The secret to how I went viral

I made a viral video. In 2016, I made a video that got more than 300,000 views in just five days, and I did it with absolutely no YouTube following. In this post, I’ll show you exactly how I did it, and I’ll even tell you the biggest secrets about how I got the video featured on Good Morning America, a huge U.S. morning show on ABC, and on Mail Online, one of the most-visited news websites in the entire world.

First of all, here’s the viral video, which I published in May 2016.

I have to ask: did you watch it? If not, please do, as it will help what I’m about to tell you make a lot more sense (don’t worry, I’m already happy with the video’s view count—I genuinely think watching it will help you understand!)

The original upload has almost 100,000 views as of September 2016, but almost all of those views came within a couple of days after the initial upload. It’s the same with Good Morning America’s upload of the video, which got the vast majority of its almost 200,000 views in the day or two after they posted it. And it’s the same for the other sites that uploaded their own versions of the video. See below for a screenshot from my YouTube analytics, which shows how the views swiftly dropped off after a massive explosion of hits, which is pretty common for a viral video.

How the views dropped off on Brian's viral video
How the views dropped off on Brian’s viral video

So, now that you’ve seen the video, you’re wondering: How the heck did I do that?

If you’ve been making YouTube videos for a while, and struggled to develop a consistent, committed audience on your YouTube channel, you know exactly how frustratingly difficult it is to get people to watch your videos. I’ve been making YouTube videos since 2012, and I even struggle to get my family to watch. (In my defense, I honestly don’t believe my videos are that bad—I’m particularly proud of this one involving a Donald Trump pinata, for example.)

Most people only watch the big YouTubers, who have millions of subscribers, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views on every video. But if you only watch the big YouTubers, you will be fooled into thinking that what they do is easy, and that you, too, can generate the same kind of attention on your channel without too much effort. I hate to be the one to tell you this (no, really, I hate crushing dreams), but you’re utterly, utterly wrong. We all know that even the most successful content creators started out with zero subscribers (as hard as it may be to imagine), but it’s still all too easy to think that their success is easily replicated.

Take me, for example. I’ve been making videos on and off since 2012, and I really began trying to make the best content I possibly could in early 2016. I spent almost all my free time making every type of video imaginable to see what would stick. I made a video where I called people in Sweden and pretended to be Donald Trump. That got 10,000 views, but it didn’t go viral. I made a bunch of videos reacting to Game of Thrones, and they got almost 30,000 views combined, but didn’t go viral, either. I even tried making a giant food DIY video, but that one only got 280 views. The attention I received on my videos was all over the place, and it didn’t help that I only had around 200 subscribers, which is essentially nothing, considering only a small proportion of your total subscriber base actually tune into your videos.

Why, then, was the video I made about my homecoming watched by more than 300,000 people (approximately the entire population of Cincinnati, Ohio)?

There are many reasons videos do, and don’t, go viral. Maybe your video is incredibly funny. Maybe it’s incredibly funny, and based on a current event or trend everyone’s talking about. Maybe it gets shared by the right person, and a ton of people see it and share it from there. Or maybe your video isn’t funny enough, or the timing is off. Maybe you’re the only person who bothers sharing it, including your own family members (can you tell I’m still butthurt?) A viral video is bigger than the sum of its parts, which is why it’s usually impossible to put your finger on the thing or things that made it explode, and show up on everyone’s Facebook feeds.

But we can definitely take some guesses.

How I made a viral video (and how you can too)

Below, I explain how I came up with and made my viral video, in six steps. This is not a guarantee that if you make the same kind of video as I did, it will go viral, as there is always a degree of luck involved (read the last paragraph again if you don’t believe me). But the information I’m sharing below is something most people who go viral online simply do not talk about.

1. I decided on the kind of video I was going to make

How did I guess that a video of me surprising my family after living abroad for more than a year might go viral?

Here’s one my biggest secrets: I didn’t. I had no idea the video would go viral, because that is impossible to predict, for the reasons discussed above. But I had a feeling it would do well.

I didn’t grab that feeling out of thin air. I thought my viewers would enjoy the video because I had seen another YouTuber make a similar video a few years earlier, and I recalled that it generated a great deal of attention. As it turned out, my video would end up getting almost exactly the same number of views as that video, but I didn’t know this at the time. What I did know was that a homecoming video ticks a lot of boxes that plenty of viral videos also tick. First, it’s funny. It’s comical to watch a person get a surprise, and seeing your son for the first time in months, when you had no idea he was coming home, is one of the biggest surprises a parent can get. A homecoming is also something everyone can relate to. Most of us have a family, and most of us understand the joy of seeing a loved one you haven’t seen in some time.

For those reasons, I thought my video would gain traction. I guessed a might get about 5,000 views, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is if you’ve never had a video receive that many views before. As I watched the video go viral (it wasn’t really that simple, but I explain that in more detail below), I realized that to make a viral video, don’t try to make the most original video in the world. Definitely don’t outright copy another video, frame-for-frame, but take inspiration from successful videos you’ve seen before, and try to take elements from them and create a video that is distinctly your own.

Granted, the video I took inspiration from was also a homecoming video, but it was entirely different from mine.

I was able to make a homecoming video of my own because I was already planning on paying a surprise visit home, and I thought it would be a good idea to bring along my camera. That’s important, because when you’re starting out on YouTube, you probably don’t have the resources to set aside a lot of time, and maybe even spend money on flights and other travel costs, specifically for the purpose of making a video. (If you do, you’re one of the lucky ones.) That’s true for all the content you make, and not just ones you think might get a lot of views. Unless you make videos that you genuinely want to make, and have the resources to make them, you’re not going to enjoy being a YouTuber. Believe me.

2. I kept costs down by using a camera I already owned

Click the image above to find out today’s price on Amazon.com. If you can’t see an image, that’s because you have AdBlock enabled.

I’m not wealthy.

I’m definitely not as wealthy as some YouTubers are rumored to be. So I can’t afford to go out and buy an expensive camera in order to film a video. Luckily for me (and you), the camera you use isn’t the reason your video gets seen by a lot of people. I love vlogging cameras, which should be pretty obvious from the name of this website, and if you’re serious about being a YouTuber, it definitely makes sense to invest in a solid piece of filming equipment. But like I’ve said in an earlier post, the best camera you have as a beginner is the one you already own. I have a GoPro HERO Session, so I used that to film my video. (I freaking love that camera, by the way.)

3. I shot the video

I made my homecoming video in the same way I make my other videos. First, I make sure I have all the equipment I need. In this case, I packed my GoPro (well, duh), my laptop, and a cable to transfer my videos to my laptop. I also made sure the GoPro was fully charged, and removed any videos I had left on the memory card. The last thing you want when shooting a video is to run out of space when you really need it, which once happened to me while I was interviewing Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. Weird point to make, but it’s true.

Then I shot the video. I won’t go through the scenes I actually shot, as you’ll know that if you watched the video. But here’s another secret: Always shoot as much footage as you think you’ll need, and then shoot a ton more. I can’t speak for other filmmakers, but when I make a video, I’m not entirely sure what will happen once I try to edit it. That’s why I like to have a lot of video footage to play around with. The more footage you have, the more ways you can tell the story you’re trying to tell. Because that’s what a video is: a story. Whether it’s traveling thousands of miles to scare the bejesus out of your father, or making a challenge video, your video should have a narrative. That’s how you keep people watching.

4. I edited the video, and split it into two versions

When I finished editing my video using Final Cut Pro X, it was almost six minutes long. I realized that this was a problem, as most viral videos are short, and get to the point almost straight away. For that reason, I uploaded two versions: The long version, featuring my journey home, and reactions from my entire family including my siblings, and a shorter version, only featuring my mum and dad, whose reactions I thought were funniest. While the famous literary saying “kill your darlings” is definitely true for YouTube videos, too, I don’t think it hurts to upload multiple versions of the same video. That’s the beauty of having your own YouTube channel—you are free to experiment with it.

At this point, I still didn’t know whether anyone would bother watching. But I did everything I could to convince them. There are two ways to encourage viewers to click on your video, and I used both: A strong title, and a captivating thumbnail. Because I uploaded two videos, I was spoilt, and could try out two versions. However, usually you’ll have to kill your darlings, and pick the absolute best title and thumbnail you can think of, and forget the rest. On the short version, I chose the title: “Parents React To Surprise Homecoming,” and used a thumbnail of my mother’s face as she opened her front door, and saw me standing at her doorstep. And as it happened, that was the version that went viral.

Here’s another huge secret: Videos don’t just “go viral.” That phrase would have you believe that some videos, for an unknown reason, automatically end up on the computer screens of thousands, if not millions, of viewers. It does not work like that.

That’s not entirely honest, actually. If you have a large number of subscribers, the chances that your video will get shared, and seen by people outside of your own fanbase, is substantial. But as you’ll know if you’ve been paying attention, I do not have a large number of subscribers (at last count, I had 351). So in order for my video to go viral, I needed to find another way to put my video in front of lots of eyeballs.

Here’s how I did it.

5. I told the right news publishers about my video

One day, way, way back in the early days of YouTube, the platform featured videos from small creators it liked on its homepage, thus pushing certain users into the stratosphere in terms of overnight success. That’s how British YouTuber Charlie McDonnell got his following—he made a video about tea. Don’t believe me? He said so himself. Charlie’s channel, charlieissocoollike, has almost 2.4 million subscribers as of September 2016.

Times have changed since the old days—big time. YouTube is an entirely different beast now, with loads of the biggest YouTubers complaining that the platform no longer listens to their concerns about changes it keeps implementing, or about problems that have existed on YouTube for aeons. Complaints aside, the fact of the matter is that YouTube now favors content creators who have already made it big, and get tens of thousands, to millions, of views on every single video. It features them in its trending section, puts them in its YouTube Rewind videos, and some are even featured on physical banners across the U.S. as part of advertising campaigns.

These measures are inherently unfair, as they lock out smaller YouTubers from getting the exposure they need. But complaining about it isn’t going to help get your video seen by lots of people. The best way to do that is to put your video in front of people who have the power to put your video in front of more people.

How on earth do you do that, you’re probably asking. It’s actually pretty simple, but the trick is to make sure that the people you share the video with have audiences who would genuinely want to see it. As the video I made was about an Irish guy (that’s me) surprising his Irish parents after spending some time living abroad, I guessed that a bunch of Irish and British publications that frequently publish comical videos and articles about Irish people were a perfect fit. So I tweeted them with my video.

I sent the video to them, just once, on a Monday morning, as I knew most journalists are looking for story ideas during this time, meaning they were more likely to see my video.

I sent publishers the video once. I did not send it to them again and again until I received a response, which is called spamming, and is incredibly annoying.

And nothing happened. I received no reply from any of the news publishers. But then, a day later, one of them ran with my story. And shortly afterward, a second one ran with it, too.

I need to include a caveat here: There is no guarantee that this will work. I have tried this approach with several other videos, and those have barely broken 500 views. Why do I think it worked this time? Because I spent some time looking for places where my video was a perfect fit. For your video, this will be an entirely different set of publications. But to give yourself the best chance of getting your video seen, it is imperative you do some research to find out what kind of people would watch your video, and then find out where those people are.

6. I signed a licensing deal with a social media news agency

At this point, my video had racked up almost 10,000 views, but wasn’t close to blowing up. Here’s my final secret to making my video go viral: I licensed my video out to a social media news agency, which got my video seen by some of the biggest news publishers in the world. The company is called Storyful. It finds and sends content it thinks could go viral to the biggest publishers. After I licensed the video to Storyful, it was featured on Mail Online, and Good Morning America, where it was watched almost 200,000 times. (While Storyful initiated contact with me, it is always looking for videos it thinks could go viral.)

This is not an advertisement for Storyful. Here’s why: I didn’t have to pay Storyful any money to license my video, but I did need to agree to them taking a 40 percent cut of any money I made from deals the company did with news publishers who wanted to use it. That’s a large percentage, but if Storyful hadn’t featured my video, I firmly believe it would not have received the number of views that it did. It made sense for me, because I do not have a fanbase, so my primary aim was to get my video seen, and not make a substantial amount of money from it. If you’re in YouTube for the money, most YouTubers will tell you that you’re wasting your time. I also figured that if the video led to me getting more subscribers, that was an asset I could use when making every other video I ever made.

As it turned out, the video, because it went viral on sites entirely disconnected from YouTube, did not result in a lot of people clicking the “subscribe” button, probably because most people who saw it did not have YouTube accounts. Still, my little homecoming video went viral, and if you’re a content creator, I firmly believe it is an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime.

Because it was awesome.

Even if it did mortify my family.

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