Anatomy of a Viral Video

Prior to entering journalism school, I interned for the digital department at an entertainment company in NYC. One main objective at this company was to create videos that had the potential to get lots of views, i.e. videos that would go “viral.” As long as the videos were entertaining and attracted lots of eyeballs, they were considered successful.

I began to understand what made these types of videos popular, but I wondered if the producers of videos that dealt with more serious topics followed the same guidelines. Was there someone in every newsroom video department saying things like, “Make that petty theft more entertaining, so it gets more views”?

There are some companies out there who are successful at getting more important stories to go viral – Mashable, BuzzFeed and YouTube are some of the better-known examples. In journalism school, we didn’t learn “the rules” of  producing viral news content. Do rules even exist?

I was interested, so I consulted three industry professionals:

Bianca Consunji, a journalist and video producer at Mashable. (Bianca is also a ’12 graduate of Columbia Journalism School)

Andrew Gauthier, senior video producer at BuzzFeed.

and Amy Singer, Head of News Partnerships at YouTube for North America.

They gave me some advice for approaching news content from a viral perspective.

UNDERSTAND THE REAL GOAL IS TO CREATE MEANINGFUL MATERIAL

Andrew: Your goal should be to make good content that connects with people emotionally and culturally. “Going viral” is an overused term. There are many factors that are out of your control. You are going to get better and have a higher chance of success by producing as many [videos] as possible. You get better by doing that. Learn from each experience because it’s a progression.

Bianca: Choose topics that your audience will feel strongly about, whether it’s an “Aww!” or “I can’t believe this is happening today” reaction. Create something that’s worth watching, and your audience can decide for themselves if it’s worth sharing. “Going viral” can be such a meaningless marketing term. Producers often set out to make videos go viral (I’m looking at you, Jimmy Kimmel) because they know what makes people share a video. Don’t try to make something go around just for the sake of getting more views, because that’s just “clickbait” and nothing more.

Credit: Bianca Consunji/Mashable

BE AWARE OF YOUR PERSONAL STORYTELLING STYLE

Amy: Authenticity comes across, so be true to yourself. That’s the first step in creating compelling video; tell the story from an authentic perspective.

Bianca: The thing to remember is that not everything is a video story. You have to give your audience a real reason to click on and sit through several minutes of video. Do that by really taking your audience into the scene; let them hear and listen to things they won’t get from a print story.

STAY INFORMED ABOUT POPULAR TOPICS

Andrew: Create videos that people want to share. You have to keep the conversation going by paying attention to what people are interested in. I think if you consume what your friends are sharing and go on sites like Reddit, and find out what types of things are getting the most uploads, eventually you can begin to see patterns.

Bianca: We try to study analytics more to figure out what our audiences want. And yes, you can predict “virality” sometimes, but very rarely for news videos. For news videos, it’s pretty difficult to go viral unless it shows something funny, unusual, or spectacular. It has to get a strong enough reaction in people to make them feel compelled to share it. [News] stand-ups perform terribly, unless they’re videos of anchors goofing up on air. Then that’s YouTube gold.

ACTIVELY BUILD AN AUDIENCE

Amy: Quality isn’t a critical component of video going viral. Having a dedicated fan base is sometimes more important than quality. One thing every creator should strive for is to build a fan base which asks people to subscribe. The first 24-48 hours after posting a news video is very important.

Collaborate. Partner with other video creators through cross-promotions. Adding metadata is important also. The thumbnail and title must have substance behind them. They must be clear and content must match, and every video should have annotations asking users to subscribe.

Bianca: Vice does a pretty good job of reporting on news and getting their videos viewed widely. But they also have a strong YouTube following, and that’s more of having a large fan base to begin with than having them go viral as a fluke.

Make sure you get your videos published somewhere, and let your audience know why they should watch it. Keep pitching.

CONSIDER THE WAY AUDIENCES INTERACT WITH NEWS ONLINE

Andrew: Some news videos don’t approach the process as a conversation. When you create something for the Internet, you’re creating something for people to interact with. It’s not a one-way thing. Figure out what they’ll interact with. Create something that will resonate and contribute to the overall conversation.

Amy: There’s a trend around “infotainment” or “newsertainment” that is a good explanation of what’s going on in the world. ‘Explainers,’ we call them. They have a utility factor. You know you’ll be better off watching it. It makes you feel smarter, and people like that.

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