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Anatomy Of A Viral Video: The Homeless Man With Golden Voice

A mere 24 hours ago I thought Ted Williams was a baseball player. He is, but there’s a new Ted Williams in town and he’s taken the Internet by storm.

Yesterday afternoon I discovered the now famous video of the homeless man from Columbus, Ohio who has a “God given gift of voice” and it turns out, he really does. See for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTysXITBCmk&w=480&h=295&rel=0

Just like Paul Potts and Susan Boyle, what you see is not what you get. Today, Ted’s getting a second chance at a career. Ted’s story has already been picked up by almost every major media outlet in the country and he’s getting job offers all over the place including the NFL Network and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team.

This is a great rags to (presumably) riches story and it’s thanks to the video going viral. We know the power of a viral video and it’s the holy grail of marketing today, but how did this particular viral video grow? Here’s how:

The Seed: Columbus Dispatch
It all started with Doral Chenoweth, a videographer for the Columbus Dispatch. He had seen Ted on the side of the road asking for money and claiming to have the gifted voice. After talking to him he knew Ted wasn’t kidding. A week later he found Ted and shot the video we’ve all now seen. But this isn’t where it went viral. This was just where the video was captured and initially distributed. The Dispatch did not put the video on YouTube. They only put it on their own website. It took someone else to put the video on YouTube, a person we only know as “ritchey” on YouTube.

The Soil: YouTube and “ritchey”
I’m going to make an assumption here: the policy at The Dispatch is to post all of their videos on their own website. After all, they have traffic to generate so they can sell ads on the site. Like many traditional media companies, the Dispatch’s goal is probably to bring the traffic to their own site rather than let the story go free and be available to the most people. I get this but think the rationale is both flawed and outdated…but that’s a topic for another day.

Fortunately for Ted Williams, a person we know nothing else about other than the YouTube username “ritchey” was able to pull the video from the Dispatch website and repost it on YouTube. Once the video was on YouTube it was on a platform where people would be more likely to find it. In this case, another person we don’t know much about with the name “shiggiddie” found it. More on him/her in a moment but had ritchey not posted the video to YouTube, Ted Williams would still be a baseball player to us.

The Sun: Reddit and “shiggiddie”

So, the video was shot and later put on YouTube, but it still wasn’t viral. That’s where social news site Reddit came into play.

Reddit permits anyone to submit a news item, picture, video, etc. and allows the members to vote the really good stuff up. Reddit user “shiggiddie” posted the video of Ted and the story started getting voted up.

According to shiggiddie, “I heard the audio clip on the radio on my way into work. Then I spent about 10 minutes searching for the video online. When I found it, I posted it to Reddit. We all know where it went from there.”

The video ended up being Reddit’s top news story for a large part of the day. I happened to discover the video because of the Reddit story and at the time the video only had 303 views as seen in this screenshot.

Now, just over 24 hours later from when I first saw the video it has 5.4 million views. Reddit provided this story the exposure it needed to really take off. From there, people were Tweeting about it, putting it in their Facebook pages, and sharing it all over the place. It was officially viral.

3 Lessons For Business
Many businesses have wished for a viral video. The problem is they’re unpredictable lightning strikes so even a good idea and a good video on the wrong day could be enough to prevent it from spreading. Viral videos are a gift and therefore I don’t think you should pursue a viral video, rather create great videos that people want to watch and if it happens to go viral that’s just bonus.

The rise of this Ted Williams video actually has three good lessons for businesses who have ever thought about using online video:

  1. Content Wants To Be Free: Just as the Dispatch didn’t put this video on YouTube, you’re really hurting yourself if the only place someone can see the video is on your website. We live in a day and age when good content can get shared a lot. If your goal is gain attention then who cares whether the attention happens on your website or on someone else’s website. The fact of the matter is that you’re getting the attention so let the content run free. Let it be shared, embedded, and reposted.
  2. Good Content Will Be Shared: People will willingly give their attention to something entertaining, inspiring, educational, informative, or outrageous. In fact, they won’t just give it to you but they will tell a dozen other people if it’s really good. You only give yourself that chance by focusing on creating excellent content. Great content will be shared. That’s the currency of the new Internet so don’t focus so much on the sharing part and neglect the content.
  3. You Can’t Make A Video Viral: At the end of the day you really have no control over what will or won’t go viral. Good content, good timing, and getting enough awareness is what makes it take off. The lure of a viral video is that it goes big, but if we’re honest with ourselves we don’t need millions of views from everyone for our video, we just need a few views from the right people to really mean something tangible for our business. Viral videos are exciting but they’re not the goal for online videos in business. As we’ve seen in this particular case, you can’t make it happen anyway so focus on doing something well and for the right people.
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