Going Viral

I went to a speaker a while back on viral videos and nonprofits that explained this content and its benefits really well.  The speaker, Arik Abel (@Arikabel) was from French/West/Vaughan, an independent PR and communications firm based primarily in the Southeast, so he knew what he was talking about.  He pointed out 3 kinds of content that we usually lump together as “viral content”:

  1. Viral: sharing on a one-many scale
  2. Memes: sharing on a many-many scale
  3. Evergreen content: Content that is perennially being searched for i.e. “How to tie a tie”

Knowing the difference between these three types of content is the first step in understanding what makes a viral video so powerful.  These are videos posted by one person that overnight grow to a substantial amount of views.  To be viral doesn’t always necessarily mean a video is getting 1 million views or a profile on the evening news.  Videos can go viral within a specific community or niche of any size, and have a substantial impact on the people who see the video.

But how do you get something to go viral? There are a few key things to remember:

  • The number one aspect is the content, or as CitizenTube says, “Content is still king.” The video itself has to be seen as compelling for the user by employing storytelling, community involvement in the video-making process, an interactive feature, or  a pop culture phenomenon like a mash-up or flash mob.
  • Timing is the other important aspect.  Hitting on a topic that is hot right now (i.e. March Madness) and tying a video in to this topic will make it infinitely more likely to go viral because it is relevant.
  • As with any online marketing, success comes with knowing which audience this video will resonate most with, and targeting that audience.  Those in the ‘biz call this seeding.  Spread word of the video in relevant social media so that the word gets out and spreads where it is most likely to catch.  Right now, this might be Pinterest or Twitter, depending on the audience.

Viral marketing can be especially powerful for nonprofits, who don’t have the budgets that traditional marketing firms have.  Here are some examples of viral videos in the nonprofit world and why they work:

“It All Comes Back to You”

This was a campaign by the World Wildlife Federation to show that all our actions have an impact on the environment.  It reached thousands of viewers overnight when it was first posted in 2008 via Youtube and other sharing sites.  The reason this video works so well is that it doesn’t resort to normal environmental imagery or content.  The video is a funny string of events that ends with a poignant message and information about the organization, prompting discussion and further research into the organization.

“Pink Glove Dance”

This viral video has reached over a million views on Youtube since it was posted in 2009.  The staff of a hospital in Portland, Oregon made this video to raise awareness for breast cancer throughout their system of hospitals.  The pink glove and messages at the front and back-end of the video were the only references to breast cancer awareness.  The video succeeds because they chose a catchy song that was popular at the time and featured a lot of people who were just having fun dancing.  The message wasn’t preachy or overly-emotional, and it managed to reach a giant audience.


No current look at nonprofit videos would be complete without the video that has caused such a stir over the past few weeks.  Invisible Children released this 29 minute-long video to raise awareness for the violence being perpetrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony.  The video is well-produced, uses current popular music, and has a strong message, thus catching viewers who would otherwise be put off by the long run time.  But the scandal surrounding the video and its misrepresentation of the situation in Uganda and the DRC as well as criticism of the lack of action by the organization have just added fuel to the Kony2012 fire, proving that bad press is still press in the viral age.


Here is my video, perhaps not a viral one:

Filming Ultimate Frisbee