Step one: be like the title of this blog post; use a title that gets people to click. And then confess you have no idea how the YouTube algorithm works. Does anyone really know how to make a YouTube video go viral? A lot of websites will tell you what matters and how to optimize your videos’ descriptions, tags, etc.; but there are no “do x, y, z” instructions to get you where you want to be. With all that being said, here’s our story:
Cracking YouTube’s Algorithm Part I
It was February 2019. I had an idea for a sketch that was based on The Avengers. Endgame was set to release in a few months and complete over 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My comedy partner, Matt, and I got to writing and filming: Life After Thanos Snapped (if you haven’t checked it out yet, you totally should). It was a comedic take on two office workers back in the office a few weeks after Thanos snapped his fingers, obliterating half of all life.
Genius, right? It’s a sketch that touches on pop culture released just months before everyone starts typing “Thanos” and “Snap” and “Avengers” into their search bars! We’ll be going viral in no time!
We published it, threw it on the usual channels and we watched the views climb. The first day we had 100 views and then 200, then 300, then 500, 750! Here we go! As seemingly nobodies within a month we had 1,000 views. While big YouTubers see that within minutes of releasing their video, for us this was 3x as much as our highest-performing video! But then that was it. We may have been overly optimistic in our sketch and strategy. We hit about 1.5k views and just sat there. Maybe 5-10 views a week from then on and, just like the viewers, we moved on.
Actually Going Viral On YouTube
Fast forward to December 2020. We’re in the midst of a pandemic and not producing any new material. I decide to use this time to go through our script and video library and edit our tags since it had been a while. I remember watching videos on how to tag, where some people mentioned tagging everything you can and including spelling errors, but I think we went too far.
Our tags are all over the place; one of our videos had “and” as a tag (WTF were we thinking?). Our video descriptions were lackluster and our video titles didn’t grab you at all. For example, one video was titled Magicians …doesn’t really spark interest. To top it all off, we completely missed labeling our videos as “comedy” and instead kept the default label “blog”.
I got to work. I cleaned up the tags to be relevant to the content. I made sure all videos had a uniform tag with our individual names and our group name. I corrected the label from “blog” to “comedy”. Finally, I re-titled some videos to be more alluring (ex. When Magicians Duel!) and updated the descriptions.
I tried to post our videos on relevant Facebook pages and subreddits and was continually updating tags from “The Avengers” to “Marvel’s Avengers” or just “Avengers”. Nothing really seemed to take. And then, on Dec 15th we saw a tick; 50 views on our Life After Thanos Snapped video. The next day: 75, the next: 150, the next: 300, something was working. Did I figure out how to make a YouTube video go viral almost two whole years later?
Why, after nearly two years, was this video suddenly getting picked up? To quote Darth Coco:
We had a fair amount of comments, like the above, exclaiming shock at our low subscriber and view count given our quality of content (extremely flattering). And more were harping on the fact that YouTube was suddenly recommending the video to them even though it was posted two years ago.
I believe it’s worth mentioning this specific video was correctly labeled as “comedy” and not as “blog”. So the label wasn’t what lit the fuse for this video, but it finally did what we had expected two years ago and shot us into the stratosphere. In 28 days we went from 200 subscribers and 0 views to 2,600 subscribers and 350K views. Both of these metrics made us eligible for the YouTube Partners Program to monetize our content and we jumped on it.
Life After The YouTube Algorithm Snapped
After much discussion with friends and family, we had some prevailing theories:
- Wandavision was released around this time. It brought renewed interest in the Marvel Universe and, specifically, dealt with life after the snap which I’m sure was a popular search term.
- The tags were updated. I was hard at work updating our tags, descriptions, etc. A friend who works in SEO mentioned that adding the phrase “Thanos after-credits scene…” could have been the key as people searched for Marvel’s famous “after-credits scenes.”
- And finally, my personal favorite: Chaos. There was a weird moment in the YouTube universe where that one extra person watched the video, liked it, and that put us in some new pool of videos to be recommended to the community and the dominoes kept falling.
What followed was a much needed reinvigoration during the pandemic, a “splash” affecting other videos, and a recalculation in trajectory. Through the pandemic our comedy duo wasn’t meeting nor writing new material. We had a backlog of videos that hadn’t been released and we weren’t sure when we would ever get to be back on stage.
Watching our video views climb excited us. Each morning we woke up and immediately texted each other, “did you see!?”. With views climbing we wanted to keep the newly found momentum and began writing again. We contacted our friends at 2 East 8th and told them we would be hiring them for ten sketches, but we don’t have them just yet.
As the Thanos video climbed in views, we were excited to see evidence of people clicking through to our other videos. Something we didn’t expect but seems obvious now. Some were even commenting:
We were caught off guard in a way. We suddenly had 2500 subscribers commenting on every video. They were going through our library deciding if we were what we dreamed to be: entertaining. Additionally, we hadn’t released any new content in months because of the pandemic and so we didn’t seem to be active in the YouTube Community. Luckily, we had two videos that we had forgotten to release! With new views and subscribers we released one of the videos. It saw 1500 views in one day! That was unheard of to us! We waited a week before releasing the second video and saw similar reactions. This is where things turned and new questions arose.
As we released the two “forgotten” videos we saw, for the first time, people unsubscribing. Additionally, our Thanos video took a huge hit in views per hour. The 20k per day we were accustomed to over the past month started dwindling. With zero certainties, I believe it is because we released the new videos.
The unsubscribes I don’t believe had anything to do with YouTube’s algorithm. We released another sketch video that wasn’t Marvel-themed and people realized we were not a Marvel Cinematic Universe channel, we’re a sketch comedy channel.
The views though. Those elusive, lovely, fragile, defining views. They were falling and falling fast. We upset the algorithm gods. By adding new content to the equation we might as well have multiplied it by -1. I think YouTube was trying to calculate, “do I recommend new content or most viewed content?” We didn’t realize what we were doing. In hindsight, I think we should’ve stayed absolutely still and not made any sudden movements, or change our launch schedule, or anything! We threw off the emperor’s groove! We could’ve let “nature” take its course and once we started seeing a dip, then we should have released the new content. But at the end of the day, who knows…
And that’s the point of the article. How do you crack YouTube’s elusive algorithm? Who knows!
It was a wild ride for us. Matt and I checked the analytics page of our YouTube account every morning. We read every comment and were on cloud nine seeing all of our hard work be positively recognized. I can’t tell you what the formula is for how to make a YouTube video go viral and achieve enough views to monetize on YouTube. But I do know that it’s been four years of comedy, 2 years of that video and so it stands to reason that the biggest factor in the formula is persistence.