The Industry of Virality (or what a raccoon video can teach us about the Internet)

Once an organic phenomenon, Internet virality is now a well-oiled industry. The author of the recent Pearson Airport racoon video shares his insights on today’s viral content business.

If someone told you there is a direct connection between accounting and the now famous airport raccoon video you probably would not be inclined to believe them. Yet such is the back story of the 29-second vertical phone video captured recently featuring a ceiling-dwelling raccoon high above one of the baggage carousels at Terminal 3 of Toronto’s Pearson Airport.

Cameron Graham, the man behind the camera, is usually found in front of a classroom filled with students at York University’s Schulich School of Business. But on Friday May 5, Graham was picking up his wife, who had been on a trip to Edmonton, when he noticed some ceiling surveillance taking place from a non-human source.

With other things to tend to upon his return home, he didn’t post the video on his Twitter account until the next morning, and with just 120 followers, he wasn’t expecting an international incident to break out. However, what happened was just that—albeit a brief one.

Virality: from an organic phenomenon to an industry

Internet virality was largely an organic phenomenon in the early days of YouTube, with videos such as Charlie Bit My Finger and David After Dentist amassing hundreds of millions of views through a combination of friends-of-friends sharing, blogs, and social media. The phenomenon also spurred scores of parodies and memes.

In those days, serious cash could follow too. In the case of David After Dentist, the video had pulled in $150,000 from YouTube advertising within a year and half of being posted. The family put the money toward a college fund for young David.

That was the first wave of viral video, which could be roughly framed as running from 2007 to 2010, i.e., a period when such phenomena happened perhaps a handful of times per year and during which YouTube was the sole site of distribution.

Compare this with what can be thought of as the second wave of viral content, post 2010, in which we witnessed extremely well-known videos such as Double Rainbow netting an impressive but significantly decreased 44 million views on YouTube, and, more recently, the kids crashing their dad’s BBC interview which received only 24 million YouTube views.

One of the explanations behind the changes in the numbers is flooding on the supply side, with close to 500 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute, 10 billion Snapchat views per day, 500 million tweets per day, and 100 million Instagram posts per day. So, while it’s easier than ever to make and distribute media content, it’s harder than ever to get noticed.

In this highly fragmented marketplace, capturing attention has therefore turned into an industry of its own, with companies specializing in planting, boosting, and monetizing videos such as Cameron Graham’s airport raccoon.

What makes content go viral in 2017?

Now that the Internet is several rounds into its next run of serendipitously retweeted videos, it’s a good time to check in with the professor—and accidental wildlife videographer—to see what can be learned about the mechanics of videos that go viral.

Ever the curious academic Graham wanted to see if he could stir up interest in his video. So after posting his initial tweet which yielded little interest beyond friends and colleagues, he strategically posted some tweets to local news sources as well as to the airport itself.

“And that’s when it started happening,” reveals Graham. “I had to turn off the Twitter notifications on my phone as it was pinging virtually non-stop all afternoon on that Saturday May 6.”

As is the custom on the Internet, wisecracking retweeters got in on the action, referencing popular topics such as United Airlines’ recent woes, so anyone searching for any of the words in those posts would come across the raccoon video. Continuing his experiment in dissemination, Graham then retweeted those tweets.

By this point, the video was averaging about 100,000 impressions per hour—the number of times it was appearing in people’s Twitter feeds. As the raccoon tweet scurried its way around the Internet, Cameron was contacted by a variety of local, national, and international media sources, including The Daily Mail in the UK and NBC. Along the way, the story also appeared on the front page of Reddit (the unofficial guide to the Internet) which Graham probably wouldn’t have known about if not pointed out to him by a former student.

“Within 24 hours”, wrote Graham in a blog post on his moment of Internet fame, “a company called Jukin Media contacted me and wanted to license the video. I told them I had already given permission to the CBC, NBC, and a few other mainstream news organizations to show the video. Jukin’s rep said that would be no problem [and that] I would retain the rights to the video under an agreement with Jukin.”

The viral content business

Companies the likes of Jukin are in the business of engineering viral phenomena online, to the extent that such engineering is possible. Some of their more famous feats are the Chewbacca Mom and Pizza Rat videos, which netted 10 million views each on YouTube and countless other exposures on Facebook.

And that’s one of the problems. Once videos are online, they are easily copied and re-posted elsewhere, with clicks and views leading to advertising revenue for whoever who posted them legitimately or not.

As Jukin’s website explains, the company has a 24/7 workforce and partnerships with The Huffington Post, Facebook, television networks, ad agencies, and a variety of websites that feature the day’s viral videos. Each researcher at Jukin views approximately 1,000 video clips per week, and is aided by the company’s proprietary software that seeks out keywords in video tags in the hopes of identifying the viral needle in the haystack of user-generated video content.

In an article on the company that appeared in The New York Times in December 2016 it was estimated that about 1.5 to 2 percent of the clips viewed are pursued for a licence, which tends to range between $50 and $5,000 and/or a 70/30 revenue split in the video creator’s favour. Additionally, Jukin has content-matching technology that enables companies to detect unauthorized video postings across various platforms and issue takedown notices to copyright infringers on behalf of creators.

Whereas America’s Funniest Home Videos once had a monopoly on turning wacky stunts gone wrong into programming, today’s companies such as Jukin and their competitors—including LadBible, Viral Thread, and Viral Hog—vie for supremacy in the identification, distribution, and monetization of clips they hope will be the one-in-a-million to truly go viral.

Generating money from viral videos

The agreement Cameron Graham has with Jukin gives him 70% of the amount earned from selling rights to the video and they only pay him when the royalties amount to more than US$50.

How well do such systems work? Graham remains skeptical. “The legitimacy of the industry is questionable. Does their video-matching technology work? Luckily for me, this whole thing is being done out of curiosity and I don’t expect to make much, if anything, off of the video.”

It is worth noting that Graham’s video continued to pop up in various places online, despite his agreement with Jukin, on YouTube channels such as Daily Viral Video, where it received about 150,000 views, and was tagged with “no copyright infringement intended” in the description box, and another called Vicious Animals, where it received a mere 30 views, possibly because the critter in question was so docile.

All in all, the accounting professor estimates that his video had a 48-hour lifecycle, during which time video views went from the aforementioned 100,000 per hour to about 100 per day a few weeks later and now trickling off almost completely. In total, the video received 1.8 million impressions on Twitter and 874,000 full views.

As for the impact on his balance sheet, Graham’s expectations are low. “I don’t have any $50 problems,” he jokes. “And that’s probably what this video will generate, if that.” To further put things into perspective, he offered up the following tweet:

You can read professor Cameron Graham’s full post relating his viral video experience here.

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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