500 Words: Going Viral with the Power of (more than) One

500 Words on Thursday  | Written by Lee Schneider

What makes a video go viral?

I was at lunch with a prospective client the other day and we were conspiring about how to get his videos more exposure. I suggested putting cats in them, but it appears that I am wrong about that.

According to Jonah Berger, a marketing prof at the Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, there is a science to creating viral popularity. Cats don’t enter into it much, he writes, but human behavior does quite a bit.

He says that social currency is one essential factor for viral success. People tend to share things online that make them look good or provide tips and info to others. That’s why videos titled ‘Best of [fill in the blank]’ and ‘Top 10 [list of things]’ are winners – the title alone tells you that you know something, are a smart curator, and have info worth sharing. If your video has an emotional component it can also go viral. Outrage works, as in Dave Carroll’s United Breaks Guitars video proves, with its nearly 13 million views.

The San Francisco Green Festival’s recent, successful Kickstarter campaign also shows the power of emotion. The video leveraged the practices of a group called The Moxie Institute. At the Moxie Institute they make something they call Cloud Films. In one example, called Engage, (44,000 views), they asked people all over the world to video themselves as they put their hand over their heart and thought about their heart beating. Moxie made that film available to the SF Green Film Fest to use on their Kickstarter. The film speaks entirely to the sense of belonging  – no mention at all of a film festival until a title card at the end. It helped a film festival raise 5K, though. The A+D Museum in Los Angeles raised more than $43,000 on their Kickstarter using a three-minute film made entirely of still images. It has no narration, just an ambient music track. It spoke strongly to a community of LA design fans who dream of what the city was and can be.

Storytelling is another huge factor for online success. We humans are hard-wired to share stories. To go viral, though, a story has resonate with a community willing to share it. Communities can be created from scratch (time consuming; difficult; not impossible) or we can tap into existing communities (film fans, LA design fans, or people who feel they’ve been screwed by airlines, which is practically everyone.)

Remember those 13 million views for the broken guitar video? They didn’t happen because of the quality of the video (adequate) or the song (it’s pretty good) but because of the community connection and universality of the emotion (getting mad at an airline.) No cats required.

Note to my cinematographer and production friends: Is this ‘quality no longer required’ argument a point of frustration for you? Sometimes it is for me. In the online world, I’m seeing the ‘art of filmmaking’ take a back seat to the power of community connection.