News videos going viral

If I am to believe the endless stream of spam messages we receive on YouTube, there is a secret to making your videos go viral, and the people who know the secret will happily tell you…for a price. Well I’m telling you that there is no secret, but there are steps that you can take beyond just creating interesting content that will get your videos in front of a wider audience.

The first step, a no-brainer, is creating something that people will want to watch. Eric Seals, a photojournalist at The Detroit Free Press, was asked in 2012 to shoot a quick video on his iPhone of a turkey that was harassing a local woman. Seals recognized this as an opportunity for an interesting story, and instead shot it with a combination of camcorder and GoPro, giving viewers a unique up close look that would have been difficult with an iPhone. The Free Press uses Brightcove as their video host, and does does push videos out to other platforms like YouTube. The large audience of the Free Press, combined with social sharing, led the Godzilla the Turkey video to spread organically, getting more than 300,000 views on the first day, according to Seals.

The video’s spread was aided by embeds on national news sites like The Huffington Post, USA Today and Time. Seals told me he did numerous TV and radio interviews in the following days, and that the story was mentioned on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment. There’s no doubt this story would have been interesting even if it was a simple iPhone video, but by going the extra mile with the GoPro and editing that emphasized the humor of the story, Seals turned out a viral sensation. Having “the right kind of video and the right duration” are the keys to going viral, Seals said during a phone interview from his home in Michigan. Keeping the video in the company’s own video player ensured that their branding was seen every time the video was played on another site, and any pre-roll ads associated with the video would have received the increased impressions.

For news outlets that don’t have as big an audience as the Free Press, YouTube offers the ability to reach a worldwide audience. The Cape Cod Times, a much smaller newspaper, recently switched from YouTube to Brightcove as their primary video host, but they continue to post their videos to YouTube as well. Eric Williams hosts the video series CapeCast, and has seen some decent success on YouTube. His most-watched video on the CCT YouTube channel is a profile on a maker of giant swords that is at 1.8 million views.

Williams told me in an email that they use YouTube because the platform “gives video a longer shelf life and youtube videos show up better in search results.” The Cape Cod Times does have an audience of summer residents and vacationers that fall outside the paper’s geographic print distribution, but they are still consumers of the daily news product who may not find an interesting video that they didn’t see on the day it was published. YouTube allows you to reach an audience actively looking to consume video content, no matter the publication date.

We’ve had a similar experience at The Day. Our YouTube champ is a video of police testing the decibel level of a teen’s dirt bike after neighbors complained. We had maybe a few thousand views on our site when it was published, but the YouTube version continues to get 10,000-20,000 views a week for a total of 1.1 million so far.

It’s not a particularly interesting video, but it appeals to a passionate niche audience (dirt bike riders) and presents a controversial issue that 1,600 people have commented on so far. This reach has been completely organic and has occurred long after the story was initially published on theday.com.

We encountered a similar situation with a video tour of a funeral home that we published back in 2008. Again, it had a few thousand views on our site, but has over 1 million on YouTube. This is a case of showing the audience something they can’t see anywhere else. Interest on YouTube built slowly several years after publication, mostly through shares and related videos.

One other viral success story I’ll share from The Day happened back in 2010, and was the result of some intentional changes in my workflow. I was covering the UConn women’s basketball team on the night they would surpass the UCLA men for the longest winning streak in college basketball. I was one of many media outlets at the post-game press conference when coach Geno Auriemma took a phone call from President Obama at the podium. I published the video immediately to YouTube and shared the link on Facebook and Twitter. Because I was the first one to publish this, it was embedded on several news sites, including Yahoo Sports. The video was watched 500,000 times, with 450,000 of the views coming in the two days following the game.

I’ve heard the argument that posting to YouTube steals audience from your own site, but I haven’t found that to be the case. While there may be some overlap, the YouTube audience includes many more people who will never find their way to your site. To counter any concerns, we usually wait at east a few days to send a video to YouTube. YouTube’s partner program give you the opportunity to earn revenue, though it’s considerably less than you could earn on ads served through your own video player. We’ve found YouTube revenue to be around $1-2 per 1,000 views.

So what are the lessons here?

  • You’re not always going to find a turkey on a rampage, but having an animal in your video never hurts. Or more broadly, as Williams put it, “find cool stuff and people and have a sense of adventure and goofiness and fun.”
  • Passionate niche audiences (dirt bike fans, guys who like big swords) will watch, share and comment.
  • Letting people see something they can’t always see (inside a funeral home, big swords) will get their attention.
  • Politics will always stir up controversy (Obama) even if you think the video has nothing to do with politics (see the comments on the dirt bike video).

Both Seals and Williams stressed sharing videos via social media. Seals said he has been experimenting with breaking longer video projects into 15 second versions for Instagram. When you look at what millions of people will watch, it can be a little depressing. Seals expressed disappointment that “things that matter, and things that move people…never get as many clicks.” Williams suggested not spending lots of hours producing something that few people will watch. As journalists, I think we want to work on stories that we think are important, but it is also important to cater to your audience sometimes, and give them something that will capture their attention. In the long term, I hope this will pay off in more eyeballs on the serious, more crafted projects.

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