on our videos to the effect of "Wow, I'd love to work with you guys." That's a huge win for us.
  • You gain street cred with leads & customers. I've been told by countless salespeople and executives that people bring up our videos all the time in conversation. It gives us a work hard, play hard reputation that people really respect and admire.
  • Journalists want to write about you. When your company seems cool, people are more interested in what you're working on. Our videos have been a huge part of building out our brand and reputation, and it's helped us get coverage naturally, without pitching.
  • People recognize you on the street and ask for your autograph. Okay, so this hasn't actually happened yet, but one of these days ...

Next time you see an awesome piece of content on the internet, think about what made it so appealing to you, and how you might be able to replicate something like that. Again, going viral is far more of an art that a science -- so approach it with some of these guidelines in mind, but remember that the most important thing is to just, well, go for it.

Have you ever tried to make a piece of content go viral? What lessons did you learn that you can share with other marketers that would like to have a big hit?

Image credit: yonghokim

Topics: Viral Campaigns

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