Every video content creator wants their work to have an impact and be widely shared. Although you cannot reverse engineer virality, there are a few tricks you can use to maximise the chances of your video driving engagement and reactions from the viewers.
Jacob Templin is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist who managed digital video teams at Quartz and now works with Thomson Reuters Foundation. He shared his best tips for creating viral videos at last week’s "Making Viral Videos: The Art of Video Storytelling and Content Management" event organised by ICFJ as part of its Empowering the Truth Global Summit.
What makes a video "go viral"?
Virality is when a video is getting popular because people are sharing it, either because they like or dislike it. A few factors can prompt sharing:
- Emotionally resonant content that makes people laugh, cry, get angry or be inspired
- Identity- or issue-driven story when viewers can relate to the person or care about the topic
- Visually stunning images, the wow factor
- Timeliness, like breaking news
- Exclusivity - the only place where you can see it
But the internet is a wonderful place and sometimes all rules are thrown out of the window and a video goes viral for weird reasons.
There is no standard metric for virality. One view on YouTube is not the same as one view on TikTok or Facebook, because each platform tracks views differently. Benchmarks will also be different for bigger and small accounts.
That said, no matter how much you want your video to be popular, do not lose sight of your editorial standards, organisation’s mission, audience goals, and journalistic instinct. You never want to lose a good story in the pursuit of virality.
Choosing the right platform
To maximise the chances of your video reaching a wide audience, you need to understand how different platforms work. Creating one video and then posting it everywhere seldom works. Depending on resources, you should try to tailor your video to your audience according to their age, sex/gender, location, the device they are using etc.
Here is a rough guide to major video platforms:
- Twitter: all ages, global
- YouTube: 30 per cent desktop users, long engagement
- Facebook: skews older, still the most popular platform in the world
- Instagram: millennials, biggest audiences in India, US, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia
- TikTok: Gen Z
Also, keep in mind that on most platforms people watch videos on mute, so subtitles are a must. The exception to that is TikTok where sound plays a much more prominent role.
What are the most important metrics of engagement?
This depends on your objectives. If you are focusing on engagement, comments on platforms like YouTube are really important. Video presenters often ask for comments, for example, about what the viewers want to see next, to prompt more interaction.
Other metrics include publishing cadence, publishing speed, internal resources, monetisation and impressions.
The best way to optimise your videos for virality is to test and iterate. Here are some components you can play with:
- Headlines, thumbnails, and opening: the first sentence and image are the most important to grab your viewer’s attention. They are all part of how you are framing the story.
- Topics: experiment within your newsroom’s remit to find out what people are interested in.
- Characters: is your audience engaging with characters on the ground or studio presenters?
- Calls to action: tell people to comment, subscribe, or whatever else you want them to do. Spell it out.
Have a think about what matters to you and set up a system before your start measuring engagement.
Once you decide what you are measuring and which parts of your video you want to tweak to maximise engagement, here are some ideas on the metrics you can use:
- Formats: watch time is one of the most important metrics because it tells you whether this is a story that people find interesting. Also look to views and subscribers (particularly on YouTube).
- Headlines and thumbnails: clickthrough rate. Tweak the headline or thumbnail and see whether engagement varies.
- Opening: watch time. If the opening is strong, people will keep on watching
- Topics: views, clickthroughs, comments
- Characters: watch time, subscribers, likes
- Calls to action: comments, likes, subscribers
You do not want to be repetitive but it is important that your videos have some consistency, especially on YouTube.
Videos on social platforms perform better when they are contained within the platform rather than using promo videos to drive people away (but try everything).
Posting a single video to multiple platforms sometimes works. For example, Reels, YouTube Shorts and TikTok are pretty well aligned so you can experiment with posting the same video to all of them if you have limited resources.
With most platforms, the more frequently you post the more the algorithm will want to feature your videos.