How to Make a Viral Video

Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

This spring Berklee hosted its first-ever Hack Day. Partnering with YouTube, the College presented this half-day long information series to teach students how to create successful content on the Internet’s greatest homemade video-sharing site. With its record of online video success, Berklee has been named one of Google’s nine “YouTube Ambassadors” and is an institutional pioneer on the Tube. I left the lectures that day with a bag full of valuable tips on how to make material go viral. Here is what I learned:

Know Yourself

  • Developing and maintaining a consistent, one-of-a-kind persona is key to success. Nils Gums, Berklee alum and manager of pop duo Karmin, advocates finding your “Purple Cow”. In other words, what makes you uniquely interesting? Your character should be easily identifiable, such that it can be summed up in 3-4 words like “Asian Dude Dancing” (Psy – Gangnam Style) or “White Girl Speed-Rapping” (Karmin). People want to see the same basic act each time. Just remember, be yourself and make sure you’re comfortable in whatever way makes you stand out.

Connect with Your Audience

  • You must identify the people you are trying to target. Who are they (age, gender, race, employment)? What are their interests? AJ Rafael, former Berklee student and claimant of almost 100 million views, explained that he found a niche among Asian Americans on YouTube because of a lack of cultural presence in popular media. These viewers became a market for him to promote his music.
  • Cater your videos to the tastes of your viewers. What attracts them? The most important part of your video is the first few seconds, where you must either immediately capture your audience’s interest or be prepared to lose their attention and future views. Play around with having a signature greeting such as “Hey, what’s up guys, this is…”
  • Interact with people who watch the video. It’s a great idea at the end of a clip to speak directly to the viewers and ask them to do something. Ask them questions, encourage them to check out your music on iTunes, to watch other videos, or to follow you on other your social media accounts. This call to action has proven effective for Ellen DeGeneres Show guest and Berklee student Charlie Puth, who shared that people buy his music on iTunes after watching his videos.
  • Treat your viewers like you would your friends. It’s important to keep in good touch with them and to have a reliable stream of content coming their way. Reply to their comments and take their suggestions into account.
  • Be able to constantly adjust. Look at people’s comments to learn what they like and don’t like. If people are being overly negative, you can always disable or “turn off” the comments.

Be Professional with Your Videography

  • Berklee student and seasoned videographer Ben Meyers emphasized following the “rule of thirds”. This means that one should be able to split your video into three sections on the screen, and that the important objects and people in each scene should fit into one of the thirds, horizontally and vertically.

    Berklee College of Music logo, circa October 2010
    Berklee College of Music logo, circa October 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Consider the lighting. “Soft” lighting is what professional photographers use for portrait shots and what generally makes people look most attractive. You can achieve this by wrapping parchment paper around a light bulb or by simply shooting outside on a cloudy day. This type of light does away with hard shadows that can be unflattering.
  • More expensive is not necessarily better when it comes to cameras and video editing. iPhones have high enough quality lenses to shoot a video for YouTube (just make sure to film horizontally to avoid an undesirable “tunnel” look when uploading). For editing, iMovie is more than sufficient. You don’t need a super pricey machine when starting out; wait until you’ve gained some momentum to invest in something bigger. As far as props and setting, all you truly need is a camera, an instrument (if you’re doing music), and an actor.

Be a Smart Video-Poster

  • There are definitely better times to publish your videos than others. For example, a great time to post a cover of a song is when there is hype. If a song has been playing on the radio but does not yet have a music video out, that’s an optimal time to catch surfers looking for a listen. Think about when there is interest in the air for your content and seize that moment. Doing covers of famous songs is always a smart way to garner views when you are starting out.
  • Use tags effectively. Ryan Nugent, lead strategist of partner development at YouTube’s Next Lab, explained that users are penalized for inappropriately using tags, meaning it’s not better to use every single tag you can think of to promote your content. Accurate and effective tagging will put your video higher up on the YouTube search engine and the related video list.
  • Think about your video title. Come up with something catchy that people can’t resist looking at. For covers, this formula will get you more hits: “Name of Song – Famous Artist (Official Cover by You)”.
  • Use annotations. These little notes that pop up while your video is playing significantly increase viewership.
  • Make content only as long as you think people will actually watch. Popular media is based on a short attention span.
  • Diversify your portfolio: create videos of cover songs, do funny skits, play an original piece, or do a how-to video. Any way you go about it, it’s a good idea to have a lot of content and a variety of it. That way, when one of your videos goes viral, your other videos will get views as well.
  • Covers by Karmin are an excellent illustration of good titling, annotations, simplicity, and a call-to-action at the end:

Observe Others

  • Watch and analyze clips of YouTube sensations to see what they do consistently. Identify users you might want to emulate and capitalize on the wealth of knowledge you can glean by simply watching them. There is definitely something in there that makes them popular.

Success on YouTube is a lot like that in the music industry; to the average person, it’s as mysterious as it is random. Fortunately for amateur users like me, suggestions from these YouTube giants have given invaluable direction and a foundation to begin the journey. Many thanks to Nils Gums (YouTube @karmincovers), AJ Rafael (@ilajil), Charlie Puth (@CharliesVlogs), Ben Meyers (@hugio55 or @BenjaminMeyers), and Ryan Nugent for their expert advice, and to Berklee College of Music (@BerkleeCollege) for organizing this event. Remember: Find your purple cow, connect with your audience, and consider details about what you post. Good luck, and see you at the top!


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