The most fun — and still useful — panel I’ve attended at SXSW Interactive so far was Saturday’s How to Create a Viral Video. It doesn’t get much better than the three viral experts that Flux creative director Jonathan Wells brought together:
- Damian Kulash, frontman of rock band OK Go
- Margaret Gould Stewart, head of user experience at YouTube
- Jason Wishnow, director of film and video, TED
The tone for the session was set when Damian Kulash teed up “the definition of viral video”: Boobies and Kitties, which presents the view with 30 seconds of plunging necklines, 30 seconds of saccharine-sweet kittens and 30 seconds of kittens stuffed into bodacious cleavage. With such quality artistic contributions to our cultural good, who needs Quentin Tarantino?
Once we were all laughing, the panelists proceeded to illustrate answers to the 30 million-page-view question: How do you create videos so compelling that your viewers become part of the distribution process?
- Hit people on an emotional level. TEDTalks are 18-minute taped academic lectures, which could easily be “online suicide” but instead have been viewed by 230 million people to date. According to Wishnow, the production quality — shooting in HD, using multiple cameras, actually being able to see details on the supporting visuals — enhances the “talk of their lives” feeling that TED is going for. The real key to viral success, though, is the ideas that genuinely inspire the speakers and their work, he says. Content that taps into viewers’ emotions travels farthest.
- Go for a sense of wonder, optimism and surprise. OK Go’s approach to viral video is to “think of the craziest ideas they can come up with and figure out if we can pull them off,” said Kulash. This has led to masterpieces like “Here It Goes Again” (the treadmill video that inspired a whole host of fantastic spinoffs), “A Million Ways” and the Rube-Goldberg-inspired “This Too Shall Pass,” which recently led to the dissolution of the band’s contract with EMI. Damian’s advice — to embrace cleverness and the element of surprise — jives with recent research out of the University of Pennsylvania about what compels people to share. “The fact is, humans like to share good news. So Debbie Downer won’t work,” said Margaret Gould Stewart. “We are trained to put things in buckets. So when you mix cookie monster with German metal, it’s really funny!” Oh man, is it ever.
- Think about production value. While high production-values work for TED, less high-tech videos can also be an effective content strategy. Your video doesn’t have to be pixel-perfect. It should have appropriate production values, depending on the content and context.
- Have people participate in the things you make — if not in the actual shooting of the videos, then after they go public. Solidify your community by getting into the comments and engaging directly in what’s happening with your content. Create conversation between the creator and the audience, and encourage satire and offshoots.
- Make it easy to embed your videos. More than half of YouTube traffic comes from those who grab a video’s code and tweet about it or integrate it into their Web sites and blogs. “If you don’t make it easy to embed, you are hamstringing your video,” Stewart said.
- Mind your metadata. Embed key search terms into the titles of your videos. If you’re creating parodies, include the same key words in your video’s title as in the original. Surround your video with supplemental material such as additional video material and still images. Paying attention to metadata details will aid with search engine optimization.
To conclude this hilarious session, our esteemed panelists grabbed a video camera and climbed up on top of the panel table to recreate the infamous surprised kitty video with us, the audience, playing the role of kitty. What the result (below) lacks in production quality, it makes up in on-the-spot charm. Viral-to-be, for sure.
Image credit, Merritt Colaizzi