What makes videos go viral remains elusive, but that doesn't stop creative minds from trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
A parent records twin babies babbling at each other in a hilarious imitation of jocular adult banter. It gets more than 3.3 million views, is discussed on several popular TV talk shows and is bought by Google to use in an online promotion.
A woman in a bikini starts a fight at a Florida Burger King, beating on employees and cursing. Several onlookers record the melee on cellphones and more than a dozen different versions go up on the video-sharing site YouTube, earning instant notoriety for its subject.
In YouTube's early days, any random homemade bit of quirk stood a good chance of ricocheting around the world via the Internet, known as "going viral." Now, professional advertisers are tripping over themselves, creating short videos to sell products and trying to make them go viral with help from paid ads and seeding blogs.
If a video gets mentioned on a popular news program or influential website like the Huffington Post, Popeater or Mashable, it can go from viral to super viral in a matter of hours. But no one, not even digital-ad experts, can predict exactly what combination of ingredients will elicit those millions of clicks.
In a world where everything seems explainable and predictable, we still can't control the weather, and we still can't force a video's viral-ocity.
'Even the agencies don't really know why one goes crazy and another doesn't," said Tim Hwang, coordinator of ROFLCon, a Boston convention featuring viral video stars.
But for those who succeed, it's the modern-day equivalent of striking brand-recognition gold.
"Getting all the parts right is like a winning lottery ticket," said Quan Hoang, creative director at the Minneapolis digital-production company Pixel Farm.
What's 'viral' mean, anyway?
In the ad world, viral is never a savvy strategy, only a possible outcome, said Jake Nyberg, a partner in the Minneapolis creative boutique agency threevolts.
"Clients call and say 'make it go viral,' but that's like catching lightning in a bottle," he said. "All you can do is toss in a bunch of ingredients and hope they make the smoothie that the public wants to drink."
Nyberg takes issues with some videos being called viral, like the ones featuring the Old Spice guy, a shirtless, studly ad-agency creation whose first claim to fame was in TV commercials.
The term "viral" is not interchangeable with "lots of views," he said: "Viral is a qualitative statement, implying it was produced in a certain way, with no media buys behind it, and it just spread literally like a virus."
But there's also an influencing factor as simple and traditional as timing.
Ed Schiappa, who chairs Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota, says it's no accident that the Rebecca Black video took off at a time when really bad news dominates the headlines, because people use media to gratify needs.
"When the news is filled with enormously stressful stories, ranging from the threat of nuclear radiation from Japan to war in Libya to state budget crises threatening increased property taxes, entertainment media, including viral videos, serve a valuable psychological function of escape and distraction," he said.
That theory might explain why a video of eagles hatching in Iowa drew more than 11 million hits last week, with Mama Eagle still drawing viewers hoping to catch a glimpse of the gory spoils she feeds her babies. But how does anyone explain the popularity of "public fighting" videos like the Florida bikini brawler and the chair-tossing melee at First Avenue during last year's Minnesota hip-hop awards?
We also have something psychologists call a negativity bias that is probably innate, Schiappa said: "We're genetically programmed to pay attention to stuff that threatens us. If you are walking down the street and out of the corner of your right eye you see two people hugging and out of the corner of your left eye you see two people fighting, you will instinctively turn to the left."
But not always. Most Minnesota-made videos that have gone viral are about as G-rated as "Little House on the Prairie."
University of Minnesota grad student Tay Zonday became a viral star on YouTube in 2007 when a video of him singing his quirky song "Chocolate Rain" received more than 60 million views. Kevin Heinz and Jill Peterson's 2009 wedding aisle boogie was so popular that even "The Office" riffed on it. Austin Hall, a Carleton College student who was procrastinating about his studies, created "Daft Hands," a clip of his fists and fingers rocking out to a punk song. It racked up more than 4 million views and landed him an appearance on "Ellen" in 2007. And who could forget the drunken squirrel, high on fermented pumpkin nabbed from front-porch jack-o'-lanterns, shot by Shad Petosky in 2006?
It seems like every other person with a cellphone these days fancies themselves a YouTube auteur -- or at least voyeur.
"Everybody can be their own TV station now," Nyberg said, "but there's a lot of noise out there. For every viral video, there are probably 1,000 other ones just as funny or cute, just sitting there with very few views." He and other locals in the biz offered a few tips for home hobbyists.
The content has to motivate viewers to want to share it with friends, said Nicole Newville of space150, a Minneapolis-based digital agency whose clients including Dairy Queen, Best Buy and Forever 21.
"While paid media elevates the awareness of a video, it's important that the content motivates the viewer to want to share it with their friends," she said.
Hoang thinks it's best to go niche, not broad.
"Be fearless about talking to specific groups instead of trying to talk to everyone," he said. "Do something that makes people laugh or think, but not something that looks like you're trying to go viral. That winds up looking artificial and people are smart, they figure it out. It's more about the quality of the idea or joke than about special effects."
Authenticity is the quality every expert stressed the most.
"It's got to feel real, not rehearsed or repeated," Nyberg said. "Attempts to re-create hit videos almost always flop."
Once your video is ready to post, be sure to give it a short, catchy name. Nyberg cites the example of a spot threevolts did that initially didn't get a lot of hits because it was topped with the client company's name. Once changed to "Annoying office crotch grab," it caught many more eyeballs.
In the end, nothing but the groundswell of popular appeal can actually make a video go viral.
Your surest bet for success, Schiappa says, is "making friends with someone in TV news. The media feeds the beast, and when TV shows do segments on viral videos, they almost always go super viral."
In the early days, the audience for viral videos was people under 30 who spent too much time online, Hwang said. "Now the generation gap's closing on viral celebrity. A lot of baby boomers are into it, and as more of them get into video sharing online, they'll create their own memes."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046