March 3, 2016

Marketing My First Viral Video: What I Learned

Over five years ago in late 2010, my co-producer and I drove around the circumference of Manhattan faster than anybody else and made a sensationalist video about it. That video, which can be seen above, ended up being my first viral video—not in terms of views, but in terms of press and how it broke niche boundaries.

This article isn’t going to document how ‘the lap’ came about or how we did it, but will instead discuss the marketing behind it, what I learned from the experience, and what I would have done differently.

Nobody’s Going to Care If Nobody Can Discover It

Though the current video that’s up on YouTube was uploaded on June 20, 2011, the video was actually originally uploaded on a different channel, meant to keep us more anonymous, in August of the previous year.

Optimizing your video is great, which we had done, but it’s not going to do a ton if you don’t have any distribution strategy. When we released the video to the world we literally had no distribution strategy. For some reason, we both figured that the right niche would just stumble across it naturally, even though the new channel it was on had zero subscribers and zero previously uploaded videos.

I would say that before we took the video down in order to reupload it on a more popular channel, the video had only around 100 views. The title, “The Fastest Driven Lap of Manhattan” was quite long-tail and not something YouTube users would be searching for. With no outbound strategy to bring in viewers, it was hard to get views and near impossible to have the video reach a point of critical mass in which viewers would share it for us.

YouTube was big, but it wasn’t the giant that it is today. Here’s what we were facing with our long tail / niche video:

Youtube usage chart, 2005-2013
Note our upload date (Aug 2010) was just when YouTube was about to hit an upswing. Again, the platform was still relatively new and our lack of existing audience + niche video made it hard for viewers to find us. Source:

The small amount of viewers we were getting wasn’t cutting it. I still had the belief that the video had potential, but didn’t realize at the time just how important it was to get qualified viewers.

Message a Ton of People to Get the Word out and Aim for People Who Care

It seems like a no brainer, but tons of creators could be getting a lot more views if they only notified the right people about their content.

When we released the original video, this didn’t occur to either of us. It wasn’t until one of my last marketing classes of college, which I took in early 2011, that I learned about submitting anonymous tips and reaching out to journalists…and it wasn’t until thinking up ways to promote more recent videos of ours, that I realized I might be able to effectively promote this video.

Here’s what the video looked like without any outreach:

Youtube viral video screenshot

And here’s what it looks like now:

Youtube viral video screenshot

Most news organizations make it fairly easy to send a tip or contact one of their journalists. This became the cornerstone of our distribution method, and is something I still rely on today.

The director of marketing for American Apparel, Ryan Holiday, discusses using this technique when he was trying to draw attention to a book that he was responsible for promoting. “We wanted to start a campaign where other people were vandalizing [our] billboards…We put these profane stickers on the front of the [billboards]…Then we took photos of that and through an anonymous email I sent it as a tip to a bunch of very big local blogs, and of course they ran it because who would do this to themselves, right?”

Once I realized that all this could apply to promoting our ‘Fastest Lap’ video, I used an alias e-mail address to reach out to as many auto blogs as I could find.

News is taken more seriously when it comes from people uninvolved with it because then it looks less like self promotion and more like something that other people care about…so having learned that logic, I made an effort to make it authentically look like I wasn’t involved with the video.

How did I do this? I’d pretend to be irate, incredulous, or just really passionate about the video. I’d then keep the messages short and I’d include a link to the video at the end.

  • Irate: “Just wanted to let you guys know that a couple of idiots endangered people’s lives to set some driving record in new york [note the purposeful lack of grammar]. Normally I’m all for cool driving, but this could have had people killed… v=jPB6yYOF-Eg
  • Incredulous: “I don’t know if I believe this but maybe you guys could do some sloothing and figure it out…these guys claim to have driven around manhattan in 26 minutes setting a world record
  • Passionate: “Two guys just made a video about beating Alex Roy’s record for the FASTEST DRIVEN lap around Manhattan. Alex did it in 27 minutes, they did it in 26. https://

While I unfortunately don’t have the statistical success rates of each of those messages, the results can still be seen. A quick search for “Fastest Lap Manhattan CBC” returns a bunch of articles from reputable sources about the drive and about the drive after ours from a man who broke our record (more on that later)., one of the world’s most popular car websites, was among the first to use our anonymous tip and ran this story on the front page of their site for a full two days, and then had other articles written about it on the site.

We had an e-mail address on our YouTube page which allowed for us to have anonymous interviews with the news organizations covering our story.

Viral video media inquiry email

In addition to this, we had a story in the Huffington Post, other popular news sites, and all over local NYC TV news.

Most importantly, all this brought a lot of attention to our YouTube channel, which we were trying promote.

When It Comes to Short Free Online Media, Any Press Is Good Press

Any press is good press when it comes media that users can access easily and won’t take a lot of their time. If somebody is angrily ranting on Facebook or Twitter about a video they saw or an article they read, you will be more likely to check out that piece of media. It’ll either be out of mere interest or to see if you’ll feel the same anger, but the fact of the matter is, whatever the feeling, as long as it’s intense, is crucial in marketing and promotion.

As with the above e-mail correspondence, we’d always respond to press inquiries and, when it wasn’t important to be anonymous, we’d it make it very easy to reach us personally. This is always a top piece of advice when it comes communicating with journalists. With the service, HARO, for example, which connects journalists with sources for articles, one of the main pieces of advice given to become a potential source is, “Make yourself easy to reach.”

We’d always try to give journalists and bloggers what they wanted and would go out of our way to make our story more interesting to continue our press coverage. In the end, that’s what journalists are looking for: news that gets people to click and read. Here’s an example from an e-mail exchange about the ‘Fastest Lap’ and what it yielded in the article we were covered in.

Corporate Broadcasting Corporation manifesto email
Ridiculous, I know.

Ridiculous, but effective in making our YouTube channel more interesting. From one of the articles centered around our story:

viral video news article
Just to clarify, we were not ‘anarchist…’ but we were good at using effective language to make ourselves more intriguing.

What I Would Have Done Differently

In late August of 2013, a new ‘Fastest Lap’ video was uploaded to YouTube. Three years after we broke the original record, a new driver, Adam Tang, broke our record.

While our video only received 265K views, the new one, above, received 1.1m views. This made me carefully analyze what we could have done differently to see the success that Adam’s video received.

In terms of outreach, there’s not much more I would have done, other than tipping off more national and international websites, but marketing should always be built into the content at hand, so from that perspective, I know there are things about the video that could have been streamlined and made better for public consumption.

There are two main things I would have changed if I was to remake the video.

In the same way that any good news article starts with the information you most care about, so should have our video. We have a convoluted introductory sequence which takes up the first 2+ minutes of the video. That’s an eternity on YouTube. Adam Tang’s video, on the hand, begins with the driving immediately. We included our introductory sequence to sensationalize the stunt, and while I still believe that was good, we should have moved it towards the end of the video.

We also used a more niche song, while Adam used a mainstream one. We used an underground drum & base track, and Adam used a song by Afrojack and Steve Aoki, two mainstream artists. Adam’s choice of music was previously validated by the fact that its official music video has 38mm views, while the video for the song we used only has 127k views.

Adam did a lot wrong, however… a lot wrong. I won’t get into that here, but the result of his mishaps caused him to have to flee the country.

Wrapping Up

Wrapping up, having a viral video is an intense experience for anybody. Even Casey Neistat, one of the most experienced viral filmmakers, still gets excited when one of his videos goes viral.

The lessons that come from having something go viral, be it a video, an image, an article, or even a company, are far reaching, numerous, and a lot to comprehend. This article only touches upon the surface of them, but still should have plenty of good insights for both amateur and experienced content creators who are seeking increased success and outreach.

With all this said, and all that I learned, I’m actually very glad that the video didn’t do better than its 265K views. The video taught me a lot without putting me in jail. Adam Tang had to flee the country because of legal action taken against him and, from what my co-producer and I witnessed from having spoken to him and following him in the media, we got lucky. This article isn’t meant to encourage readers to go out and break the law and make a video about it, but to practice better marketing and content creation techniques. Hopefully that all came across.

If you have anything that you think should be added to the article, or any questions, let me know in the comments. There’s definitely a discussion that can be started here about the most effective marketing and creation practices for content, and it’s a discussion that I’d love to be a part of.

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Edward Sturm

Edward Sturm is a digital video and image producer, content marketer, and SEO. His creations have earned him tens of millions of views and have gotten him on television shows such as 20/20, Good Morning America, and The Today Show as well as in publications such as The Huffington Post, The Daily Mail, and The Verge. Read or listen to his essays on content marketing and creation for more.
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