Lessons Learned from Creating a Viral Video

Chances are your first viral video won’t be planned. It’ll just happen. It did for me last month.

The outcomes are dizzying, honestly. The numbers are impressive, but it’s the demand created—without asking for it—that are truly a surprise.

As I reflected on what made this video—now viewed by 8.3 million and growing—viral, I’ve documented what I believe are 10 lessons to help prepare you for “the big one.”

I am the Marketing Director for an internationally acclaimed chorus that has appeared throughout the U.S., Canada and the U.K. The performers, including myself, are all volunteers. We sing for the love of singing, bringing richness and emotionally touching people’s lives.

It’s been my dream, for years, that someday we’d have a video go viral. Instinctively, I knew it wouldn’t be a polished, professionally produced video, but rather, a video showing a side of the chorus that the public generally doesn’t see.

A confluence of factors set the stage. One of the chorus’s most beloved songs is “Hallelujah,” written by the great singer, songwriter, musician, poet, novelist, and painter, Leonard Cohen. It was announced that he had passed away on on Nov. 10. As we had planned to rehearse “Hallelujah” for an upcoming Christmas Show that evening, word spread of his passing. I realized that honoring Cohen by singing “Hallelujah” would be a moment to acknowledge this great modern-day composer. We had experimented with Facebook Live Streaming in recent weeks, with very positive audience response and a few thousand views. So we decided to live stream this unscripted moment to our thousands of Facebook fans, as we remembered Cohen and sang his song to honor him.

In a moment of spontaneity, we gathered our thoughts and I asked one of our teenage performers to hold his iPhone for the live stream.  In a hurry, he didn’t have his tripod, so he held his phone in the vertical orientation (natural when using any smartphone) instead of horizontal (which would have better filled the frame for most viewers). Our director, by his own admission, rambled in the early seconds of his introduction. And yet, through this less-than-ideal setup for a video, it has been viewed by millions.

We recorded it at about 10:00 pm, toward the end of our rehearsal, and by 8:00 am the next morning, it had already been viewed 30,000 times. We were thrilled, but then the groundswell continued. The next milestone of about 100,000 views came at about 1:00 pm. Then a half million by 10 am the next morning. One million in just over 48 hours. And now, just a month after it was recorded it has been viewed more than 8.3 million times, with the post seen by about 19 million. The numbers continue to grow—even after 30 days.

Equally impressive: More than 186,000 people have shared the video, and about 52,000 have commented. The comments came from all 50 U.S. States, and dozens of countries. I’ve always felt it important to promptly respond to comments of an inquiring nature. We have kept up with them, but at 52,000 comments, it’s been a heavy lift to read and respond accordingly. Engagement breeds further engagement. You have to do the work.

Along the way, the media in Dallas-Fort Worth (where the chorus is based) picked up the story with interviews and mentions on a local TV station, the Dallas Morning News, a highly rated radio station, and smaller community newspapers.

The outcomes, though, are a lesson in what happens when you don’t try to sell anything. Nowhere on our Facebook post did we promote a website. Or that the CD with the recorded version of “Hallelujah” was available for purchase online. Nowhere did we push Christmas Show tickets. Nor did we ask for opt-in’s to our email list or for viewers to like our Facebook page. With no promotional angle, here are some statistics:

  • Four sold-out performances for Christmas Shows the first weekend of December, setting a new record for a 4-day run of performances in our 40-plus-year history. Based on prior year sales, we estimate hundreds of fans became first-time ticket purchasers to our shows. About 150 travelled to see us from 18 states outside of Texas.
  • CD Sales for the chorus’s recording of “Hallelujah,” on the CD The Spirit of Christmas soared (and continue to sell) by more than 50 percent compared to the same time a year ago.
  • Website traffic blew up by 5x in the days after the video was posted.
  • Email opt-ins grew (and still grow), increasing the size of the opt-in email list by about 15 percent.
  • Facebook likes may be most impressive: before the video, about 6,300 liked the group’s official Facebook Fan page. As of the deadline for this column, it went up 3x to more than 24,000.

Bottom line: once the message was out there and embraced, people searched on their own to find where they could buy the recording, purchase tickets, or follow the organization via email and Facebook.

And then there is this: an invitation from America’s Got Talent to audition for their nationally televised show.

But the bigger impact is on individual lives. A few examples:

·        The woman who contacted the chorus saying, “A friend shared your live video today and it brought me to tears. For me November, December, and January are almost unbearable to get through. In those three months we lost our grandson, our triplet girls, and my father. So, for four years now, I hide from the world during that time. Today, you made me feel joyous about Christmas for the first time in four years. We haven’t celebrated Christmas, and we haven’t put up a tree. But I decided I want to put up a tree this year.”

·        The parents of a nonverbal Down syndrome teenage boy saw the video, and played it for their son. Then they shared a video they took of their son responding to the music and, in a rare event, jumping and making sound.

·        The woman who said she “played this song to my mom this morning. First time I've ever seen her so calm and happy since her stroke. She was keeping beat by nodding her head. She asked me to keep finding more and more songs by Vocal Majority so we kept going. It was beautiful."

The halo effect for the Vocal Majority chorus brand continues to be felt, making the performers feel good about the work being done to advance the mission to enrich people’s lives.

The full impact of this viral video is yet to be fully known as the story continues to unfold. But so far, these are the lessons learned and reinforced:

1.      Stimulate Emotion: People want to feel genuine emotion, and be taken to emotional places for a feel-good experience.

2.      Don’t be Staged: Our culture responds to authentic experiences … something behind-the-scenes … not staged.

3.      Instinct Rules: If you dream of creating a viral video, you must instinctively be in tune with your audience, and instinctively feel what will move them.

4.      Embrace Spontaneity: You must always be ready to be spontaneous. Recording on a smart phone is perfectly acceptable.

5.      Newsjack: Marketing guru David Meerman Scott labels, in a positive light, what we did with the news of Cohen’s passing as “newsjacking.” If a story is building somewhere, be part of it.

6.      Build Your Social Media Base: When you have a base of customers, fans, and followers, they can share your content with their friends and followers on social media getting you out there faster. On Facebook, it’s reported the average person has 338 friends. So, for example, at least some of the original 6,300 followers shared the post, in theory, enough to exponentially grow to more than 186,000 shares, potentially reaching 62 million Facebook users.

7.      Live Streaming Works: Facebook live streaming, in my opinion, is the new standard of how to go viral more quickly. We put a slightly edited version of our video on YouTube, and with no promotion, there are more than 11,000 views. But Facebook is where the eyes of about everyone are today.

8.      Resist Selling: As marketers, we want to sell and monetize. But sometimes, the greatest success comes from not selling and just letting people take finding you in their own hands.

9.      You Can Monetize Social Media: But only with certain types of messaging. My experience is that Facebook and other social media are about building brand, and not so much about monetizing. But this is one example where there was monetization of social media without even trying.

10.  Culture Continues to Change: Our culture continues to evolve. It used to be that you’d only want to burnish your brand by putting out the most polished look and experience possible. Today, that doesn’t seem to be so important. In fact, in some instances it could be a turn-off.

Click here to view the Facebook video. And while viewing the viral video is one thing, a full-blown performance of “Hallelujah” is another. You can watch the recorded performance here, including an introduction from the chorus’s musical director.

Finally, in situations like these you never know what could happen. I’m reminded of the “law of unintended consequences,” when you do something big and risk success—or failure. At the moment, I prefer to call having a video go viral the “law of unimagined opportunities.”




Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.