The Black Swan of Viral Video

Over the weekend I had a chance to read an interesting and thought provoking book called the Black Swan. Written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it talks about the highly improbable, and how humans have the tendency to believe that something is impossible or doesn’t exist, until the moment that it happens.

While a lot of the science in the book skimmed over my head the basic premise started with this: before Australia was discovered everyone assumed that there were only white swans. One day, one of the first (I assume) outback bush rangers stumbled upon a black swan, the first time ever in history. Suddenly what seemed so certain, that all swans were white was tipped on its head, however no one would have thought to assume there were black swans, and because no one had seen one or heard of one everyone assumed that was the case.

Let me give you another example to lead into the topic of viral video. A chicken is hatched and is fed every day by his ‘master’ and by all accounts the chicken feels like it has a good life. It can relax and have all its food provided for it. From the chicken’s view point this is the life it’s used to and there is no reason for it to expect anything different, that is of course until the day the master comes in and decapitates the chicken for the local grocery store. From the chicken’s view point, this was a Black Swan, in the chicken’s life time nothing would have made it question why it was getting all the food it wanted for nothing until one day its neck was put on the chopping block. By the same token, the sub prime mortgage crisis in America led to many venerable financial institutions losing all the money they had made in the last 20 years in one year. Up until then their practices had seemed like a conservative financial institution that was protected from the wild swings of the market, that is until the Black Swan came and did something that no one could have ever predicted.

History fools us into believing the world is not random and there are causes for large effects which can be predicted before time. Of course with the power of hindsight this may almost seem true, however while we may delude ourselves into thinking many major world events could have been predicted, if you were to look back to the written accounts of the era you would find many did not predict anything of the sort.

Many viral videos are black swans. They are shot up unexpectedly through a number of causes (including the video itself being original, word of mouth online, good timing) however it is almost impossible to determine which video will go viral and which video will not.

For example, there has been a video that has been released recently of an iPad 2 review, it’s not an actual iPad 2 review, but it’s very funny and has all ready received over a million hits. It has a lot of the elements of a viral video including a high quality production, humor, and the right timing (everyone is waiting to get a glimpse at the iPad 2 so it’s a hot topic right now).

Viral video is a risky endeveaour however if you can pull off the Black Swan it can be very worthwhile. The idea of working to create a viral video means that you may have to try several, ten, or a hundred times before a video catches the eye of the YouTube community.

However there is a different strategy when it comes to getting viewership on your videos, and this strategy involves moving away from high risk, high return to medium risk, medium return. The idea behind this strategy is to create videos for your particular market segment and target them. If that means your videos only receive 400, or 2,000 hits that may be all you need to make the activity worthwhile for the marketing cost and effort expanded. After all if each client is worth $10,000 dollars and only 1% of clients convert from your video that is a return of $40,000 (assuming you get 400 visits).

It’s very tempting to look at videos on YouTube that have gotten 100,000 hits and compare your productions to these videos, however remember that in a lot of cases, while in hindsight it may look like the producers of these videos had a strategy that they executed, look can play a major part and this is something you will have to accept when producing video content that you plan to make viral.

If you take this conservative road it’s not guaranteed, however you can be much more successful then the person that will spend a whole year trying to get a video viewed by millions of people.

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