16/10/2011 19:55 BST | Updated 16/12/2011 05:12 GMT

The Viral Video: Is There A Secret Formula?

Someone recently asked me if I could 'make' a viral video, as though it was something I could immediately produce, like a cup of instant coffee. As we know, 'viral' is something than happens, rather than something that just is.

According to this infographic, you are more like to get hit by a bus than have an uploaded video reach a 1,000,000 views. So, with that obstacle in mind, what can we gather from looking at successful online videos and the ways in which they continue to resonate with online audiences? By looking at popular online trends over time, can we distinguish any sort of take-away formula? And, if so, how can this be applied to brands?

Don't over-brand your content

It is probable that heavily branded content (like an advert), will probably not go viral organically. Anything clearly sponsored or seen to be selling something, generally doesn't make people voluntarily want to share it with their friends online. A recent example of a branded advert that worked, was the Yeo Valley 'Churned Forever' ad that played during last week's episode of X Factor. I was watching it with a friend, and although the brand name hadn't been mentioned during the ad, my friend turned to me and said 'That's Yeo Valley'. We then downloaded the song from iTunes because (embarrassingly) we just liked the song. When I asked 'what does the word viral mean to you?' on my blog, some of my fellow digitally-minded friends gave me their point of view. Chris Smith, a digital consultant from Hill & Knowlton, commented:

'The fundamental thing to remember about viral marketing that everyone seems to constantly forget is that it doesn't revolve around brands. It revolves around content."

Just like Bill Gates wrote in 1996, content clearly is king. An example of strong video content driving successful viewing rates of branded material is Intel's Visual Life and their series of online videos, which feature ongoing engaging content for their audience demographic. An example of a video from this series is the inspirational video that followed fashion blogger The Satorialist who was gaining momentum in the online world. Intel offered enriched content to Satorialist fans as they captured his life and personality behind the blog, which received almost 900,000 hits in total.

Make it human and make it timely

It makes sense to assume that a viral video has to have a comedy aspect to be popular. But, we can notice from other examples of videos such as Greyson Chance concert, Prince Charles and Diana Wedding, or Piers Morgan interviews that aren't so much funny, but they do offer some kind of emotional connection. It's clear that in order for the viewer to then share this video afterwards it has to mean something, making context as well as content also very important. Another response I received to my question was from Andrew Burnett, from social media in Scotland who has delivered an impressive >75% viral success rate for a range of his clients. When I asked if he thought there was a secret formula, he said:

"What all of these [virals] have in common is human emotion. Emotion is what makes people want to share something. People sharing something is what leads to something becoming viral."

This is the fundamental part of something going viral; it is not a million unique users accidently stumbling onto a video, it is the way in which it spreads throughout multiple media channels, passed around networks both publically and privately and through word of mouth.

We can also see that most viral videos are mainly a product of an inadvertent search whereby users are searching for a song or clip by an artist, to then be faced with a spoof or parody and are pleasantly surprised with their search outcome. Take The Midnight Beast for example, a young group that have created a strong YouTube presence through creating popular spoofs of timely events such as the general elections and the popular hit song 'Tik Tok' which made them into a viral sensation practically overnight. To optimize the search in the best possible way, it is crucial for brands to be up-to-date with popular culture, current trends and upcoming talent in order to increase chances of a viral footprint. Such things as strategic insertion of key words, tagging, titles/descriptions, link partners, and relevance are good places to start.

Videos that are genuinely enjoyable may drive users to carry out the YouTube 'repeat effect', in which the same group of people watch the same videos countless times. A great example of videos encouraging multiple viewings from each individual users is the recent McDonalds interactive 'I-Spy Game' that launched last week, which involves users have to find characters in the video before the time runs out. Another examples of an interactive brand video is the Skittles Touch: Cat video, which generated almost 5 million views; the video encourages the user to participate in the video by placing their finger on the screen. The user of animation and text over the video, which gives the users instructions, turns a 2D video into something that is more like a game. We have seen this with Tippex's infamous Hunter Shoots the Bear campaign or allowing users to choose a different ending.

Despite the views not being unique, repeat views are still just as important, as these visitors are more likely to share the content via social networks or show friends the video in person. Loyal viewers also mean consistent growth of the video view-count, which has an impact on the SEO of your video; videos with higher views appear higher in the search. According to statistics, "45% of views come from direct navigation where a user goes to YouTube and searches to "recover" something they have already seen or are actively looking for."

Get viewers attention right from the start (and maintain it)

YouTube is the world's largest video networking site, the 2nd largest search engine and now boasts around 3 billion daily views on the site. This, of course, means great things for brands and that can use the platform to showcase creative content, but it also means that this overload of content makes it is difficult to be noticed. Matt Muir, the author behind the weekly Webcurios blog, said that:

'if it's not funny, or shocking, or creepy, or moderately sexual, or cute, or "have-to-watch-through-my-fingers-oh-god-it's-so-embarrassing", or any combination of one or more of the above, it won't go 'viral'. If it is one or more of the above criteria, then it might."

It is important for a video to have a purpose, and to offer something different to make a lasting impression on the YouTube community. This need not apply to the copycats online that want to get a temporary piece of the market share by producing a one-hit-wonder, but for brands aiming to build and maintain a respected YouTube channel and loyal subscribers, this means offering quality, striking content consistently.

Users make up their mind very quickly about whether they like the video or not. According to the earlier infographic, 1 in 4 users drop off a video around 1 minute into the clip. This means that there a lot of pressure to time the video well, making sure the opening is snappy, and the end is unpredictable. There is even an entry in Urban Dictionary for "YouTube attention span", with the example being:

Jill: Watch this video!

Jack: Okay.

Jack: wtf? 10 minutes? That's way over my YouTube Attention Span.

There is a lot that can be said about the attractiveness of short videos and their increased probability of going viral. For example, in March 2011 the Volkswagen Force advert was no.1 viral video with over 42 million views. The successful elements to this video are the fact is only 1 minute long (doesn't put off viewer), darts rapidly from scene to scene (making it harder for the viewer to drop off), includes an element of suspense by the addition of music and therefore makes the viewer wants know what happens at the end. For brands, including a story, or to prolong the story, by offering a series, invites the viewer to watch the video(s) in full, and also find out more about it afterwards. Building a reputation for delivering ongoing high quality content also means more re-visits to your channel.

Using YouTube as a curation tool

A popular trend is using YouTube to amalgamate a series of short clips into one video. Take the adidas 120 edition video as an example which uses multiple clips of everyday people doing things in line with the brand message 'head over heart'. The brand is acting as the curator for their audiences, and making the fans feel involved by including them in the video. Another brand that has brought the fans into the video is the Google Chrome advert where they showcased Lady Gaga's from around the globe and made a combined video generating nearly 4 million views. This can play on nostalgia, for example the 100 years of East London Style video, this offers a quick snippet of time progression with is essentially delivering 100 years in 100 seconds of film which generated 2.5 millions views. There are lots of examples of this being highly popular, one more example being the curation of 100 YouTube videos that combined to make up one Led Zeppelin song from fans around the world, which was featured on Mashable as their viral video of the day. We can notice than many viral videos have something in common: ease of viewing.

Want to track virality?

Facebook has now launched very exciting extension of their Insights package for brands. Rather than just tracking the new likes, lifetime likes and MAU'S of your page, you can now track the virality of a post too (expressed as a percentage of people that posted a story about your post, against the total reach). This is a great of seeing whether your fans are generating driven or organic stories around your content, or whether a high reach was due to Facebook ads or other page drivers. Facebook have also included a 'People Talking About This' metric, which now publically shows on brand pages underneath the number of fans. This means brands really need to step up their game in delivering fun and shareable content, now that everyone can see if no one is talking about you.

And on my final note: here's my favourite viral of the week. A 5-year-old that can rap better than Nicki Minaj.