Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Story of a Viral Video

Anyone who has ever been associated with new media marketing and watched a YouTube success story wonders: how and why did this video resonate with the market, and how might I produce such a 2-minute wonder? I remember attending a panel at the Personal Democracy Forum (08) and listening to four people who had done just that. And I remember one panelist saying there was some unknown piece of magic; none of them could guarantee another success.

So imagine my pride when my own 22-year old daughter hit one out of the park on her very first effort – and with a climate change message. I’d loved her idea when I’d heard it the month before. I thought the script looked strong when I edited it a few days before the filming. I was blown away by the execution of the first draft cut of the shoot. My expectations were very very high. I could feel that this was goal to be a hit. But of course, you tell yourself to stay calm and prepare for the usual outcome of low viewership.

The 1.5 minute video hit YouTube around noon on a Monday. A half dozen of us sent the link to our friends, and tweeted and Facebooked it. Within an hour or so, it hit 355 views. And there it sat as the afternoon wore on, and evening came. We heard from friends that they had loved it. We kept hitting refresh, refresh, refresh.

I emailed a colleague with experience in YouTube video postings and he replied that the view count of videos that had a rapidly rising number of views would stick, and then correct late in the day. So as the evening wore on, we hit refresh, refresh, refresh. At around 10:30pm, success! The number changed!

To 1200. We were stunned. What? That’s it? Minor depression set in. Well, 1200 wasn’t exactly bad. I mean, home videos don’t get 1200 views in half a day, but we were really disappointed. As we went to bed that night, a little before midnight, we refreshed again.

22,000! OK! We slept well. On opening our eyes in the morning, the first task was to refresh again.

65,000! We got it into the Huffington Post on its second day, and O’Reilly also picked it up on Fox. The Twitter and retweeting stream was strong. On the fourth day, it rotated into the “Currently being viewed” slot on YouTube’s home page. And it hit their “Most Popular” selections. YouTube has some kind of inscrutable (and no doubt well researched) methodology for deciding where to place its videos on the page, and which page. On the fifth or sixth day, we were definitely among the top three most viewed videos for that week.

Here is the video:

So what were the success factors?

Beautiful young women are always a pull. Yes, we know that. But it also has a nice story line. It opens setting one expectation about what it is about (sexual heat) and flips it into another kind of heat (global warming). There is drama, how far will they go? It’s fun; the people shooting it are clearly having a good time. It has a surprise ending. The music chosen was spot on. The editing is remarkable. The pacing, impeccable.

A small detail: we thought we were going to call it “Supermodels stripping for the Planet.” But a quick YouTube search of “supermodels stripping” brought up a lot of stuff we didn’t want to be associated with and that we didn’t want people to stumble upon if they looked for us using the search function. We changed it to “Supermodels take it off for Climate Change.”

And a last note: a confirmation that perception is in the eye of the beholder. The perceived tone of the video is totally based on the lens the viewer brings to it. Some people thought it was pure as the driven snow, and surprisingly modest. Others thought it verged on pornographic. Sadly, YouTube censorship seems to have come to that conclusion as well. Despite the soaring popularity, they took it off the most popular page. No doubt based on the title and screen capture without having actually viewed it.

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