Having a formula for something like a viral video is inexact, really I should entitle this “the art of making a viral video” as there is no guarantee that all the steps outlined will launch a video into the memesphere. But following these tips will help ensure for a most addictive video experience even if it doesn't go viral.
Even an extremely good video, about very specific matter, or aimed at a very specific audience, is not likely to "go viral". I would suggest that the following steps will help get any video to be successful in some form, but to truly be viral it would likely have to appeal to a wide on audience, part of that for example is to typically be only a few minutes long, with good content in the video's start to hook people.
By the way, going viral means not just millions of views, but thousands of shares in a short period of time leading to that millions of views. How do you achieve this? Humanity...
The video almost certainly has to be emotional, tugging on the heartstrings in someway, it should be extremely humorous, gripping, extremely cute, broadly informative, or a combination thereof. A good rule of thumb is to think about the kind of videos you pass along and why you do it-almost always it’s because you know it is something that will make someone happy or laugh-pleased with you that it was sent. Ask yourself "how do I make this a video people are proud to be the one to first break to their friends?" If you can accomplish a video that does as such to a broad audience, going viral is a very real possibility.
Integrity (the whole)
Although I haven’t any data on this, I have a theory about film quality in a video, and its likelihood to go viral: the video should be either entirely professionally shot or not, not a little bit of both. If a video of a cat jumping on its owner's head happens to be shot with a shaky hand and a Flip cam, so be it-it can go viral just as likely as a professionally shot video. If the video has elements of professionalism in it, but then slips up in other places, this is off-putting for the viewer usually as it is a kind of visual and emotional discord. For more information on this concept, please see "Amateur is the new professional, 7.13.12".
Sometimes controversy alone can "blow-up" a video. Remember
the Rebecca Black "Friday" video? This teen's music video was unofficially dubbed the worst song of all time, and the video quickly shot up in views. People would click-in not so much as to see the young woman's music video in its own right, but to see "the worst music video of all time!"
Riding a meme format
If done well, good success can be had from simply riding the coattails of an existing meme. Parody in general is a great way to make a viral video, but this is especially so when you are satirizing another viral video. Anyone who has poked around YouTube's best viral videos knows that there are a ton of copycats, and many of them are easily in the million+ play realm. Take "Shit that ________ says" format as an example. SplitSider.com has a great article all about the explosion of this format after the original, "Shit girls say" came out. Another popular concept for videos is the "bet you can't not laugh" videos, there are endless duplicates of that format. Being the first and best to copy a meme can often work to make one of your own.
Offline marketing, meta marketing, and social networks
All of the criteria above talks about making the video itself and that it be an awesome product. Yes, I feel that an excellent video is an imperative factor to the video's success, however the rest is up to the way the video gets launched and the ensuing campaign behind it. Getting your video PR-positive or even negative-is a plus for sure; like in the example about the Rebecca Black video-send your video to news outlets with the story behind it and what is special about it. Also, try to drum up momentum behind your video by releasing it to multiple social networks and content sites: stumbleupon, reddit, digg, facebook, twitter etc. And even uploading the video to more then just YouTube. There are many great video sharing sites from Vimeo to MetaCafe.
Another great marketing mechanism, is to use websites like Twellow and Klout to find individual tastemakers and opinion leaders to share the video with. If and when they share your video, they share it to thousands or millions. When I made my first video, "things from the 90's I really miss" I was sure to send it to a person on twitter who was a big 90s buff.
Making a viral video is a challenging prospect akin to fishing. Doing everything I have mentioned will increase the odds of "catching the big one", but not guarantee that you will get the big one. There are millions of YouTube videos made and only a select few get huge by using these methods, however, doing so will increase the odds from, "forget about it" to, "anything's possible". For more information on fantastic online marketing, please see: "Bonobos pants, a case study in marketing, 5.15.12". In the mean time, see you on YouTube.
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About the author: Brad Hines is the president of YumDomains.com, the founder of HungryKids.org, and an Internet analyst. He is a writer who writes about internet and business trends. He can be followed on Twitter: Follow @BradHines
He has yet to make a viral video himself, he's about 9,999,900 hits short for his video of himself playing the guitar.