Five seconds to live: a video’s fleeting chance of going viral

If a video over 3 minutes is uploaded to YouTube, does it make a sound?

Not much of one, or at least not sounds that will be heard by many. As my class this morning poured through some of the most popular videos that have caught fire on the web, speed emerged as one of the most common traits. Many of these videos are funny, some are surprising, some heart-warming, but none last beyond a few minutes.

Twitter isn’t the only reflection of our short attention spans. Viral videos have to make a quick and immediate impact or they’re closed out before ever being spread to friends and family via email. Maybe the clip can last past the five minute mark, as the ubiquitous wedding dance video does, but you’ve got to figure it out within seconds if you’re to going to keep watching.

How fast must you get the message across? Well for this four-minute clip of YouTube’s greatest hits, all it takes is a few seconds for each referenced video to make its mark. Can your clip achieve instant recognition? Otherwise its lifespan will be dismally short.

Of course there are plenty of other requirements in order to make a video viral, chief among them being humor or entertainment value. It has to be original enough to stand out but still relatable to everyday life. In short, it has to tell a story, with compelling characters, all in less than the time it takes to read this blog entry.

That’s where the real work comes into the creation of a viral sensation. It’s not enough to have a great idea, well executed and produced. You’ve got to edit the content down to its absolute core, with everything that doesn’t make an impact stripped out of the final version. Those willing to pare down their material to the most compelling bits have a chance at surviving through the YouTube wilderness. Otherwise the audience may never stick around for the punchline.

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