News Leadership 3.0

January 09, 2011

From “Bed Intruder” to Ted Williams: Plan ahead to capitalize on viral video potential

You can never tell which online video might catch on as a viral hit. Still, news organizations can take steps up front to ensure that they will benefit if any of their videos happen to go viral.

Here’s a look at two recent examples of news videos, and what those news orgs could have done…

By Amy Gahran

The story of Ted Williams, a homeless man in Columbus, OH who had a “golden radio voice,” was captured in a short Flipcam video shot in December 2010 by Columbus Dispatch videographer Doral Chenoweth. The newspaper posted this video to its site on Jan. 3.

Here’s the Dispatch’s video:




Later that day an anonymous user posted the video to YouTube, and it became a viral hit. By Jan 7., the YouTube video had over 11 million views. Williams became an instant celebrity—he was featured on several national TV shows, reunited with his mother, and received many high-profile job offers.

Meanwhile, the Columbus Dispatch filed a copyright claim, and YouTube removed the video. However, many other people have reposted the video to YouTube. Also on Jan 7., the Dispatch finally launched its own YouTube channel. As of this writing the Ted Williams video is the only offering there.

Undoubtedly, the Dispatch enjoyed a bump in traffic from this video—probably temporary, but if you’re selling online ads, all the eyeballs count.

After the video went viral, the Dispatch created this home page for Ted Williams coverage and updates. Also, Adam Schweigert (director of digital media for WOSU public media in Columbus) used Storify to create a timeline of the Ted Williams video story.

Similarly, last summer WAFF-TV, the NBC affiliate in Huntsville, AL, ran a short news report about a home invasion and attempted rape that was thwarted. Reporter Elizabeth Gentle interviewed Antoine Dodson—the victim’s brother, who chased away the perpetrator.

Dodson’s emphatic statements (“Hide your kids, hide your wife!”) and animated delivery caused an internet sensation. Almost immediately, the original news report was copied onto YouTube and went viral.

The musical duo The Gregory Brothers remixed the original news video into a hit song called “Bed Intruder” (proceeds from iTunes sales benefit the Dodson family), and Dodson became a celebrity—even performing the song himself at last October’s BET awards.

But WAFF apparently has done nothing to capitalize on all this attention to the news video that it originally created. The original video, as posted on their site, is not embeddable nor easily shareable via social media. In fact, aside from the original story page, the only other pages on the WAFF site that mention the Antoine Dodson phenonmenon which their news story sparked are syndicated wire service reports and a press release from Comedy Central.

How you can prepare for viral video success

The key to capitalizing on the potential for any video to go viral is to build into the video a direct connection back to a specific page on your site that will serve as a platform that you can build upon. Make this a routine part of your process—do it for every video that you create and post. Here’s how:

1. Designate an easy-to-remember redirect URL for each video. Do this before you finish producing the video. This will link to the video and any related coverage.

For instance, the Columbus Dispatch might have designated a redirect such as which would have initially linked to the page where the Ted Williams video and story first ran. Make sure this page allows comments and offers easy “like” and “share” buttons for the popular social media services.

2. Include that redirect URL in the video, at the end of the video file. Make sure it remains on the screen for several seconds. This makes it easy for anyone seeing the video to know where it came from and how to get more information or updates from your site—even if they’re viewing a version that was illegally copied to YouTube.

3. Post the video immediately to your own branded YouTube channel. You do have one, right? If not, set one up right now. Make sure you do everything possible through that channel to drive traffic back to your site. Also, use YouTube’s partners program to directly earn revenue from video traffic there.

If your video is good (or at least interesting or entertaining), people will expect to be able to find it share it on YouTube. Accept that this will happen, no matter what. Fortunately, it’s much easier for people to share the video from your YouTube channel than to capture and post it themselves. So if you post all your videos to YouTube first, two good things might happen:

  • It becomes more likely that your video might go viral in the first place (because it’s more easily findable on YouTube).
  • If your video does catch on, it’s most likely that your version of the video —with your branding and a useful link back to the relevant part of your site—will go viral, increasing the likelihood of traffic to your site.

4. Don’t bother with (most) YouTube takedown notices. Yes, a news organization is within its rights to request that YouTube take down stolen videos. But effectively, there is no point to this exercise—especially once a video has already become popular. More people will keep copying and posting it, and it becomes a time-consuming game of legal whack-a-mole to try to control online distribution once the horse has left the barn. Instead, focus only on takedown notices for copycats who strip out your branding.

Yahoo’s managing editor for Southeast Asia Alan Soon recently observed: “Content scarcity is not a viable business model when it comes to Internet publishing. At best, it allows rivals to circumvent you by curating other commoditized content instead of yours. In its worst, it robs journalism of a great story.”

5. Monitor traffic to your YouTube channel, and plan to grow if a video goes viral. Once any video achieves a level of traffic that you consider significant, consider how you might start adding more content to the page that is the destination of the link included in the original video.

For instance, if it’s an evolving story, you might post updates, or make a topic page out of the link destination. If your content management system has limitations for this kind of updating, you could create a timeline to expand this story on Storify and embed that on the destination page.

6. Shepherd the conversation. Soon also suggested that in the case of the Golden Voice video, the Dispatch could have used its online presence in social media to join the public conversation and “share ideas with the community on how to address homelessness. You now have the attention of millions. Use it for good. Isn’t that the point of journalism?”


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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