Sometime in the past decade, the idea of making a viral video and becoming rich from it began to feel like a bona fide career path.
The examples of viral video stars who turned into household names are starting to add up: Justin Bieber was discovered by record executives after posting homemade videos of himself singing on the video sharing site YouTube. Actor Lucas Cruikshank, 19, gained fame after his viral videos of the character Fred Figglehorn gained popularity among the younger set, catapulting him to regular spots in TV movies and sitcoms on the network Nickelodeon. Annoying Orange was just one video on YouTube until its popularity convinced creator Dane Boedigheimer to make more; now, it's not just a Web series but a TV series on the Cartoon Network and a video game.
Meanwhile, at least one university (Northwestern) has offered a course on viral videos. But making one isn't as easy as filming a cat playing the piano. According to YouTube.com, 100 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. That means that while everyone wants a video to go viral, an infinitesimal number actually do.
"Having been in digital advertising my full career, clients often come to us and say they want their video to go viral. Trouble is, there isn't a secret formula to it," says Robb Hecht, an adjunct marketing professor at Baruch College in New York City. "An agency or an average user can do everything in their power to make a video go viral, but it's the cultural zeitgeist of the time that establishes its uptake and its being pushed around for all as a must-see."
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Still, if you're considering the idea of creating a viral video and trying to make money from it, here's what you need to know.
Your equipment needn't be expensive. All you need is a video camera (even if it's installed on your cell phone), something to shoot and a way to upload it to the Internet. Given the odds against a video going viral and being seen by millions of people around the world, spending a ridiculous amount of money to make a viral video would be ridiculous.
But if you have some money to spend on production, spend it on lights and microphones, suggests Jay Miletsky, CEO of New York City-based Sequel Media Group, which publishes a variety of online video and editorial content. "You can have the best camera in the world, but if the lighting and audio is off, your video will suffer greatly," Miletsky says, adding that there's no shame in shooting your viral video on the cheap. "I'm a big fan of doing things on a shoestring budget."
Make your video for fun, not money. You'll make your money through the website hosting your video (usually YouTube, but not always), and through revenue generated from Google's AdSense. Both YouTube and Google are notoriously secretive about the details of how their profit-sharing works with video producers, but Mike Vogel, video producer, app creator and writer offers this insight on his blog.
He mentions how one of his videos received 34,394 views and earned $17.06, which comes out to .0004 cents per person viewing the video. Another video received 75,000 views, and he actually earned less - $10.58. And for a 3-second video that received 654,341 views, he made $35.84.
Of course, that's just one person's experience, and one commenter on Vogel's blog speculates that if the three-second video had been longer, his earnings may have been slightly higher.
But $10.58 here and $35.84 there can add up. You may not become rich, but you might be able to supplement your income. Kyle Kron, who is majoring in sports management at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has pulled in $3,000 since he began shooting videos about two years ago, most of them with a college theme, primarily involving Miami University sports. He has shot around 60 videos (11 are now hidden; 49 are posted on YouTube).
The way he is going, Kron will never live off his video income when he graduates, but he is OK with that. "While some people can make a living off of making YouTube videos, people like me enjoy a monthly check for something we love doing," he says.
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In 2007, Adam Schleichkorn made a 35-second video called "Fence Plowing," in which he hurled himself through a wooden fence. That video, posted on YouTube, was a modest hit - it has had more than 130,000 views as of this writing - but it received enough attention that he was interviewed by "20/20" and other media outlets in a slew of stories on viral videos. He became one of the first video creators to be accepted into YouTube's Partner Program, in which producers receive a cut of the profits from the ad revenue their videos generate.
"Anyone who gets paid through Google AdSense isn't legally allowed to say how much you're making, but I was doing all right, living on my own for years and paying my bills," Schleichkorn says.
But as YouTube began recruiting more corporate top-tier production talent, Schleichkorn says making a living as a mid-level producer became more difficult. After three years of creating videos, he had to stop doing it full time. He now is a freelance video editor and videographer and runs the website HiddenTrackTV.com. He may not have gotten rich off viral videos, but viral videos have certainly informed his career.
Nothing happens without the content. Miletsky suggests keeping your videos short ("More than half of viewers drop off after the second minute," he says), and while episodic Web shows work well, you should be able to watch one without having to watch all the others.
But what should the video be about? Something universal that touches all of us, Hecht suggests. The video, he adds, "may express some fear, overcoming hardship, being bullied, watching something grow, laughing intensely. But it should be a snapshot video of a moment that we've all experienced and perhaps previously thought we were experiencing alone. Many successful viral videos thus actually are popular because they - aside from perhaps being put to catchy music - help people self-identify with others, ideally through laughter."
Keep your expectations in check. "If you want to create videos that you put on YouTube and then, a week later, you're being interviewed on 'Fox and Friends' and 'The Today Show,' then you might as well decide to make a career out of winning Powerball," Miletsky says.
You may not become rich from producing viral videos, but you may still be able to make a career out of it. Miletsky's company has 15 employees and generated $7 million in revenue in 2012. He expects revenue to reach $17 million this year and to add another five employees.
But Miletsky doesn't spend all day filming videos of cute hamsters; most of his day, he's in talks with advertisers or is looking to partner with other companies or buy them, or he is dealing with the day-to-day challenges of running a business that produces educational and informational videos on topics like food and fashion.
"You have to decide what the word 'viral' means to you," Miletsky says. Being interviewed by Matt Lauer may not be a realistic career goal, "but if you want to create video content that is shareable to more than your immediate audience, like you get it out to 5,000 people, and some of them share it, that might be viral enough for your needs to generate some revenue. And if you take that approach, then, yes, you can make a good living."
Or, at least, good enough.