Tips from TED: How to Get Online Videos to Go Viral

In a talk worthy of the TED conferences themselves, June Cohen spoke at the Vimeo Festival in New York City on Friday and offered life-lesson tips on getting online videos to go viral.

TED, for those who don’t know, stands for “technology, entertainment, design,” and it’s the name for a series of worldwide conferences with thought leaders in all industries.

June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media

Cohen is the executive producer of TED Media. In an entertaining and informative hour, she explained how TED, which began back in 1984, started opening up and putting its famous talks online in 2006. While the operation wasn’t a guaranteed success — “They’re essentially taped lectures which didn’t scream ‘big idea’ to anyone,” said Cohen  — they’ve done phenomenally well online. TED has over 175 talks with over 1 million views, said Cohen.

While the talks themselves are often fascinating, Cohen credits several decisions the TED team made at the outset with helping them find such a huge audience online. She broke her tips into two areas: content and distribution.


Think Like a Filmmaker
From the start, the TED team knew that if they wanted to create appealing online videos they had to think like filmmakers. Simply shooting a person talking onstage wouldn’t work. Instead, they borrowed film techniques such as dramatic lighting, multiple camera shots, and quality sound. They also optimized their videos for small screen viewing, focusing on tight shots of the speakers.

Start with a Bang
Introductions are dull. “No one online cares,” said Cohen. A dull intro gives your restless online viewers time to be distracted. That’s why TED videos start with titles that build momentum, applause, and then the speaker talking. Typically, the TED team cuts out the speaker’s own introductory words and gets right into the subject.

Offer Contagious Emotions
Why do people share a video? Because they feel a strong emotion after viewing it and want to share that experience. The most emailed New York Times stories, said Cohen, are those that emphasize positive messages, are surprising, or teach long complicated science lessons. Those science stories give people an “Aha!” moment that they want to share.

Be Funny
Humor opens people up and makes them more receptive. TED videos are often funny even when dealing with serious content.

Be Personal
Create videos that show the speaker sharing their own experiences. Use close-up shots to capture the emotion.

Be Timely
If you want to explore a topic that’s in the news, don’t wait. Rush it up while people are still looking for that information.

Be Geeky
“Look, there’s a lot of geeks online,” said Cohen. Appealing to their tastes increases your chances of going viral.

Be Irresistibly Eye-Catching
A great title will get your video a lot of clicks. As an example, Cohen showed a clip from a TED talk entitled “Three Things I learned While My Plane Crashed.” Who doesn’t want to know the three things?

Be Inspiring
Evoke a sense of awe in your viewers and they’ll want to share your video. Give them a sense that they’re a part of something much larger than themselves.

Tell a Story
Finally, all great media is based on a great story, said Cohen. One reason TED videos do so well is they tap into the tradition of great human storytelling. An excellent speaker is hypnotizing.


Embrace Open Models
If you want your videos to be seen by as many people as possible, distribute them to multiple free sites and encourage sharing. Rather than trying to control access, allow embedding. It can be scary, but let go of any control.

Reach People Everywhere
Surprisingly, only 45 percent of the TED audience is in the U.S., said Cohen. To appeal to a global audience, understand that online video viewing habits are different in other parts of the world. Get your videos on as many platforms as possible and look for opportunities to reach a wider audience.

Spark a Conversation
Let people embed your videos into their favorite social sites, so they can start conversations about them. Allow viewer comments, even if the idea seems frightening and out-of-control. Take part in the comments yourself, to create a dialog with your viewers.

Engage Super Spreaders
Not all online viewers are equal. Bloggers and other online personalities with large follower counts are super spreaders. Learn how to seed your videos to relevant influential sharers.

Feed the Hunger for Participation
People want to get involved, said Cohen, so let them take part when they ask. As an example, she told how an all-volunteer global army now subtitles TED talks into a variety of languages: TED now counts over 9,000 translations in 90 languages. All talks are in 40 languages.

Hire a Great Team
Online video is a typically a team effort, and each member makes a huge difference. “You can’t underestimate the importance,” said Cohen.


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  1. First, I take issue with Cohen’s presumption that one million (incomplete?) views is “huge”. Mind you, it’s a nice figure (and I too watch TED content) but without context it’s just a number. Relative to all videos viewed and minutes spent viewing across the internet something tells me Cohen is dealing in chump-change, or a couple of collective minutes on YouTube.

    I think it would be far more fitting if Cohen discussed the concept of helping ideas to go viral. That would be helpful and meaningful. On the other hand, “Be funny” and “Start with a bang” make me wonder if the TED brand isn’t being compromised for the sake of producing viral videos (as if that has something to do with quality).

    Posted by Mark Simchock | June 12, 2012, 3:55 pm
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