Make Your Videos Contagious, Not Viral

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The following is a guest post from Mark Olsen, Director and Editor of the mental_floss Youtube channel.

Image Courtesy of Mark Olsen

If you want a popular video online, get a cat. I’m not kitten: The Internet, and maybe you’ve noticed this, is quite fond of cats (R.I.P. keyboard cat). Better still, adopt a more exotic pet, such as a penguin, and teach it to go shopping for you. That way, you’ll not only be popular, but you won’t have to go to the grocery store. Invent a dance craze. Take your kid to the dentist. Be Justin Bieber. Or, if possible, combine all of the above.

I’m half kidding.

I don’t know that anyone really has a formula for achieving viral-video status, and if I had one myself, I’d probably be incredibly rich. The list of successful viral videos is an eclectic collection, but they all seem to have one thing in common: they don’t look like they’re trying to be popular. If your only goal is to create a video that gets popular, you’ll probably end up looking like that guy at the party who’s doing something stupid for attention. We all know that guy. We don’t like that guy. Being like him might get attention, but it’s probably not going to be the kind that you want.

So, I suppose the first step is to figure out exactly why it is you’d like to have attention. Is it to be popular? To market a product? To make a ton of money? Obviously there are exceptions, but I would argue that “viral video status” isn’t really all that important in achieving any of these goals. Being a one-hit wonder isn’t a model for long-term (or even medium-term) success. It’s much more important to look at some approaches that can drive a sustainable channel — one that has a smaller, core audience base — that grows steadily over time. Approaches such as these:

1) Treat your audience’s time with respect.
There are, like, a bajillion other things your viewers could be doing, and they are choosing to watch whatever it is you’ve made. Personally, I think anything over 10 minutes is a huge time commitment for the people of the Internet — which is why we’ve tried our hardest to keep things under eight. Obviously this will vary per channel (most keep things under five minutes); just don’t take longer than you need to make your point. Speaking of which…

2) Make a point.
By which I mean, have something to say. Teach your audience something or enlighten them somehow. If someone has an “aha!” moment while watching your video, they’re likely going to want to share it with others. Our most popular videos, for example, have been the ones that people can use to teach or correct others — such as this one about common spelling and grammar errors.

3) Upload content consistently.
Now, I understand that the frequency of uploads varies per channel (there is no way mental_floss could release a daily video like Craig or Grace), but your audience should know when to expect your next video. Once a month? Once a week? Make a plan, and try your best to stick to it — don’t go AWOL. We’ve tried very hard to be consistent in uploading a new video every Wednesday morning.

4) Listen to your commenters.
You’ll probably do this out of habit anyway, but I believe this is a super-important point. Sure, there will probably be some really terrible comments (take most of these with a grain of salt), but there will also be some really great ones that provide awesome feedback. Listen to those commenters — ask them questions and engage in conversations with them, no matter how popular your video is — especially in the early days, when you’re building your audience base.

5) Get off YouTube.
By which I mean, promote elsewhere, too. YouTube videos are not limited to YouTube: They can be embedded on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and just about anyplace else online. On mental_floss, a huge percentage of our views (upward of 30 percent) comes from outside sources.

Again, I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that your audience isn’t a number: it’s made up of living, breathing humans. They choose to watch your videos, and they can just as easily choose not to. Connect with those who have chosen to stay and give them a reason to come back. And if all else fails, the cat idea really isn’t a bad one.

Painting Cat clip by Tropical Force

Mark Olsen is the Director and Editor of the YouTube channel for mental_floss magazine, which has received over nine million views since it launched in March 2013. Follow him on twitter @olsenvideo.

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