Ever since its inception in 2005, YouTube, the world’s largest video-sharing site, has changed the face of the music and entertainment industry. Spawning pop sensations like Justin Bieber and Charice, YouTube has been recognized as a way to kick-start one’s music career and has supported the emergence of dozens of other new artists, including David Choi, Sam Tsui and Christina Grimmie.
But it hasn’t been all fame and glory for those looking to make a name for themselves online. Last March, California teen Rebecca Black shot to YouTube notoriety for her single “Friday,” which received over 167 million hits and thousands of comments – most of them negative. Listeners blasted the song for its inane lyrics, while Billboard damned its vocalization as something “straight out of Auto-Tuned hell.” Despite being an absolute flop, Black’s single highlighted how easily an ordinary video can “go viral” online. But with tens of thousands of videos uploaded on a daily basis, how are select clips able to attract the eyes of the average user and surface to the shores of global popularity? What is the genuine secret behind the success of YouTube viral videos?
What YouTube viewers want is uniqueness, and that is what most YouTube musicians strive to offer. For example, a cover duet by Sam Tsui and Christina Grimmie, offering a much more serene and measured version of pop star Nelly’s “Just a Dream,” attracted over 30 million hits. The vocal talent of both singers merged with a fresh and original cover was exactly what millions wanted to see, with one popular comment stating, “Grimmie’s version’s much better than original. I really love her!”
With the increasing popularity of social networking, users can now share their favorite new videos online among friends, and that is how videos go viral. Users simply recommending videos with a comment stating, “The best version of this song EVER!” could easily attract the curiosity of friends, who then proceed to check out the new video. The friends may then go on share the video with a whole different network of friends, spreading the word with a viral effect.
The term “viral video” is often linked to videos that become a popular hit by pure accident. However, viral marketing, a term coined by Harvard Business School graduate Tim Graper, is a business approach that can alter viral success to no longer occur by mere coincidence.
Dan Greenberg, co-founder of viral video marketing company The CoMotion Group, posted on technology start-up blog TechCrunch that viral marketing services are essential to the success of many online videos. He stated that “our clients give us videos and we make them go viral. Our rule of thumb is that if we don’t get a video 100,000 views, we don’t charge.”
Greenberg went on to say that out of six videos taken, they all “made it into the Top 5 Most Viewed of the Day on YouTube and the two that went truly viral (1.5 million views each) were No. 1 and No. 2 Most Viewed of the Week.”
While viral marketing has enabled people to create the next sensation, viral success can also be attributed to the fact that users attempt to give viewers what they want to see: a fresh approach and something completely out of the ordinary. The captivating lure of the YouTube spotlight has led to countless users attempting to get their videos to go viral by doing their own thing. Among these include the creation of random comedy videos (NigaHiga) to cooking the perfect junk meal (EpicMealTime) and even showing off the impressiveness of various weapons (RussianFPS).
From a scientific perspective, viral success has its own socio-psychological influence. Jonah Berger, an assistant professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study on the viral success of “Charlie Bit My Finger — Again!”, the most popular amateur YouTube video at that time, with 355 million views. The video, which features a kid biting his brother’s finger, became an unexpected hit. In his study, Berger explains that its popularity has to do with the “visceral emotions it arouses in viewers.” The study yielded that “the popularity of such videos is rooted in the way they excite the body, inducing a spectrum of physiological changes”. Berger continues to explain that such physiological arousal causes people to become more likely to share information, which can be associated to the video’s success.
Moreover, another aspect discerned by Berger was the presence of a strong desire that came to share emotions. “If I’m angry, and then you get angry, we can bond over what we’re feeling,” Berger says. Such a study could explain the success of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” which went viral over two common emotions: disgust and displeasure.
David LaGuardia, author of “Trash Culture: Essays in Popular Criticism,” was quoted by the BBC saying that such videos were successful because “it’s an easy target, because we’re cynical and we can unload all of our malice on its stupidity.” In truth, the success of viral videos will always be credited to how effectively one can meet the demand of viewers. The moment you capture a video that successfully reaches the underbelly of our psychological emotions can you genuinely produce a video to attain viral success, and be enthusiastically viewed and shared by millions worldwide.