Some of the social media mavens would have us all believe that you can't make a viral video on purpose. I'm here to tell you that they are wrong. Lack of intention has nothing to do with it.

My recent interview with Steve Yu illustrated that intention just might be one of the keys to success. Kevin "Nalts" Nalty, acclaimed expert on social media and video in particular, famously claimed that viral was dead for advertisers and marketers "because the odds of a commercial video being seen by millions are nearly insurmountable". I'd say Nalts is half right. The odds are very long indeed, but I think Nalts was looking through the traditional marketing lenses which basically make attempts at going viral dead on arrival.

Recipes of the Master Chefs

Several of the iron chefs of the viral world have revealed their recipes:

  • Nalts' recipe for viral potential is expressed in the acronym STUMP: Shock, Topical, Unusual, Musical, Perplex.
  • Kevin Alocca, of YouTube, spoke at TED about his ingredient list that includes: Tastemakers, Participation, Unexpectedness.
  • Chip and Dan Heath in the classic Made To Stick read out the recipe for unforgettable storytelling with another acronym: SUCCESS. Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories.

A Bold New Dish

I recently spoke with Steve Yu, a documentary filmmaker in Atlanta, about his experience fresh off going viral with his video about Arthur Boorman's incredible transformation and learned a little bit about how he cooked up his video dish along with a lot of insights on the events after he put his video in the YouTube oven. Steve's video is more of a melange of all the three recipes above and it has one extra secret ingredient (and one omission) that does explain the distinction that will allow people to maximize their chance of beating the odds to make a video that goes viral.

Steve Yu's Recipe for going viral:

  • Unexpected: Arthur's transformation is closer to "Unexpected" than "Shock". Arthur goes from wearing multiple braces and using crutches to doing headstands and sprinting. Unexpected, yes. Shocking in a sexy or funny way, nope.
  • Musical: Steve searched a bit for an emotional song and came upon a specific version of the song "Fix You" by Javier Colon. And while he didn't go through the red tape of buying the rights for the video, he did the right thing by crediting Colon and linking to his song on iTunes. Colon himself liked the video so much and his song's incorporation in it that he tweeted the video himself.
  • Tastemakers: Steve had a little bit of luck here and had the help of none other than Tony Robbins, David Copperfield and Nick Jonas tweeting the video. Steve soon noticed that it was picked up by the forefront of internet tastemakers at Reddit where it soon made it all the way to number 1. Looking at the event graph below gives a sense of a chicken-egg paradox between the effects of Reddit and Twitter. Reddit's power in the realm of social taste-making may just be coming of age now and this particular example does indeed show a richer picture where promoters can use multiple channels to create an upward dynamic where it becomes hard to nail down just which one is driving the effect.
  • Emotional: Steve's video was an emotionally-driven underdog story (and who doesn't love that?) It inspired people so much so that Arthur was invited on both Good Morning America and ABC's The Revolution.
  • Story: Steve followed Arthur, along with a bunch of others trying to transform themselves, during the course of his transformation. Pulling a narrative together wasn't that hard. The hard part was the secret ingredient that none of the celebrity chefs mention: authenticity.
  • Authenticity: The story and intent of the video had to be believable. There was no focus on any product or call to action. You have to read through nearly two pages of copy to find a link to the video that Arthur used to aid his transformation. Nothing was being sold except the notion suggested in its title: "Never, Ever Give Up." The selfless intention helped to make viewers willing to share the video with others on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, because the message was such a universal one.

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The Secret Ingredient and The One Left Out

Steve met Arthur and Diamond Dallas Page several years ago as he was starting his film project. The intention of the film was to discover and share the differences that allow some people to transform both their bodies and their lifestyles while others just can't seem to make a substantive go of it. Arthur was one of many subjects who Steve was documenting. Arthur's transformation was so intense and visceral that it would be hard for anyone not be inspired to start a fitness program after watching it. In fact, a whole bunch of people who watched, not only shared it with others, but said to themselves "I want to do that!" and ended up finding Page's website and buying his yoga video to start transformations of their own.

This brings to light what Steve left out. The commercial. He believed that the story he created spoke for itself, and that any type of product promotion would tarnish the message, and possibly even stunt its ability to be seen by as many people as possible. Over 5 million viewers agreed. If you compare an earlier video, created by someone else, that highlights Arthur’s story from several years ago you can see the distinct difference (most notably by the total view count under 200,000).

Steve’s friendship with Dallas aside, I got the feeling that he was conflicted by the fact that his video had such a major impact on Dallas’ business. That’s right, even though the video did not promote Dallas’ workout, sales of Dallas' yoga video spiked dramatically. In the end, Steve’s video did what he wanted it to do. It inspired people to act, even if in this case, it was searching for and purchasing Dallas’ workout program.

More than anything, Steve is a filmmaker on a mission  to inspire people to change their bodies and their lives. He doesn't get anything monetary out of Dallas selling videos. He possibly even put his credibility as a documentarian at risk by being associated with a subject of the film in this way. Steve was ultimately swayed by the possibility of helping others get started on their transformations and put the link to the DVD way at the bottom of the page.  

Ironically, Steve’s Kickstarter effort for his own documentary project still aims to see the same level of viral interest as his short video did. As of July 9, 2012 Steve's has just under two weeks left to go on his Kickstarter campaign. The question still remains, can his recipe be duplicated or not?  For his sake, I hope so. I was inspired enough to talk to him and write this. Maybe after watching the video, you'll be inspired too.

Editor's Note: Always a wild card, CMSWire columnist Stephen Fishman is known to cover a variety of topics related to User Experience and Content Strategy. Check out more of his articles here.