How to Create a Viral Video (SXSW Recap)

I was a bit skeptical about this panel and really hoped it wouldn’t be some jaded, corporate strategry on manufacturing something that in reality is difficult to capture. Well, I had nothing to worry about.

YouTube’s Margaret Gould Stewart joined TED Talks Director of Film and Video Jason Wishnow and Damian Kulash, he of the OK Go and Treadmills viral video fame. The session was the perfect blend of informative and entertaining.

Some of the big points:

  • “Viral” doesn’t have to mean 10 million views. It’s people responding to a clip and feeling compelled to share it. The numbers may be different for everybody. Try your best to set a goal, and see what happens. TED hoped to get 40,000 views on their first video. Now their talks have been watched 230 million times!
  • Match the style to your content and purpose. TED Talks need high production values, mutltiple angles and close ups to help make the lectures come alive on camera. But the low-budget, single-camera approached was important for the first OK Go videos because that was unusual for a music video and made it clear the band made it themselves. It felt more personal and helped fans connect with them.
  • Most common traits of viral videos: Inspiration, surprise, a sense of wonder, clever and POSITIVE. “People don’t really like sharing negative stuff,” Stewart said.
  • Kulash says internet communities have a “permeable wall,” so this means you should involve your community by hosting shoot-offs, inviting or linking to parodies, holding contests, etc.
  • You don’t have to always create content–you can be a curator too, like Fail Blog.
  • Wishnow says there is no one way to reach your audience. You have to be “platform agnostic.” TED posts videos on their own site, YouTube, iTunes and many others.
  • Emededibility is key. On average, during the first 48 hours a video is posted on YouTube, half of its traffic is from people watching it on some other site. Bloggers want to keep people on their own site, so they’re most likely to share a video they can embed.
  • Your video’s title and meta-data are just as important as SEO on Google. Wishnow suggests adjusting your title for a video based on didfferent audiences and platforms.
  • Make something people want to watch multiple times. The average viewer watched Ok Go’s new “This Too Shall Pass – Rube Goldberg Machine version” video (below) 4-5 times.

The panel’s favorite viral videos:

Kulash said they had a team of 60 engineers working on this video for months. It took 65 takes, and they only got all the way through the sequence successfully 3 times.


I think this one definitely has the element of surprise.

Kulash added that any good viral video should have boobs or kittens.

And how do you wrap up a viral video panel? By making one of course! Kulash and Wishnow used the audience to remake the surprised kitten video. Can you spot me?

And now, because I can’t stop, 3 of my favorite viral videos. Interesting that they all share the traits listed above:

First, a great example of using positivity, for a subject that could easily have been much more serious.

Next, a beautiful video that shows the power of fun and humor to change people’s behavior. Good lesson for, oh I don’t know – everything.

Finally, this video just makes me happy and bolsters my wish that sometimes life was a musical.

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