The Worlds of Viral Video

The Worlds of Viral Video

The Worlds of Viral Video

The term “viral video” comes with a certain preconceived definition for most of us: they are funny, quirky videos that spread across the Internet at a lightning fast pace. However, viral videos have evolved from their comedic beginnings to include a broad range of elements: poignant storytelling, the recording of current events otherwise not broadcasted, and brand launching capabilities.

Viral has changed the way we view video, sharpening our instincts to hone in on what is quality content or not in the span of only a few seconds, or as Arnie Kuenn wrote on his post Viral Marketing Campaign Success, content that is “genuine and believable.” For marketers, this can mean great things when reaching beyond existing customers to the masses, giving companies an opportunity to continually create interesting content for an engaged and curious audience.

PBS “Off Book” took a look at the viral video phenomenom in “The Worlds of Viral Video.” We’ve transcribed the text here which is a valuable resource for both marketers and viewers alike.


I think when people say viral, I think they mostly just mean something that everybody is talking about on the web. Content is sharable when it hits people emotionally and makes people feel like they’re proud to have it be associated with their identity. I kind of call it the new “advertainment.” Make it straight content and make it good enough that they’ll want to pass it around to their friends.

Internet comedy, specifically, I think that everyone’s just getting good at being funnier, faster. Because people have such a shorter attention span for online stuff. That’s what I love about online, is that it’s now created this opportunity where you can make two to five minute videos and have them matter. People remember them. It has a timeless appeal.

One of the interesting things about viral video is there is actually no generally agreed-upon definition. A lot of people like to use the word “viral” to describe something that takes off or is popular. For me what counts as viral is – are people inspired to share with their friends?

Oftentimes, it’s not even the video itself that’s so important. It’s what you think of the video. It’s what your reaction to that video is. We’re entering this new era in media where it’s not just about serving your own needs, it’s about finding things for your friends and the people in your life. People are becoming curators and publishers themselves. It’s what the video says about us when we share it. I like to be the funny guy, so I share the funny video.

So, I think what you’re seeing now, as the web is maturing, social signals are becoming a bigger and bigger part of it and there’s going to be a higher bar for content creators to make things that people actually want to watch and share.

From 2000 until 2006, accidental would be the keyword in characterizing these videos. It’s an extension from America’s Funniest Videos. Some of the most prominent themes would include cats, babies, Schadenfreude movements, repetitive types of music videos, animations and borderline obnoxious songs. About 2006, there was the emergence of a remix artist community on YouTube. Their primary role is to take an existing clip and totally re-contextualizing them, it took the idea of viral culture to the next level. From there, people in the professional fields of video production started taking notice, videos like – “Dick in a Box”, “Like a Boss” – these videos totally took the absurd humor that has been running through internet videos and they just introduced them to a much wider audience. That was a tech point where the mainstream and the internet culture is really converging. How do we one-up from there? That’s the driving engine that this convergence is bringing about.

Viral video has been fantastic for comedy. As much as we try to predict what’s going to be a huge hit on the internet, you never totally know. We can try our best and there are things you can do. For example, I try to always start from a place of relatability, like some topic that some people have experienced before in some way.

With internet video, you just have to cram it. It’s visually like, “Hey, keep watching! Don’t click away! Hi! Hi! Hi!” We try to keep everything very visual, very fast and within ten seconds everyone needs to be aware of why is this funny, where it’s going to go.

Another thing is just, it’s more about the execution of a concept that touches on a cultural nerve. Pop culture – that’s the thing that’s being consumed the most.

We did a “One Direction” parody where we just totally called them the Seventh Sign of the Apocalypse. [song playing: “Seventh Sign of the Apocalypse.”] All the “One Direction” fans were like, “We love it!” As long as you’re covering things that they’re interested in, they don’t care what you say.

People are a lot more likely to share with their friends a video that they feel relates to their own lives in some way. But we’re always surprised by what ends up becoming really popular.

Early on, Brian started looking at YouTube creators and their so-called videos they were making and thought, “Hey, we can do this ourselves.” Initially, they were trying to get free advertising so they could mimic what was going on YouTube. With a gag, or a funny joke, or a cute animal or a baby they could replace their television advertising. “Evian Babies” was sort of the first major, super successful, viral campaign that reached over a billion views on YouTube, just an amazing success. But what they found over time is that these things cost money. So, they’re investing more in it.

Old Spice did hundreds of videos that were funny and made that campaign last over time. What’s interesting, are start-ups out there and some established companies that are using video as their only marketing strategy. The Dollar Shave Club launched, basically, on a funny video. Another example is the OraBrush guy. Their strategy is 100% video.

Videos that appeal to people’s emotions also really work, like the Google campaigns do. Those can be incredibly powerful, but they’re not mentioning anything specific about Google. It’s not just trusting that we can make good content and people will love us for it. But it’s trusting that we can make good content that maybe really isn’t about us. This is about brands creating content that people want to watch. It’s really a revolutionary mission.

I love two to three minutes stories. Storytelling is almost all I care about. Motivation or inspiration behind my video is just whatever I think is interesting in that moment. In 2003, the battery in my iPod died. I was really broke back then so it was a huge deal and Apple wouldn’t replace it. [sound effect: “Apple doesn’t offer a new battery for the iPod?” “No.”] We made a three-minute movie about it and put it online. It really exploded. It got about 5 million views in a couple of weeks, and that predated YouTube. I always try to give it character that’s leading you through the story.

[sound effect: I’m getting a ticket for riding my bike not in the bike lane.] Whether they care about the specific subject matter or not, if they’re invested in the character, it’ll drive them through the videos.
[sound effect: Often there are obstructions that keep you from properly riding the bike on…]
I’m a big cyclist, so naturally I make a lot of movies about bikes. I live in New York City which is this amazing backdrop so it inspires you to want to tell that story. That’s what “Texting While Walking” was.

It’s hard to invest yourself in a generic message. If it’s humanized, if there’s a face behind, it’s something to have a relationship with. So, if I have the opportunity to type a title in using software and it just pops up on the screen, or I can draw the title and then film it, by drawing it and filming it, you’re seeing the human hand. You’re seeing something I actually created. I don’t make movies for them to go viral. I just make the best movies I can and happen to just love three to five minutes. It’s my favorite length for telling a story. Certainly that’s what I love about life more than anything else, is experiencing the world through stories.

We think about viral as entertainment. But we’ve seen recently how powerful and very dramatic events can also spread very quickly. So, all of these trivial rules that we try to assign to what becomes popular on the web don’t always apply. Those videos could possibly lead to a discussion or a bigger debate about an issue, whether it be interracial issues or bullying in school. It’s now starting to affect politics. At the very start of the revolution in Egypt there is a video that was posted of a guy staring down at a water cannon. [sound effect: cheering] It had elements of the Tiananmen idea. There’s got to be a comforting feeling that somewhere someone in the world, other people are seeing the mess that you’re in.

So what we’re seeing is transition from receiving and consuming these videos to talking about the video and starting another chapter. Now people are raising funds and doing things to actually make things happen. When we think back and remember many of these moments, we will remember them through these YouTube videos and that is a very, very different thing.

Ten years ago, it would take six months or something to reach its full viral spread. Eight years ago it took something like two or three months. Then it got down to a week. Now, it’s something can reach their full viral reach within a day or two.

I actually think we’re in this YouTube created renaissance of content. I think it’s cool that we’re in an era now where people are paying more attention to how to get to the funnier thing faster. So it is kind of a game for the viral contest.

I think YouTube is still entirely the wild, wild west. Five years from now, the stuff that we’re seeing online will be entirely different than right now. We’re in sort of this transitional phase. We’re just starting to understand what happens when you open up the power of video to the masses. We’re going to continue to see things that surprise us for the next decades.

Quinn Whissen

Quinn Whissen is the Director of Marketing at Vertical Measures. Quinn directs internal inbound marketing for VM, and develops large-scale content marketing strategies for enterprise-level clients. She has keen insights into both the high-level strategy work and day-to-day implementation that goes into creating digital marketing programs that drive results. She is a Wordpress fiend, a HubSpot whiz, and an Instagram artiste. +Quinn Whissen