The Blueprint for Making Viral Videos

By Steve Paddon Dirk Lueth

In his best-selling book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Wharton business professor Jonah Berger offers a blueprint for creating irresistible content that can be adapted to fit everything from blogs to emails to video content. Berger’s six principles, abbreviated as STEPPS, can be directly adapted to help build an audience for video content in a variety of genres, including movies, television series, documentaries and educational/instructional videos. However, to effectively integrate many of these contagious elements, they must be understood and planned for early in the video production process.

Below we’ve outlined each of Berger’s six STEPPS to creating contagious content, with some specific tips and examples that apply to video creators, filmmakers, and new media entrepreneurs.


How to Build Your Audience Using Berger’s 6 Contagious Elements

1) Social Currency: People Care About How They Look to Others. They want to seem smart, cool and in-the-know.

Filmmakers in all genres are harnessing the power of new media to build an audience of fans before their movies are ever released. Sure, it can be easier to generate buzz around your film when you have a big budget or star power attached to it (check out how Ben Stiller used Vine to generate buzz about his upcoming film, Zoolander 2), but any filmmaker can follower Berger’s advice by using websites, blogs and social media profiles to give fans inside information they’ll want to pass on.

Use your website to capture fan email addresses: Benh Zeitlin, Oscar-nominated director of Beasts of The Southern Wild and his filmmaking collective Court 13 Films invited users to “Join the Court.” In exchange for an email address, visitors received inside news on screenings, events, and opportunities to get involved. They got access and Zeitlin had a list of fans who’ve opted in to learning more about his projects. You can take lessons from filmmakers like Zeitlin who were able to build expanded email lists through solid content creation.

Write a blog with insider tips: Director of photography and filmmaker Phillip Bloom started his blog to share the ups and downs of being a freelance cameraman. His honesty and authenticity, plus the tips he began sharing in response to questions, built a loyal audience of fans (his blog currently receives 1.25 million visitors a month) who share his content widely with others.

Avoid “me-centric” social media posts: In the book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, independent film publicist and marketer Sheri Candler advises filmmakers to avoid talking only about their film. “Constant selling is boring and that’s counterproductive: You’re trying to build interest,” she writes. “Think about what interests your audience in their daily lives and why they would be attracted to you as an artist and to your film; then, present them with news and information that aligns with it.”

Post photos from the set or the film to Instagram, upload clips and share them on Facebook, tweet about problems from the set – all of these are great ways to give fans content that they’ll want to share. If you have built up some traction around your content beforehand, these tactics will prove even more fruitful.

Electronic circuit with abstract head

2) Triggers: Top of Mind Means Tip of Tongue. Consider the context and grow your habitat so that people are frequently triggered to think about your product or idea.

There are a number of different ways to use psychological triggers to market a product or service (kissmetrics has an excellent list here). But for video creators especially, building anticipation is an effective way to build your audience for an upcoming content release. And when they see the great content you have to offer, they’ll convert to long-term fans.

Set a release date. Just because you’re not a big studio doesn’t mean you can’t set a release date for your video content. Publicize the date on your website, blog and social media to give it the feel of a real event. Even when your name isn’t in front of them, your audience will associate the date with your brand and become excited to see the new post.

Release content only on certain days of the week. If you create and post content more frequently, say once a week, consider only posting on a certain day. Make sure your audience knows which day they’ll get a new video, and they’ll begin to associate that day with your brand.

Tease your fans. In order to get fans excited about the upcoming release of Curse of Chucky, Universal Studios teamed up with Brazilian variety show Programa Silvio Santos to set up this bus stop “prankvertisment” to promote the new movie. The clip of the prank ended up going viral, effectively tying every bus stop movie poster in town to the prank, and thus generating even more excitement for the movie itself.

Since bus stops are found in just about every city, the opportunity for a trigger in this instance was very high. Once the video went viral, Universal could then could blanket the city with posters and everybody was reminded of the specific prank, the feeling of being scared, and a desire to see the movie (if they were horror fans). Keep in mind that a prank like this is well within the budget of virtually any filmmaker. All it takes is a little creativity (and in this case – a good sense of humor).

Woman with arms raised at sunset on the beach

3) Emotions: When we care, we share. Emotional content often goes viral.

Producing “emotional” content doesn’t have to mean tugging on your viewers’ heartstrings. Time Magazine’s list of the top 10 viral videos of 2014 doesn’t contain a single tearjerker, which is good news for video producers creating a variety of content.

Make ‘em laugh. The hit ABC series “Scandal” released a teaser trailer for its fifth season featuring some very sexy scenes between the show’s male and female leads (played by Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn). With over 350,000 YouTube views, the trailer was a success by all accounts. But the network scored many more viewers when it featured two of Scandal’s less glamorous characters, unstable former assassin Huck and would-be assassin Quinn Perkins, threatening a not-very-frightened Gonzo to promote the Muppets’ return to television. The trailer’s use of humor (and clever promotion of both shows’ upcoming seasons) registered half a million views in just over 10 days.

Inspire. For an example of video content that’s nothing short of, well, inspirational, look to Kid President (a.k.a. Robby Novak). Video creator Brad Montague didn’t set out to create a viral sensation; he simply wanted to introduce more good into the world. And he did. To date, Kid President’s most popular installment, “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You,” has over 36 million views. Audiences responded to the simple sincerity of Kid President’s upbeat messages, and SoulPancake, a creative media channel started by actor Rainn Wilson, picked up Kid President’s channel, helping bring it to a wider audience.

Everybody likes to like on the social networks - Like concept

4) Public: Built to show, built to grow. The more public something is, the more likely people will imitate it.

To illustrate this principle of social proof, Berger tells the story of how Apple differentiated itself in a crowded mp3-player market by making its earbuds white instead of the ubiquitous black, thus allowing potential customers to instantly identify iPod users even when their devices were hidden in pockets.

In a marketplace crowded with video content, people will tend to download content that others are downloading. For video content creators who don’t have a tangible product to put into a consumer’s hands, social proof will most often take the form of views, likes and shares on your content and social media profiles.

There are a number of ways to increase your social proof (and increase your audience), including enticing a viewer to share information about your video on their social networks in exchange for unlocking full access.

trojan horse head Gabriel

5) Stories. Information travels under what seems like idle chatter. Stories are vessels. So build a Trojan Horse.

No matter what kind of video content you’re creating – movies, television series, educational/informational, documentaries and so on – you’ll have greater success building and sustaining an audience if you become an expert at telling amazing stories.

What motivates you to do what you do? This is where having a website and blog devoted to your video can really pay off. Give an audience a reason to view your work by sharing with them the reasons why you created it.

Jennifer Phang, director of Advantageous, a sci-fi film screened at this year’s Sundance Festival, used a community forum on her website to encourage conversation about the film.   

If a blog is too time-consuming, make sure you’re working to continuously update social media profiles with images and news that tell the story of the making of your film or the reasons behind it.

box clough

6) Practical Value: Package your knowledge and expertise in a way that people can easily share.

If you’re producing educational or instructional videos, take a lesson (see what just happened there?) from popular young adult novelist John Greene. He and his brother Hank created the CrashCourse YouTube channel where they post 10-15 minute videos about a variety of subjects, including history, ecology, biology, psychology, and more, aimed at an audience of viewers ranging in age from middle school to college.  

To keep the content easily digestible for short attention spans, they’re deliberately high energy and humorous. Subjects that are more complex than typical lessons are taught in a series of shorter parts.

CrashCourse videos are free, making them wildly popular with students and teachers, and the brothers encourage sharing. According to Forbes, the channel grew from 350,000 views to a record high of 1 million views just in one month from the beginning of April to the beginning of May. The free model doesn’t stop the brothers from making bank: donations to the show average over $32,000 each month!

Final Thoughts

The 6 contagious elements should not be considered a checklist – it is very unlikely that you will be able to cover every aspect. However, the more contagious elements you are able to organically implement (meaning not forced) into your content creation and editing efforts, the better chance you have of the content getting the word-of-mouth sharing. It’s not a guaranteed recipe for success – there certainly are influencing factors out of your control. However, the better you do with the ones you can control, the better chance you have of your content becoming virally distributed.

Content goes viral for specific reasons. The better you understand these reasons, the better your chance to achieve viral distribution of your content. 

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