Viral videos, those that garner millions of views seemingly overnight, are a rare breed. They can shock or disgust. Some are inspiring. Many more are amusing. Some are just very different from what viewers expect.
So what's the formula for making a video so irresistible millions of people just have to share it?
1. Be real
We asked Blake Sabatinelli, Digital Solutions Director at WCPO's parent company E.W. Scripps, what future YouTube stars should focus on in their own videos.
"Authenticity is really truly key, especially on YouTube," Sabatinelli said, "It's tied to this ability to break the fourth wall and talk directly to your audience."
The ability for people on YouTube to interact with audiences is unmatched by other media outlets, he continued; this in turn makes the video-maker more accessible to the viewer.
2. Tap into emotions
On a related note, a study by video advertising company Ebuzzing and Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff Affectiva found that emotional engagement is a key part of whether or not a video goes viral.
Their 2013 study measured facial cues for emotions like surprise, happiness, disgust and concentration as people watched the videos and ranked them accordingly. They found that viral videos generated extremely high emotional engagement.
Authenticity and emotion were both key aspects of the video a Northern Kentucky University made earlier this summer. Douglas Gautraud entered his YouTube video in the "My Rode Reel" film contest by Rode Microphones, and he garnered about 400,000 views in a single day. As of July 11, the number stood at more than a million.
But emotions alone aren't going to cut it.
3. Tell a story
As Sabatinelli said, "The principles of storytelling apply: You need a great beginning, middle and end."
To fill that requirement, the action need only be compelling, not necessarily complex. Sabatinelli referenced the "Harlem Shake," (and its many versions) as one example of a simple story arc: The video starts without movement, progresses into furious dancing and then ends with a slow motion shot. Beginning, meet middle and end.
Blogger Karen X Cheng posted a time-lapse video of herself learning to dance over the course of one year on July 9, 2013. Three days later, the video had earned 1.8 million views. Cheng wrote about the success later that month with tips for other would-be viral hits.
She focused on a simple narrative: Awkward dancer learns the right moves over the course of a year. But the video also had to be short enough that people felt fine sitting through the whole thing whether or not they enjoyed it in the end. If a viewer sees a longer time at the bottom, Cheng advised, they may choose not to watch the whole thing for fear of wasting time.
4. Make it look good
Production value counts as well. Although there is theory that video sharing sites don't require professional quality pieces, Sabatinelli said that is definitely not the case as far as racking up views goes.
"They want stuff that looks good and feels good: well shot, in high definition," he said. Even if a video is shot with normal equipment in a person's bedroom, there should be some attention paid to lighting and composition if the video is going to become popular.
There may not be a blueprint for creating an Internet hit, but most viral videos can be classified to some extent.
5. Make 'em react
Funny, weird or quirky, cute, outrageous, and poignant or insightful videos all have potential for virality because they make people laugh or think or react, wrote Steve Strauss in his article, “Make Your Videos More Likely to Go Viral.” Strauss references popular pieces like 2012’s “Gangnam Style” and baby animal videos for offering novelty and warm-and-fuzzies--or both--as in this video:
Strauss advises making your video as visible as possible by choosing a title that’s intriguing. Find a thumbnail that is interesting, as well.
The Guardian offers the following idea for grabbing attention quickly: Use celebrities, preferably within the first five seconds of the video. While actually hiring an actor or athlete for YouTubers may not be affordable for most, Dayton group the Cream Pies still managed to include their own famous face and were even featured on the Ellen show.
7. Spread the word
Cheng admitted to an extensive marketing plan that involved submitting the video to social news sites and bloggers, and companies whose products were featured in the video. She asked friends to share the video on Facebook and Twitter. Sabatinelli also advises organizations and individuals to decide for themselves what "success" means to them in terms of views or comments and to shoot for that first.
"Ask yourself: 'Would I share the video?' Then, 'Would my wife or significant other share the video? Would my wife or significant other's friends share the video?'"
If the answer is 'no,' that may be a red flag.
There is no mold for viral videos, but if you keep your story short and entertaining and then do your part to self-promote, maybe you can be the next person on the front page of YouTube!