Three things the new YouTube champion tells us about going viral

Last week I got asked onto the BBC to explain just how Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again music video could possibly have managed to overtake PSY’s Gangnam Style as the most viewed YouTube video of all time. But overtaken it it has, with more than 2.93 billion views, compared with the 2.91 billion of Gangnam Style. “How can this be?” barked the presenter, “Surely it’s just a sad song from a niche genre with no viral traits? Gangnam Style was quirky, it was fun, it had mass appeal. What has led to this video going viral?” 

And therein lies part of the problem. People – consumers and industry professionals alike – have a set interpretation of what a ‘viral video’ looks like, and so when it comes to attracting video views, set about creating just that.

In fact this approach to content creation is not new. Will Smith has long since described how his initial success in the traditional film industry came from a structured approach to production that sought to achieve a set formula for mass appeal: 

“I said to JL [his manager and business partner, James Lassiter] ‘I want to be the biggest movie star in the world,’ and he said, ‘Okay. Well, let’s figure out what that means.’ He went and got the top 10 movies of all time at the box office, and we looked at them, adjusted for inflation and views versus dollar value, and looked at all the different variations. What we found is at the centre, there were always special effects. So it was always special effects, there was always a creature, there was always a love story. So we started looking for movies that had special effects, creatures, and a love story.”

The problem with this approach is that it is back to front. It relies on ‘big data’ to try and second guess what audiences are looking for, and what might go viral, as opposed to focussing on creating quality content and letting the strength of that offering speak for itself from there. For every Men in Black, there’s an After Earth that didn’t do quite so well.

The other issue is that it neglects the human empathy required to truly engage with audiences, particularly in an age of social and sharing, when professional content needs to sit effortlessly alongside user generated conversation. Smith himself admits that in order to create his truly great works, he has often had to add an extra ingredient into the mix: human psychology. “I’m obsessed with trying to put small character dramas into the middle of blockbuster packages,” he told The Hollywood Reporter

In a sense this is what the latest YouTube champion has achieved. See You Again represents a strong piece that, while amplified by its Hollywood connections, ultimately builds its success on quality content.

So what are the key takeaways from this success? I’ve here examined three key points.

1. Do not attempt to go viral

The biggest mistake that I see clients making, in both the media and marketing sectors, is deliberately setting out to cast a net that reaches as far and wide as possible. This dilutes both the message and the strength of the content through which it is delivered. Yes, data is important. But the findings of research must be applied in an analytical way: if they made a bra for the average consumer it would only have one cup. UK comedian Stewart Lee says that if you can achieve a following of 5,000 people, each prepared to pay £10 a ticket twice per year to see your show, then you can make a good living from content. That again is an important message, because it highlights the value of cultivating a loyal audience, rather than a large one, and the way to do that is to consistently produce quality videos – not shoot for a one size fits all one off concept that achieves its 15 minutes of fame. 

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2. Focus on quality content

And of course that plays in nicely to the second key point that Wiz Khalifa demonstrates in See You Again. It is undoubtedly a quality piece of work. The lyrics are strong, the hook is even stronger, it merges different genres of sound and delivers an artistically balanced piece of pop that is just as applicable to a wedding reception as it is to the playlist of a lonely late night flight. Yes, in a sense it has mass appeal, but there’s an art to creating that kind of content that cannot be achieved through data science. 

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3. Provide a human face

And last but not least, the missing ingredient: human psychology. Many people belie that Gangnam Style has fared so well in the YouTube charts over the years because of its quirkiness, and that is certainly a contributing factor. But one of the things that the video in particular does really well is to break down the fourth wall between content creator and consumer, which is particularly important for brands and businesses operating on social media. Here we have a slick looking, professionally produced video, that nods at the ego and high production values of the pop videos of the recent past. And yet there is something ultra-enamouring about the unapologetic, unpolished way in which it is delivered – people can relate to that.

Wiz Khalifa’s See You Again takes this a step further, drawing on subjects of loss and love to which every human being on the planet can relate to. It opens with fast cars and high production values, and then breaks through that to engage you with a genuine human face. This is indicative of the newfound transparency and earnestness with which all content must now operate across social media: we’ve gone from aspirational to relatable, and if you can demonstrate that then your content has every chance of being shared. 

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Being so entrenched within the industry, it’s been fascinating for me to see exactly what people expect from ‘viral’ and how they define it. Ultimately, while mass appeal and one-off trend spotting can give your video a chance of reaching far, this is not a long term strategy. A focus on quality is key to consistent success, and this is what will keep audiences coming back for more.   

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