Ah, the great mystery of viral content. I still remember the panic and helplessness I felt when, back during one of my internships, my boss asked me to "make a viral video." After all, I was in college and therefore knew exactly what would "hit" -- right? Right?
Well, not exactly. (And I didn't succeed in making a viral video.) Unfortunately, there's no tried-and-true formula for virality -- but it's still fascinating to look at content that does go viral and learn exactly how that happened.
Here at HubSpot, we have our own YouTube "celebrity" of sorts: Jill Fratianne. The partner channel manager often creates YouTube videos of her two Great Danes (Luke Skywalker and Laya) that rack up tons of views and even a few placements on Animal Planet. One of her videos has over 1.6 million hits as of this publish date:
Yes, that's Jill in a gigantic marshmallow costume. She and her husband Dave used a smartphone to record this video on the day of HubSpot's Halloween party. That music you hear? It's the Ghostbusters theme song, which Dave played live from a second smartphone while recording the video on the first phone. Jill uploaded the video directly to YouTube with no editing, posted it on her personal Facebook Profile and the Page she made for her dogs, and that was it.
Not exactly a top-notch production quality or wide-spread distribution strategy -- and yet the video was a huge hit.
What happened? And what advice does she have for the rest of us? I sat down with Jill to get to the bottom of her (well ... Luke and Laya's) YouTube fame.
The whole reason Jill created a YouTube account is because, as someone who coaches clients on inbound marketing all day every day, she considers it her civic duty to understand the various social channels. She didn't particularly love writing, so video was her gateway into hands-on experience with inbound and social media marketing.
She chose to make her dogs the stars because she figured people would find it as funny as she and Dave do. "Great Danes are funny and awkward and scared of everything, and that's why I made the videos. I'm a little, five-foot-tall woman who lives with horse-sized dogs in my house. It's funny!" And for her, capturing her dogs' moments of hilarity on video came naturally.
So that's exactly what she did: Every time Luke was being funny, Jill whipped out her smartphone and recorded a video. When she thought the video was funny, she'd upload it to YouTube, and then post it to both her Facebook Profile and her dogs' Pages. When she didn't think the video was funny, she just wouldn't upload it. It's very spur-of-the-moment, she told me -- for example, she tried to make a video the other day of Luke's baffling inability to catch a dog toy, but it "just wasn't funny." She goes with her gut on these.
But her gut has never been able to predict which videos have viral potential. She tells me she never had any idea which video would hit -- her strategy was to keep putting out funny videos in the hopes that, one day, they'd gain some traction.
Jill started making these YouTube videos over two years ago, and many of them never made it to more than a few hundred views. But her first claim to fame came from an unexpected place: It turns out that Animal Planet found her videos pretty hilarious. "I got these direct email messages on YouTube from Animal Planet asking if they could put Luke on their TV show Bad Dog." The show is basically just a compilation of home videos of dogs being bad. Here's the first video they wanted to use:
Jill jumped on the opportunity, and Animal Planet featured the video above, which has over 15,000 views as of this publish date, on Season 2, Episode 6 of Bad Dog. Luke's been on the show another two times for two other YouTube videos from Jill's channel.
But 15,000 views isn't much in comparison to the one that hit 1.7 million views. I asked Jill to tell me more about that special experience.
The Making of a Viral Video
Again, Jill never knew which of her videos might go viral, if any. But as a Great Dane owner, she knows that some of the most hilarious content comes from Luke getting scared. You see, while Great Danes are one of the world's tallest dog breeds, they have the reputation for being scared of pretty much everything. "Luke is scared of my toothbrush," says Jill. "And when I pull down the iron to iron my clothes, he'll start freaking out and running around in circles."
And huge dogs getting scared by small things is a recipe for hilarity -- and, potentially, virality. That's why Jill and her husband were ready to hit "record" as soon as Jill put on her huge, outrageous marshmallow costume for Halloween. "I knew Luke was going to freak out," Jill told me. "I told Dave, 'We have to catch Luke's initial reaction to the marshmallow costume for YouTube,' because I knew it was going to be funny."
All it took was one take. Then, she uploaded the video to her YouTube channel, posted it on her Facebook Profile and her dogs' Page -- just like she would with any other video. That was it.
At first, it racked up a few hundred views from her friends, family, and the 50 or so people who'd subscribed to her YouTube page. Then, someone -- she doesn't know who, but suspects it was one of her YouTube subscribers -- shared it on Google+, and it climbed to around 15,000 views. On November 17, almost three weeks after she first posted it, she noticed the video started racking about 100,000 views per day, but she couldn't figure out why. "Then my friend texted me, 'Your dog just made the first page of Reddit.' Then, it went crazy."
On the same day it landed on the front page of Reddit, Barstool Sports published the video (warning: NSFW) to their 1.1+ million daily website visitors. While she isn't 100% sure, she thinks Reddit is the reason the video went viral in the first place, and then Barstool Sports picked it up.
Ever since starting the YouTube channel, Jill and Dave have actually been stopped by strangers who recognize Luke from the videos. "Dave was walking along Hampton Beach recently, and this girl went up to him and said, 'That looks like the dog from Bad Dog!" A woman in San Diego recognized Luke from the viral video: 'Oh, I know your dog, the one with the marshmallow woman!' And even at the recent HubSpot Christmas party, I was reminded how much people are attuned to social media. It wasn't 'Hi Jill;' it was, "Oh my God, your dog!'"
Using Her Experience to Help Others With Inbound
Jill talks to clients about her experience with creating videos, with Animal Planet, and with watching one of her videos go viral. "I use them to talk about inbound marketing and using a social channel you enjoy," she told me.
I asked her what advice she has for people just getting started with content creation with little to no previous experience, which is where she was when she first created her YouTube account two years ago.
The first thing she said was, "Don't be intimidated." Creating content on the internet for all to see can be frightening, especially if you're not used to allowing yourself -- or your business -- show a little personality. That's why Jill suggests starting with a channel you enjoy, and then expanding from there. For example, she started with YouTube because recording videos is more natural to her than writing, but she "markets" her videos on Facebook and has since begun experimenting with writing and blogging.
She also recommends optimizing content for keywords you think your audience is searching for. In Jill's case, she makes sure to use the term "great dane" in the title or tag of every one of her videos because she knows people who want to watch Great Dane videos are searching for that term.
Last, she cautioned against planning paralysis. "A lot of people get too caught up on creating a detailed strategy and plan for content," she said. "While having a strategy is certainly a good thing, at the end of the day, the most important thing you can do is get into a cadence of creating, creating, creating. Then, one day, maybe something will get picked up."