How the Godzilla weather video went viral

A successful viral video is like pornography—I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. And I knew I was looking at a viral hit a few weeks ago, when a friend sent me an mp4 of this video as an afterthought to an email exchange we were having. “BTW, a buddy of mine used to be a weather guy…” he said. “Enjoy.”

And enjoy it I did. As I watched the video for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking of the projected 100+ degree temps forecast at the end of the week. I forwarded the file to @mrbeefy the next day. “This needs to go out from @FakeNBC12 on Friday,” I urged. “Thoughts?”

@FakeNBC12 is a Twitter account @mrbeefy and I created in response to @nbc12 posting two shameful tweets (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) when a gunman was reported on the Virginia Tech campus. Since then we’ve used it to lob spitballs at local media, post non sequiturs, and share whatever else we find funny in the moment. The fact that we’d just stumbled onto the best local media parody of the year was a stroke of amazing luck, pure and simple.

On Friday, June 29, 2012, the video was uploaded to a brand spank’n new FakeNBC12 YouTube account. One tweet (to ~250 followers) went out around noon ET:

FakeNBC12 tweet

A few minutes later, I posted the video to my Facebook account for my ~400 friends.

My Facebook Post

And then…that was it. We went on with the last hours of the workweek. My friends started sharing the link on Facebook. The @FakeNBC12 post was retweeted 16 times. After a couple of hours, the hit counter on the video was up to 300, and there were high-fives all around. (Our definition of “viral hit” was very modest. I hoped it might get a couple thousand hits over the weekend.)

But things really caught fire when the video showed up on Reddit around 2:30pm. User j3rown uploaded it to /r/videos, and it immediately began gaining popularity. Later Friday evening the video made it to the Reddit homepage, where it peaked at #9 around 10pm — less than an hour before the sudden derecho swept through Richmond. The video also turned up on Metafilter, and by Saturday morning it had gotten over 130,000 views in less than 24 hours. [1]

On Monday morning the east coast was still cleaning up debris from Friday’s freak storm, and the video showed up on Gawker, Mashable, Huffington Post, and others. Local media began covering the fact that something from Richmond had gone viral, and WTVR CBS6, the tv station from whence the video originated, published a clarification that the video was a spoof (duh!) that had never aired on television. Local TV, LLC, parent company of CBS6, made a copyright claim against the video using the Content ID feature of YouTube. [2]

As I’m writing this post, the video now has over 1.2 million views, which is funny and surreal and at the same time completely meaningless to our day to day lives. But for the people who are interested in such things, we wanted to share some takeaways from this experience.

What we learned about traffic and clicks

  • Embedded views were far and away the largest single source of hits, accounting for more than 50% of the video’s traffic.

  • Embedded views from Facebook were the largest single chunk of hits, followed by clicks from Reddit, followed by clicks from Facebook. Facebook accounted for close to 90% of the video’s “shares.” If you care about traffic, Facebook matters.

  • Reddit launched the video into the stratosphere. Besides sending a huge amount of traffic, it no doubt contributed to other sites linking to the video. Metafilter also provided a significant boost on that first day.

  • The Youtube home page provided a decent number of views, but not as many as you might think. The number is roughly equivalent to the 6th largest source of embedded views.

  • Local Richmond media did not contribute to the video’s success. By the time local sources caught on, it had already spread far and wide. The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s embedded video provided 1/10 the number of views of FailBlog, for example.

What we learned about so-called ‘viral strategy’

Make awesome videos. As much as we’ve enjoyed feeling like a part of something awesome, the truth is that former weatherman Aaron Justus did all the really hard work. He combined pitch-perfect humor with a flawless deadpan delivery, without ever seeming harsh or vulgar. It was authentic and inspired, and that made it successful. No amount of marketing strategy flim-flam will ever make up for a lame video.

Timing is important. Publishing the video on the first day of a massive heatwave was the key factor in its popularity. People really do love to talk about the weather, especially when it’s in the triple digits. And the derecho that swept across the country later in the evening gave the media an additional “angle” to cover, albeit a very tragic one. It was a great video that appeared at the right moment, like magic.

Everything else is crap. Seriously, we posted this on the Internet twice, on the right day of the year. That’s it. That’s all it took! To describe what we did as a “bare minimum” of effort would go too far. Viral marketing strategy is for suckers. Hell, most marketing is for suckers. Don’t be fooled, this isn’t rocket surgery.

One final note

Stop asking people to share your videos. People share something because a) they like it and b) they think that they’ll look cool for liking and/or discovering it. That’s it. That’s the secret. Make things that people will want to share. If you’re asking people to “please make this go viral!” then you’re admitting that your thing is not actually good enough for people to want to share it. Go make something awesome!


[1] We were not responsible for either of these posts. Seriously. Spamming sites with your link is lame.

[2] We did not put any ads on the video, and never made a nickel off its success.