We had our first million-view — and counting — post on Upworthy this week, which was breaking records in every direction: total views, concurrent viewers, total Facebook shares from our website, total Twitter shares.
It was, from our perspective, off the charts. It took just over 24 hours for it to hit the million-view mark. Below is the YouTube counter for the video. You can see where it was embedded on Upworthy.
So one of our core strategic objectives at Upworthy this year is to learn as much as we can about virality. So we are trying to figure out: What are the lessons we can take away from our first million-view nugget?
You Just Can’t Predict What Will Take Off
The million-nugget post is an audio clip highlight of a two-year-old radio interview that was first uploaded in YouTube in February. It takes place in an Irish pub between Michael D. Higgins, now president of Ireland but then the Labour Party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, and Michael Graham, a Boston conservative talk show host who has been closely associated with the Tea Party movement. (In this highlight reel, Michael Graham is mostly edited out, though you hear a lot more of him in the original 20-minute clip).
To be honest, no one (even the curator who posted it) thought this post (we call ‘em “nuggets”) would have as much a runaway success as it was. ”I was expecting maybe 50,000 hits, maybe 100,000 hits optimistically,” said Mansur Gidfar, our curator, who is a 21-year-old student at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Things Can Go Viral in a Second Life
The original interview, which is about 20 minutes long, took place in 2010 as part of an Irish radio talk show called The Right Hook, Graham was visiting Ireland, and was invited to take part in a debate with “Michael D” (as he’s known) in a pub. The spirited debate was highlighted as part of the best of 2010 from the show. While the interview got some attention then in 2010, it got some new life when a highlight reel was uploaded in February of this year. Of course, between 2010 and when the highlight real was uploaded, Higgins was elected president of Ireland — in November 2011. So it’s not often that you hear a national leader do a takedown. But it wasn’t clear that the highlight reel was anything so resonant.
It already had a bump around the Internet. Mansur said he saw it back in March on Percolate, and saved it as a possible nugget, but it never was posted. “No one really wanted it, and it got forgotten in the day-to-day of the job,” he said. Then a few weeks ago, one of our Upworthy summer fellows sent in the YouTube clip asking if anyone had seen this already. At the point Mansur posted the clip, the clip already had accumulated 150,000 views.
The Headline Matters
So what made this different from the first time around? Well, The original headline on YouTube was “Michael D Higgins v Michael Graham.” As Mansur noted, those names mean very little to most Americans. So he wanted to frame it more in terms of the Tea Party, a charged topic in American politics. “I wanted to make it clear that something humiliating is going to happen to a member of the Tea Party,” said Mansur.
He wrote about 15-20 headlines, including the one he finally chose, “A Tea Partier Decided To Pick A Fight With A Foreign President. It Didn’t Go So Well.” The intensive headline brainstorming is part of the Upworthy effort to write 25 headlines for everything, a practice we inherited from The Onion, co-founder Peter Koechley’s alma mater. (You can read more about our techniques in a slide presentation).
Part of the Upworthy approach is to leave a “curiosity gap” in the headline, which causes people to click through to find out what the headline is all about. So Mansur wrote that it was a foreign president, but he decided didn’t say which one. He also teased people with “it’s didn’t go so well.”
But Mansur also wanted to be accurate with the packaging. “I was wary of being deceptive, because he is the president of Ireland, but he wasn’t president at the time,” he said. So he made an effort to clarify in the lead that Higgins was elected last year but that interview was from 2010.”I didn’t want people to think he was a sitting president dismantling a guy.”
A Large Seed Audience Provides the Kindling for a Good Nugget to Take Off
We originally posted it on our Facebook wall around 3 p.m. EST on Wednesday, August 22. Immediately, the real-time analytics told us 400 active viewers at a time, which is a strong signal sign, because it means that it is getting a high number of views immediately. That’s about clickability, which is a function of the packaging and the framing. But as Andrew Forrest, who oversees audience and analytics at Upworthy, noted, “That’s not a sign it’s going to be super viral hit. You have to wait and see.”
There are two key components to having something go viral: 1) Are people going to share it? (Does it emotionally arouse people?) 2) And are people going to click on it when it’s shared with them? (Is there an appealing headline, picture?)
So half an hour later our analytics could see second-generation visitors — people who were coming through other people’s shares, whether through Facebook or Twitter. “That is the often signal that it’s going to be good, that people are both clicking it and sharing it,” Andrew said.
Given its performance, Andrew decided to push the nugget out through Upworthy’s partner network, which has been carefully assembled over the last few months. Many of our partners have Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of fans. “That’s when it really spiked,” he said. Starting at 6 p.m. we had about 4,000 concurrent viewers, which made it a bonafide viral hit.
Looking back. Andrew says the network was key in kicking a strong performer off. “If you have a super high virality coefficient, you in theory need a very small seed audience and it still goes viral. But those nuggets are few and far between. Alternatively, if you combine a pretty good coefficient with a wide broadcast network, that’s a formula for success.”
As virality research has noted, emotional arousal causes more sharing of content among the audience. The arousal can be both positive (awe) or negative (anger). There is something about Higgins frankness in his throaty takedown of the radio host that people find cathartic. The favorite line from the audio clip is where Higgins escalates his voice and encourages Graham to “be proud to be a decent American rather than being just a wanker whipping up fear” — which is a quote that people love.
“It’s a good example of someone who is capturing the frustration that people have about political discussion in the United States,” said Andrew Forrest. ”This one is the kind that gets someone riled up. You are sitting at desk. You are work. You listen to it, it’s kind of exciting.” Andrew added, “It’s a fed-up kind of thing. He’s saying what our audience is thinking. Enough is enough.”
Distill Source Material to its Highlights, but be Careful
The original radio clip is 20-minutes long. The audio highlights clip is only 4 minutes long, and basically distills the “best of” Michael D’s berating, so it’s an easier experience to digest and more emotionally appealing to the audience. What you lose however, is what Graham has to defend himself. And you lose some of the context. Mansur made a point of linking to the original clip, but some people misread the highlight reel as a continuous four-minute tirade. We’d love to see a complete transcript of this to share with the audience to give them the full picture.
Celebrity Sharing Can Help
It’s powerful to get celebrities with following to share. Actress Mia Farrow and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins both tweeted the link to the post (though the post had a lot of momentum already by that point) But celebrity sharing of course was cited as an important factor in the explosive popularity of the Kony 2012 video. And we’ve seen Neil Gaiman tweet something that brought four thousand people to our site within seconds.
Virality is News for the Media, who Can Bring a Second Wind
The Irish media jumped on it immediately. Maybe because they are ahead by time zone. But The Irish Times did a front page story. Silicon Valley Republic The Irish Independent and Irish Central all did pieces within the first 24 hours.
Then American media started noticing. The Huffington Post and Gawker also wrote pieces, which of course brings a new audience and makes it part of the public discourse.
Maybe Visual Isn’t As Important for Viral?
One aspect of the nugget runs counter to most of our work on Upworthy — which focuses on awesome, meaningful and visual things: this is an audio clip. In fact, The YouTube embed is simply a still photo of Michael D.
That an audio clip is our most viral hit to date makes us think twice about what we think we know, especially about the importance of visual.
A Good Accent Can’t Hurt
Okay, while it’s not visual, our folks speculate Michael D’s Irish brogue helped. “He’s got a charming accent,” Mansur said. Andrew agreed, “The Irish accent might have something to do it.”