‘Hovercat’ Soars: How Does an Online Video Go Viral?

Jun 25, 2012 11:19am

From “David After Dentist” to “Kony 2012” to the Old Spice guy’s life musings, virality is perhaps our culture’s highest pinnacle right now.

Millions of parents and pet owners hope their babies will be the next “Nora the Piano Cat” or “Charlie Bit My Finger.” Every pop star yearns for the YouTube hits of a Bieber of a Gaga. Companies pay millions for their ads to take off a la “Bike Hero.”

But in an age of information overload, how does one video cut through?

I got a rare look at the dark arts and pixie dust associated with virality when I was approached by the guys of Mekanism, an advertising agency that has created numerous successful viral campaigns, including Pepsi’s Eminem ad for Brisk at last year’s Super Bowl and Microsoft’s “Clearification” ad.

A few months ago, Mekanism approached me with a promise – to “make Dan Harris go viral.”

Never one to shy away from attention, I was intrigued.

The Mekanism crew came to the “Nightline” office for a series of strategy sessions, where they pitched me ideas for videos — most of which, frankly, would have ended my journalism career. There was one in which I was supposed to moderate a debate between a monkey, a kitten and a bear cub. Another showed me as a massive cat hoarder. And another still was “Double Dan Harris,” in which they wanted to edit an  obnoxious, bathrobe-wearing version of me into serious interviews with important people like the Dalai Lama.

When it became clear that those ideas would all have eviscerated whatever credibility I might have, we decided it would be safer to just make the video as a public service announcement for one of my favorite charities, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The ASPCA works to save the millions of dogs and cats who are put down every year because they can’t find a home.

The Mekanism brain trust produced a sufficiently non-embarrassing idea called “Hovercat.”

So one day in April, we went to a studio in Manhattan to shoot a video with a trained cat named George.

In some shots, for George’s protection, we used a stuffed animal as a stunt double. But in others, the filmmakers had George jump up and chase after a play toy, while they shot him from a bank of 40 cameras to make it look like as if he was flying.  It’s the same way the fight scenes in “The Matrix” were shot.

While George took a break, the folks from Mekanism laid out their plan for making the video a hit. The first step is that the content had to be good, they said, because people only share things they think will make themselves look good, so the content had to be useful, meaningful or, in the case of “Hovercat,” funny.

The second step is defining relationships. Mekanism’s mission was to identify and engage key people, called “influencers,” who could help promote the video early on to audiences that would be receptive.

A few weeks after we shot it, Mekanism emailed me the video. In it, you see me in what is supposed to be my apartment, taking a final sip of coffee before work, and then leaving. That’s when George takes off, flying in the foyer, levitating in the living room, taking a quick break for a snack, and then bouncing on the bed before falling into my arms when I come home.

And finally, the kicker, the brilliant tagline: “Millions of viral videos waiting to be adopted.”

Then we put the plan into action. Eight days ago, the video debuted on the Sunday edition of “Good Morning America,” and then a few hours later, the “influencers” got on board. Veronica Belmont, a popular tech reporter who also happens to be a cat lover, tweeted out the video to her 1.6 million followers.

Later that day, Mystery Guitar Man, a popular YouTube video director, tweeted it out. Then a super-popular cat blog called “I Can Haz Cheeseburger” posted it. Within days of its posting, “Hovercat” had over 250,000 hits.

But then Mekanism started pushing it to non-animal sites, like the influential tech blog Mashable. From there, it went mainstream to USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, even the British newspaper The Sun. And boom — we had achieved velocity.

By day three or four, “Hovercat” had 500,000 views. Today, it has had over 847,000 views.

I have to admit, I was impressed. I had no idea it would happen this fast or that it would be this big.

And the end result: The Internet has its newest celebrity cat, who is both an object lesson in engineering virality, and could possibly help save millions of animals who need homes and their own shot at going viral.

Watch the full story on “Nightline” TONIGHT at 11:35 p.m. ET

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