When most people think of the words “going viral” these days, most immediately think of a video on YouTube spreading like wildfire.
Maybe it’s a funny video of a crazy drunk D-list celebrity. Maybe it’s a goat yelling like Chris Tucker. In any case, when a large chunk of the population hears the “going viral,” they immediately think YouTube, and a crap load of people watching it.
YouTube Changes the Viral Game
What made YOUTUBE viral?
When did this happen? Why do people’s minds immediately go there? Why does that one application have such a powerful reputation that it’s aligned with virality, even though most people have no way of knowing what viral growth really is?
The answer to all of those questions lies in YouTube’s own growth story.
The Perfect Viral Storm
The term the perfect storm refers to a number of independent factors which, while manageable by themselves, all occur at the same time and build off each other to create a never-before-seen maelstrom of insanity.
While relatively common in over-dramatized movies starring George Clooney, these are incredibly rare events in real life.
That said, against all odds, three former PayPal employees (Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim) engineered the perfect storm of virality when they founded YouTube.
But let’s back up.
We’ve already talked about various viral engines and the high-level ways to optimize them. I’ve also stressed how all virality stems from value, and how virality must be built deep into the bones of your product for it to really work well.
Well, YouTube took my advice, and satisfied every ounce of this.
[Legal Disclaimer from Viral Hero’s Lawyers: Travis had no direct influence on the success of Youtube, nor did he ever provide said entity with advice on creating their platform, which would have required him jumping in a Delorean and going back in time. From a legal standpoint, time travel is impossible. While we’re at it, Travis’ critique of The Perfect Storm starring George Clooney does not reflect the views of Viral Hero. Even though that film was indeed a gross over-dramatization of events. That is all.]
Fusing Core Value with Viral Value
Founded in 2005 by Chad, Steve and Jawed, YouTube started out early on wanting to make playing and sharing videos online easy, fast and cheap.
In an era jam-packed with huge file sizes, slow connection speeds and low processing power (at least in contrast to our experiences today), video was a huge pain. It often took roughly ten years to download a short, low-quality clip. So the founders sought to provide users with a better way to upload and play videos, focusing their attention on making that experience their core value.
This one piece was valuable enough, and would have been a hit by itself. However, they didn’t stop there.
It wasn’t just the upload and playback problems they were looking to solve. They also wanted to crack the issue of online video distribution, which became their viral value.
Because of this, at the end of each video, the founders added calls to action for two different methods of user-driven video distribution:
- A direct link to the video on YouTube’s site, which users could send to others – Online Viral Word of Mouth Marketing
- The embed code to display the YouTube video player containing that video on any other site – Embeddable Viral Marketing
This was not only a new solution to a widely-experienced problem at the time, but the viral calls to action emphasized the viral value (“share this video so others can enjoy without downloading”) without overemphasizing the core value (“share YouTube because we’re awesome“).
In other words, YouTube successfully mastered the viral one-two punch.
Amazingly, this perfect synthesis of core and viral value was NOT what made YouTube viral on a scale greater than anyone had ever seen. That explosive growth came down to their incredibly short viral cycle time.
How YouTube Became the King of Viral
A full viral loop (or cycle) has several steps:
- Prospective user becomes aware of your product.
- Prospective user tries your product and thereby becomes a user.
- User’s experience is good enough to invite his or her friends.
- User sends invite(s).
- Friends of user receive invites and become aware of your product; start their own viral loop.
As we’ve already covered, viral cycle time (ct) is the amount of time it takes for one full viral loop or cycle to take place.
YouTube’s cycle time was extremely short. Users would come to the site, see a video, see a few ways to share it with others and immediately do so.
This entire process took just a little over 2 minutes and their overall cycle time was 0.0013889. (There are 1440 minutes in a day, and 2/1440 = 0.0013889).
With each passing loop, more and more people were exposed to YouTube. And with every cycle, more and more people were sending invites during the next cycle. As YouTube then began to aggregate stronger and stronger viral media from users, things took off faster than a herd of horny rabbits.
Virality for Reactivation
Another amazing achievement by YouTube was that its virality was long lasting, even amongst users who had been active for years. (Which is incredibly rare, and which we’ll cover in a later chapter).
In most cases, users start using an application, see the value, virality spikes as they send a big batch of invites, and then virality drops to a slow crawl. However, one of the most prominent forms of value in YouTube’s application is in the distribution of videos through its video player.
In other words, every time somebody uploaded new, noteworthy media to YouTube, even users who had been on the site since the beginning would send it out. It didn’t feel spammy because the player was just the vessel for the media – which was always new.
YouTube’s Viral Volley Pays Off
If from the start, YouTube had opted to build their viral engine around sharing how awesome YouTube was as a tool (a mistake most products make), they would not have seen nearly as sharp of a growth curve.
In hindsight, it’s not hard to imagine that three early employees of an engineered viral sensation like PayPal would start an engineered viral sensation themselves afterwards. But nobody predicted what happened next.
By July 2006, a single year after the company was founded, YouTube had already raised over $11 million in venture funding, had over 20 million visitors per month, and was the fifth most visited website on the entire Internet.
This earth-shattering growth was driven by a few smart people trying to solve a widely-experienced problem in a simple way. The virality was part of the solution to the problem. That, combined with a well-executed approach, resulted in their acquisition by Google in November of 2016 for $1.65 billion.
What You Can Learn From YouTube’s Viral Success
So what’s the moral of the story?
Don’t expect to be the next YouTube. They were an outlier among outliers. They were the ever-elusive “perfect storm.”
That said, you CAN learn from their success in the following ways:
- Build viral value into the core of your product.
- Build enough of it to ensure users keep inviting others over time, and not just in one big batch at the beginning.
- Pay attention to viral cycle time above all else.
- Sell the benefits of sharing and inviting others. Nobody cares about promoting you, but they DO want something for themselves.
Do these four things, and you’re going to grow a lot faster.
With the right education, effort and implementation there’s no reason you can’t create a satisfiably viral product. But there’s a reason why I said above you shouldn’t expect to be the next YouTube. That’s because there’s one other element that played a major role in their momentous success. And while you can’t always control it, knowing why this factor occurs could help you find the perfect time to try your hand at virality.
What is it? Join me in the next chapter to find out.
Want to Know How YouTube Outperformed The Greatest Viral Heavyweight You Never Heard Of?
In the viral marketing game, YouTube has a lot going for it. But to truly dominate the marketplace they had to rely on something not even they could control. Though with some foresight they were able to prepare for it and beat out the competition. Put your boxing gloves on! We’re about to step into the viral ring.
Latest posts by Travis Steffen (see all)
- Cycle Time: What the Primary Defense Mechanism of Rabbits Can Teach You About Growth - March 15, 2016
- Viral Infection: How the CDC Can Make You a Viral Marketing Savant - March 4, 2016
- Viral Communication Marketing – How Apple, MailChimp and Hootsuite Used Hotmail to Inspire Explosive Growth - June 25, 2015