Blog Feature

How to Make a YouTube Video Go Viral: Secrets for Product Marketers

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Assistant Professor Hema Yoganarasimhan studies social interactions, social networks, and consumer-generated media. In this blog, she discusses strategies for viral content marketing in multimedia and beyond.

It’s become clear to marketers that online video sharing is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to promote new products or services. But why is it that some content becomes widespread and popular overnight, while other videos flounder with only a few views—regardless of budget or video quality? Everyone wants to learn the secret of what makes a YouTube video go viral. My recent study, “Impact of Social Network Structure on Content Propagation: A Study Using YouTube Data” tackles that very question.

Which Seeds to Sow?

The objective of the study was to understand how to best leverage YouTube influencers and networks for marketing purposes. Who are the right people to connect with, and how do you find them? These people are called “seed agents”: you pick seeds, and you give them information about your product, or samples of the product itself. You then ask them to craft videos about your product, with the expectation that they will spread that information.

I found that the key to creating an effective viral social strategy is to really understand these individuals’ reach through their various layers of connections. The first step is to learn how many friends they have, and how many friends their friends have. It’s all about using mathematical network metrics to help your videos become popular.

Typically, marketers choose seeds because of their online brand popularity: they might have highly trafficked blogs, great numbers of followers, high quality content, or all of the above.  Those things matter, but they’re not the whole picture. You want seed agents with a lot of friends, but it’s equally important to understand how many connections those friends have. For example, if you choose a seed agent with 100 friends, but each of those friends only has 1 or two connections, you’re only going to reach a maximum of 200 people. However, if you select seeds agents whose 100 friends each have 100 connections, your content has the potential to reach 10,000 viewers. The number of people you reach rises exponentially when that second level of connection is incorporated into the equation.

Community Qualities: Tight-knit vs. Open

Another integral part of the strategy is to understand the types of communities involved. If a seed agent belongs to a tight-knit community, they tend to almost exclusively engage within that community; their influence rarely extends beyond that sphere. If you want your video content to go viral beyond the small local community, you need to pick seed agents whose communities are more fluid and open.

Implications beyond YouTube

These strategies are applicable to any type of viral social content marketing, and in fact you can expect that the impact will extend beyond YouTube. The seed agents you choose are also on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, Instagram, Quora, etc. Understanding the reach of your seed agents on YouTube is only one piece of the puzzle- it needs to fit into a wider social strategy. It’s not to a marketer’s advantage to craft strategies too specific to each social media platform, because they only work in isolation. Rather, you want to create a web of influence where each area supports and feeds the others.

Confidence and Control

Traditional advertising is a great way to directly reach a lot of people, but the influence of word-of-mouth information simply cannot be underestimated. If a company tells you their product is good, there’s no real reason for a consumer to believe them. On the other hand, if the consumer’s friends, acquaintances, contacts, or people they trust endorse the content by reposing or reviewing it, there’s a much higher probability that the message will be received positively to the point of sharing and/or purchasing.

The “problem” with social marketing is that the company needs to let go of control. Once the information is out there, they can’t dictate the conversation. You’re opening a big can of worms with the possibility of negative feedback, spoofs, or ridicule, and many are uncomfortable with that possibility.

The positive aspect is that demonstrates a high degree of confidence in your product in order to give up control. It says a lot about the quality of the brand when they’re secure enough to let others do the talking for them. Furthermore, showing an interest and investment in consumer opinions goes a long way toward forging a solid company-customer relationship. Purchasers respond positively when they feel they’re being heard.  

Two Hops

In my opinion, one of the top key takeaways for marketers is to understand how deep your research needs to go when selecting the right seed agents. In former network-based marketing studies, it was put forward that strategists needed to collect as much information as possible on the entire network: counting friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends—it can go on ad infinitum. At a certain point, this approach gets very expensive and time consuming; it’s almost impossible to harness that amount of data, and it can be a tough call to know when to draw the line, especially if you have a ‘more is better’ mindset.

My study demonstrates that it’s only necessary to investigate up to two hops- number of friends, and friends of friends.  It’s much easier to collect information and find the right seed agents if you keep that information in mind. Furthermore, it’s much more cost effective if your strategy is to give each seed agent a product, especially if you’re on a tight budget or if your product is extremely expensive, like a car. You can give the product to 100 people, or you can invest the time and research to finding just the right 10 people, who will in turn spread the information exponentially. Happy marketing!

UC Davis Executive Education develops custom education programs for marketing leaders. For more information on building a custom program, please contact Managing Director Wendy Beecham.

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