The Secret to Making “Viral” Content

On March 18, 2014, in public relations, by Barbara Nixon
Photo Credit: "Zombie Girl" by Maryann Bates

Photo Credit: “Zombie Girl” by Maryann Bates

First of all, there’s no such thing as “making viral content.” There’s only “making content that goes viral.” That said, here’s the secret: as PR pro Shel Holtz often says, “it depends.” In general, if your content has more than a few of the following, it’s more likely to go viral.

  1. It’s been promoted by you in multiple places online.
  2. It’s been promoted by you many times, and at different times of the day.
  3. It has relevant keywords in the headline/title/filename/tags that people may be searching for at a certain point in time.
  4. You’ve directly asked others to share it, and they have.
  5. You’ve linked from other popular content of yours to the new content.
  6. It’s funny.
  7. Someone famous (or at least “Internet famous”) shares your content.
  8. Or, you’re lucky, like my friend Eden Spodek. She recently captured some video of Billy Joel flubbing the lyrics to his famously tongue-tripping song “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and posted it on YouTube soon after. An editor for Rolling Stone had heard about Billy Joel’s botched lyrics and searched YouTube to see if anyone had video of it. Eden’s video was the first one he found. He wrote about it, and as of March 18th, the video now has nearly a half million views.
    • UPDATE from Eden Spodek: “Okay, so maybe I got lucky and there were several other videos of the same thing that may have had better production quality but I did use tips 3, 6 and 7. I suspect tip 3 was most important in helping Andy Greene from Rolling Stone find my video. He was nice enough to let me Twitter interview him about it and I share it on a subsequent blog post. Thanks for sharing it some more and best of luck with your Genghis Grill YouTube challenge.” My apologies to Eden for making it look like luck was the only thing that made her video go viral; that wasn’t my intent.

And here’s what typically doesn’t work:

  1. Tagging your content with irrelevant (but popular) keywords. You may get some traction this way, but it’s unlikely that people will share it. In fact, they will likely be irritated.
  2. Posting once, hoping for immediate pick up.
  3. Irritating your followers/friends by incessantly promoting your content. People will tire of you, and stop “listening” to what you have to say.

When I made my video commercial for Genghis Grill, I aimed to do what works and avoid what doesn’t  (see above). Within a day, I had 500 views on my video. Because I used Bitly to create a custom URL for the video, I can see that a great majority of the clicks on the link come from Twitter, a bunch from Facebook, and virtually none come from the QR code I created. No surprises there. My next job: create Upworthy-style headlines/links that will drive traffic from Twitter and Facebook (primarily) to my video. Watch the 44-second video, and let me know: what headline would you write for it that might make you and your friends want to watch it AND share it? And if you like the video, please share it. barbara_is_listening

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Plan, shoot, edit and create a short video with the potential to “go viral” about the topic of public relations. The client for this project is your Comm Dept (unless otherwise cleared with me), and the video will serve as a recruitment tool for the client. Students will work in self-selected teams of two to four each. Each member in the team receives the same grade earned for the video.

Students choosing not to do a “Viral” Video have the option of writing a traditional paper on some aspect of social media including, but not limited to, viral videos.

Technical Notes

  • Use a Flip video camera or something similar. (You *may* be able to use the video from your digital camera or phone. Send me a sample if you question whether the quality is high enough.)
  • Length must be between 1-4 minutes (no more, no less)
  • Obscene material prohibited – push the envelope but keep in mind the public relations purpose of video
  • Prominently mention/show the client so viewers know what the video is about if unfamiliar with the client
  • Credits somewhere in the video (preferably at the end) must list all the names of the team members
  • Any music or material used must be done so legally (permission from artist) – provide credit for work used
    o Review Creative Commons licenses on images on Flickr or other image sites
    o Find music at and
  • Write a short description and provide key words to accompany video when it goes on YouTube


  • Understand the audience – inside jokes are good, but not so much if it leaves majority out
  • Be informational while entertaining, consider a humorous or musical approach
  • Use other videos as inspiration, but do not completely copy content or concept
  • Save and back-up all project files often

Sample Viral Videos

There is no “right way” to do this project. Be creative. Do it well.

Popular viral videos can inspire (not copy):

Bonus Opportunity
Each video will be posted on a YouTube channel.  There will also a class competition, with the winners determined on the last day of class. The video that receives the most views on YouTube by the last day of class will get +2 points of adjustment to the viral video project grade. The video in second place with the second most number of views will get a +1 point adjustment to the viral video project grade.

NOTE: Many, many thanks to Kaye Sweetser at University of Georgia, who gave me permission to use her assignment for my class. I have made only minor tweaks to her original assignment (which appears at her So This is Mass Communication? blog.)

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