Why "Doing Viral Video" Is A Complete Waste Of Time (And What To Do Instead)


Once you've spent some time understanding online video - how to make it, publish it and promote it, you invariably end up being told by various sources that the holy grail of Online Video is for one of your videos to "go viral" and you'll then enjoy "masses" of free traffic/exposure through the success of your video.

The misinformed echo chamber of bloggers who peddle this advice usually dole out this mantra with references to the many real examples of viral video successes, and then some weak plan of action for (a) how to create a viral video "think of something funny" and (b) how to get the ball rolling "email your list/facebook fans/ad nauseum." The problem, is that this philosophy shows scant disregard for why something goes viral, the varying degrees of effort (and risk) required to create "viral uptake" and most importantly, the resulting benefits once the heat has died down.

What actually is Viral Video?

From my perspective, it's something I watch that's so interesting/unique/funny/disgusting/etc that I choose to do something dramatic after watching it - share it with other people. Whether that's my subscribers or my mother, I'm impressed enough by the content I think it's worth passing on.

What makes it viral though, is if this effect is replicated by hundreds to thousands of people. What's hilarious to me, may be offensive or boring to you, so the degree to which a particular "viral" video will resonate with it's viewers will vary.

The most contaminated conduits of viral videos are the workplace, and colleges. Huge pools of connected people with aligned interests, intellects and internet connections, email and facebook accounts are what turn an outbreak into an epidemic. Successful "strains" of viral video quickly cross organisations and institutions as workers and students expose the content to connections, acquaintences and friends. This proving ground is where the first problem with "doing viral" manifests, which I'll talk more about in a moment.

Where things go super nova, is when one of these corporate cross-pollinations hits a media outlet, or influential blogger/social media influencer. Should just one of these publications (say 50k+ audience) share a viral video with an engaged subscriber base, it's like dropping a vial of ebola in JFK.

Audiences seed, me-too newspapers, bloggers and wannabe influencers relay the content to their audiences, and penetration is achieved.

Sounds great yes?

Cold Hard Facts

Those proving grounds I spoke of earlier have another key thing in common - boredom. Cubicle workers seeking respite from the last corporate email, or students dodging lectures with - literally - the whole day to do nothing but surf the net as a break from scoring Modern Warfare headshots.

These vastly widespread mental states are primed for rapid-fire, temporal stimulation, especially in the form of 2 minute videos. It should come as no surprise then, that if you look at the most popular videos of all time on YouTube, they predominantly fall in the following categories -

Music Videos. Kids Being Kids. Epic Fails / Folks Being Foolish. 

If you're working for Katy Perry's management team, all power to you. But for the rest of us, there is a problem - Only a handful of the very top of videos in Youtube's unimaginable supply of videos have a hope of translating viral success into money. 

Not one of them pre-planned their success.

Take the more recent "Antoine Dobson" phenomena - a viral success based on the Gregory Brother's expert treatment (and primed audience), which led to a complete life change for Antoine and his family, all based off a local news team covering a pretty shitty day.

But this kind of stuff is mass-media, popularist "entertainment" that is pure luck. 

Step down a level, and you descend into the extremely well funded layer of corporations trying to create this stuff with a budget. Again recent, Old Spice's commercials are your best example. Time, money, incredible imagination and even more incredible execution (both in the videos and the marketing) created a phenomena. The team behind Old Spice are literally, the best in the world, but they still took risks. I doubt many of them were convinced they were spending wisely at the start.

Beneath this, the few cases of corporate/small business success are nearly all in the "great idea and luck" department, and that's really the biggest problem. Trying to anticipate what people (in mass) will want to share, what journalists will want to write about is like knowing what the stock market will do. 

It's mentally draining, creatively draining, and invariably ends up draining more time and money than you anticipate because of the complete unpredictability of the viral medium.

Distribution Costs

The worst mistake people make is believing viral videos will "go viral" with a handful of views, that those few viewers will ALL share the video, and their connections will replicate with hardly any attrition. 

The reality is inverted. The minority will share (usually less than 1% on a really good video) and that percentage applies (and thus diminishes) down the line. 

Making the gamble on launching a viral campaign therefore requires a decent sized audience, and the resources to connect with influencers with significant audiences who may choose to share with their audience - and reaching those influencers is an entire blog post in itself.

If you take a "bet the farm" approach to viral video, this is really where your nerves get tested - how much money will you spend, how much time and resources will you invest in trying to broaden exposure, before you accept that the virus just isn't strong enough to create an infection?

Return On Infection

Should your video cross the tipping point, this is the greatest paradox of viral media - the bigger the response, the lower it's value.

The more successful a piece of viral media is likely to become, the less value it's audience have to the content owner. This is similiar to the "Digg Effect" that bloggers documented in the last decade, where posts that hit Digg's front page during it's heyday lead to their biggest traffic days, but lowest views-to-subscribers ratios.

This is rubbernecking, pure and simple, and if you consider that bored audience of office workers and college jocks suffering collection A.D.D, it makes complete sense.

This is a big problem - you get the traffic, but not the conversions. Worst case, you PAY for the traffic, and lose on the conversions (that's extreme though).

Dentists and Donations

So what should you do? Well, I subscribe to a slightly more boring, consistent and predictable process that focuses on completely ignoring the baying masses waiting for the next Epic Fail fix. I focus on creating videos that specifically solve specific problems, and use both repeatable Video SEO techniques and Video Conversion Tactics to lure a smaller (but significantly more engaged) audience to that content as a means to introduce them into this website, and the rest of the content and services provided here.

When I think of my approach contrasted against the "viral" approach, I like to think about the attention span of my audience - 

Say you're getting off the bus/train in the morning, you're late for work and all you see in your path is a blockade of brightly coloured charity workers waiting to intercept. Whatever you're disposition, this just happens to be the day where you've seen one particular charity collector 5 days in a row, you've already donated and are still getting hassled. In short, your capacity for giving this guy any attention is minimal to low, you're going to block out most of what he says and simply not respond to his calls to action.

Conversely, you've woken up with crippling toothache, because (like me) you probably haven't seen your dentist often enough, and are now in "I will pay any amount of money for an appointment" territory.

Once in the chair, the dental surgeon has 100% of your absolute, undivided attention. If he tells you to drop your pants and stand on one foot, you may not even question it. You won't like paying the bill, but you will, and you'll schedule the follow up, buy the prescription and any damn thing else he recommends. He owns your ass.

Whilst at extremes, I like to view viral videos like the over-eager charity worker on a bad day, begging for more than the finite 2 minutes of throwaway attention they'll get. So, I strive to make videos that deliver the desperate dental dynamic - you see, the dentist isn't doing anything special other than he's job, but he's indispensable to the right audience, and can convert them at will.

How To Become a Top Dental Surgeon

Viral's a hard game with lots of players and very few winners. Even one "success" doesn't give you a "business" or riches overnight, once the euphoria wears off. Here's how to develop a consistently growing audience on YouTube around your area expertise - 

1. Make One Video a Week

Do this every week, without exceptions. Ideally 2 minutes long. Longer videos mean more effort and less viewers

2. Solve Problems via Keyword Research

Ask you existing audience if you want, but it's more reliable to use Google's Keyword Tool to find keyword ideas that are "problem keywords" with between 5,000 to 50,000 searches per month.

3. Make Video That Solves Problem

Whatever your method, make your video, keep it short and solve the problem. Edit the video well so it's short, sweet and doesn't waste your viewer's time

4. Develop a Conversion Asset

As part of your planning for the video, develop a Conversion Asset (otherwise known as "a bribe"). You'll refer to this in your video as a resource viewers can get if they visit your website/join your newsletter/do a handstand/insert goal here. This doesn't need to be anything fancy, you don't need to write an ebook (remember you're supposed to be doing this EVERY week). I make cheatsheets, design templates, small video clips and other freebies that subscribers can get when they join my newsletter. Every week I add to this I'm making it more and more valuable, so I'll mention the other resources as well as the one directly related to the video (this will convert best).

5. Start strong, End Strong

Start your video IMMEDIATELY stating what the viewer will learn from the video, and TELL them to stick around to the end of the vid to find out how to get a special gift/resource/shameless bribe that will help them. This will LOCK IN a huge amount of viewers who would otherwise disengage from your video's content. Even if it's not your best video, a helpful resource will keep plenty of folks watching, and a good handful skipping straight to the end to see the offer. At the end, STATE clearly what the bribe is, why it will help and how to get it from your website. Leave the last few seconds of your video as a fixed frame that tells people what to do along with your narration "Visit http://compelling.tv to get your free X"

6. Publish Correctly

Follow the steps in my Video SEO for YouTube Guide to optimise your upload. Make sure you use that keyword you started with.

7. Drive Engagement

Embed the video on your blog. Send it to every subscriber, fan and follower you have to start driving the view count. Ask the same people for comments, "likes" and favorites on the video. Write a short 500 word article related to the video (or have it transcribed), then rewrite that article 5 or more times to get unique variants. Publish those articles to accounts on ezinearticles.com, blogger.com, wordpress.org, squidoo and hubpages. Embed your video on those sites where possible, and make EVERY SINGLE ONE link back to your video. 

Use OneHourBacklinks.com to drive a few backlinks to the video, and more to EACH of the articles (these will boost their link value to the video). Do as much of this as you can for each video, concentrate on the key videos for this because it takes time. Use fiverr.com or elance.com to outsource this if you have the $$$.

8. Wait, Repeat and Keep Going

This is all you need to do. Just keep going like this and don't stop. It works. It takes time for links to get picked up, it takes time for videos to gain views, comments and more. 

After 5 months of doing this (assuming your content is valuable) you will have a decent, engaged following on YouTube and plenty of traffic to your site. Your traffic will be a trickly and then a stream, but it will be rich, pure traffic that's tightly focused on your content, not a burst sewage flood of viral unpredictability.

The choice is yours.

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