Viral Video is a Mystery to Most

This is a guest post by Arik Abel.  Arik is a content strategist and multimedia producer based in Raleigh, NC. He advises brands and entrepreneurs on creative marketing strategy and execution.  View the original post at arik abel’s blog.

One day it’s a chipmunk giving you the evil eye, another it’s a kid high on nitrous after the dentist, yet most viral videos have elements in common. Understanding why these elements make people watch, share, talk and search by the millions will help you reach your share of the 85% of internet users that consume online video on a regular basis.

Thinking of viral video as a formula, rather than accident, is one of the fundamental skills learned by participants in my workshop Going Viral: Making and Distributing Online Video. A great example of this formula is The Today Show’s live Halloween special from 2009, now known by the internet universe as simple “Drunk Ewoks”. Watch the video below, and then read on to see how they used Topic, Technique, Talent, Timing and Tension to capture the hearts and clicks of the world.

The Today Show’s “Drunk Ewoks” Viral Phenomenon

Of course we’ll have break dancing ewoks humping Al Roker and pissing off Ann Curry for our Halloween special…

The Five T’s: Topic, Technique, Talent, Timing and Tension


Great viral videos often start with a topic that’s top of mind for the collective internet unconscious. In this case, Halloween decorations is an obvious topic for the Today Show – family friendly, fits their audience. But pay close attention, and some other popular internet topics come into play: 1) Michael Jackson died in 2009, and video mashups of the moonwalk were a huge Youtube trend 2) Star Wars. Geeks love it, and combining ewoks plus drinking, break dancing and fornication is a sure winner.


There are so many options you have when setting out to produce a video: music video, animation, short film, etc. In the world of viral videos, certain techniques can be extremely compelling. In this case, the technique is what I call “It Happened Live.” Like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl, Kanye West’s Taylor Swift interruption at the Video Music Awards and Sacha Baron Cohen’s surprise drop in on Eminem at the MTV Movie Awards, Drunk Ewoks wows people because they can’t believe “It Happened Live.”


Who you choose to put in your video has a huge impact on whether or not people will care. Sure the ewoks are the show stealer, but we have to give credit to Al Roker and Ann Curry for building their own audience in the first place. Bottom line, don’t go putting up a video of your kid in an ewok costume humping your boss, unless your boss is famous.


I would watch this video any day of the week, but most people don’t care about a Halloween-themed video unless it’s Halloween. The morning of Halloween 2009, this video was being shared via Facebook wall posts like wildfire. While this is obvious in this case because the topic is linked to an event, not all topics will be, and some opportunities present themselves so quickly you have to be able to react. What can you do for Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl, March Madness that can engage your specific audience in a unique way?


This is the single most important T, and the reason that people will share a video. Tension in the arts is the unexpected, the irreconcilable, the improbable. It is what drives one of the major conversations that viral videos create “Is it real of is it fake?” There is so much tension in this video it deserves a bulleted list:

– Ewoks drinking booze

– The co-host getting harassed by an ewok behind her

– Ann Curry getting snippety (Celebrities getting mad or surprised go viral all the time – search “Mel Gibson recording” “Alec Baldwin voicemail message” or “Christian Bale rant” on Youtube)

– Ewok doing the moonwalk

– Ewok humping Al Roker

You can have a great video with all the other Four T’s executed flawlessly, and that may get everyone that hears about it to click and watch, but is the irreconcilable tension we feel that forces us to share with our friends, family and colleagues. Why? Because we can’t make up our minds on our own, we need an outside perspective, a la, “I think this is real, what do you think?”

Going Viral: Making and Distributing Online Video

The Five T’s and much much more are covered extensively in my collaborative workshop for marketers, entrepreneurs, creatives and anyone with an interest in reaching customers online.

Meme E

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