02nd Sep 2012 by Andy Barr

How Gangnam Style went viral ?

Andy here, having a look at the story behind Gangnam Style and trying to understand not only how it went viral, but identifying the key strategies behind making content spread virally via the web. I think we are the first to put our head above the parapet and come out with a comprehensive review of the Gangnam Style viral timeline, and make a number of assumptions on how this became such a big phenomenon.

Being the first to do something is always cool, but it also carries the risk that you get things spectacularly wrong, so, with that in mind, apologies if there are a few inaccuracies and please point them out to be rectified or corrected.

I am going to be really honest; I started looking at the story behind the video because I truly felt something was being gamed behind the scenes for it to be getting such mainstream pick up, over such a short period of time.

I no longer think this was the case. I believe it was simply a well thought out, well planned and well executed campaign, driven by the record label behind Psy (the star of Gangnam Style), YG Entertainment.

Before we look at the actual timeline of events that drove the campaign to such high views we need to look a bit more at the backstory and the planning of the campaign. In February 2012 YG Entertainment, through various media interviews in South Korea, made it clear that they wanted to push further into the American market.

Although I cannot verify it at this stage, I believe they may have set up an office in America and even explored partnerships with artists such as Will.i.Am. I also think that the deal announced with Scooter Braun was probably brokered in advance, and planned to be announced at the right, strategic, time, so as to give the campaign a further boost.

Stage One: having the desire to push into a new market, but yet to find the right vehicle with which to do so…YG Entertainment had a goal.

YG Entertainment also had a great platform on which to push, or as is the phrase in the digital media sector, "seed" the campaign. Pre Gangnam Style, YG was a well known, if not hugely successful label in the K-Pop (Korea Pop) sector. To be fair to them, post Gangnam, the likes of The Guardian has labelled them as a hugely successful music label.Looking at YG's seeding platform, pre Gangnam, it had circa 2.5m subscribers to its various YouTube channels and had achieved in the region of 1.6 billion views of musicians’ videos across those channels. WOW! Its main artists also, as is expected, have Twitter accounts; the majority that I looked at were mainly channels to push information but with high follower numbers.

These seeding platforms were vital to its efforts. YG knew that its YouTube subscriber numbers alone would mean that it would get high volumes of views from day one. This would take the pressure off them to try and push the story onto media, as media would be dragged in to the story by the high viewing figures.

It is clear that YG built these communities in a clever, well co-ordinated, and as far as my research has found, an altogether organic and genuine way; nothing was gamed and nothing was faked. Don't forget, the seeding platforms I mention are just the public ones. We don't know how many people are in their email newsletter databases.

Stage Two: They had the platforms and audiences to seed a viral campaign when the right opportunity came along.

Taking a closer look at the song and associated video, this too had all the right ingredients to not just become an online hit, but an online hit across multiple genres, territories and sectors (easy to say with hindsight I know!).

The song was eye catching; the bright flashy colours being hugely attractive for toddlers and infants, something my kids will testify too given they all started dancing to it as soon as the opening music began and crowded around the TV to watch. Language was not a barrier, if anything it helped because of its catchy lyrics and punchy chorus.

For the song and video to go global, it had to first of all be a hit in South Korea.

To help with this, it contained a kid who had caught the media's attention with his crazy talent during Korea's Got Talent, a famous South Korean comedian (the guy in the yellow suit) and another famous entertainer (the guy thrusting his crotch in the lift scene). These three people, alongside Psy, made for a hugely strong cast and one that would appeal back home.

The strong cast, vibrant colours, obvious humour and the fact that the song could be perceived to be mocking the wealthy area of Gangnam, meant it could resonate across social and economic divides, generations and global societies.

Stage Three: YG had funny and engaging content, the two key factors to helping something spread quickly on the web.

Combing all three stages, pre-launch, meant that when YG did release Gangnam Style, they knew it had a very good chance of doing well.

The next part is where brands will always struggle, as this cannot be written up into a process. This is where the gods of the interwebs play their part: the "release and see what happens" bit. Let's take a look at the timelines and key milestones.

Our interactive graphic here shows the key activities at various points during the rise, plateau and eventual decline in Gangnam Style popularity. What initially follows is an overview of what happened and my own observations on the life cycle of the campaign.

Here are some of the headline stats, correct at the time of writing:
Video Views:
Facebook Shares: 25,490,717
Tweets: 1,191,235
Mentions on the Google Blogger platform: 7,432

The video was launched on July 15 2012. It was preceded by two tweets from @allKpop, the twitter account associated with American based AllkPop.com, a celebrity and music gossip site focussed on the Korean music industry. I am not sure of the significance of AllKPop being an American based site, it is natural for the YG public relations team to "sell-in" the story to such a high profile media outlet prior to launch to try and tease the campaign and create pre-launch buzz.

On day one, I can safely say via promotion across its various seeding channels, the YouTube video had 500k of views. That is day one. WOW!

The video debuted at number one in the Korean music charts, nice!

Over the next month the video starts to build global momentum, but the volume of tweets and searches rise at a far slower rate than later on in the campaign and predominantly features traffic and search emerging from South Korea.

In mid-July there are then a few further tweets from @AllKPop, relating to the video's general profile, sales of the song as a ringtone doing well etc, but nothing out of the ordinary. Although much has been made of the impact of various celebrity supportive tweets, my interpretation is that mainstream media coverage initially brought it to many people's, including celebrities attention.

The UK's very own Kat Hannaford, editor of Gizmodo, was the first mainstream news site in the world to run a story on the video (July 26) and this was followed by Telegraaf in Holland (July 27). It is clear that these two articles caused a slight upward trend in video views, but again, nothing in comparison to what was to come later down the line.

I suspect that YG Entertainment put out a press release about the video’s success towards the end of July, presumably to try and accelerate the growth views, and obviously mainstream media pick up; but no trace of this can be found on the web.

I think it was placed on the likes of PR Newswire and syndicated (as there are a few search results on this topic lingering in Google, but when I clicked through the page had gone), but I cannot find any concrete evidence of this.

The next big push came via Gawker, which wrote a story on the song and video that generated 19k of Facebook Likes/Shares for the article (July 30).

This was followed by Billboard (the site that I suspect triggered the celebrity/musician tweets) with a story highlighting Gangnam being number one in the Kpop charts (July 31).

The story on Billboard created debate as the author, Jeff Benjamin, accused Psy of borrowing moves from LMFAO. This caused a rash of follow-on blog posts and comments supporting Psy and pointing out that he had, in fact, been around well before LMFAO had ever known they were sexy.

Controversy leads to debate, debate leads to an increase in traffic. I believe the debate created by the Billboard article was the reasoning behind the first spike in traffic that had bucked the previous traffic growth trend.

American singer (and all round nice guy, think James Blunt but without the neediness) Josh Grogan, lead the way in terms of celebrity tweets, giving Psy some love on Aug 1st. On the same day, but after Josh, an American rapper called TPain also tweeted about Gangnam Style.

More celebrities may have tweeted at this time but these two were the most influential in terms of retweets and impact.

The Huffington Post also ran a story on the 1st August but it had little direct influence on search or tweet volumes. However, it may have been the way in which CNN found the story, and subsequently ran the first mainstream global TV News piece (Aug 3).

The spike in traffic and views of the video caused YouTube Trends to write a post on Gangnam Style, making it their Video of the Month in terms of views and likes (Aug 7).

Whilst many news pieces started emerging at this time, both in terms of online and broadcast media, SkyNews in the UK was probably the next big, (in terms of influence), channel to run a feature (Aug 13).

Demonstrating its ability to spot and react quickly to emerging search trends The Daily Mail wrote the first in a total of 9 articles about the video, 6 of those articles coming within a 5 day period.

The rise in views, search terms and tweets was the second sharpest spike in the entire campaign life cycle. The subsequent three-week period was the first wave of a media frenzy, fuelled by high influence celebrity tweets from the likes of Katy Perry (13k retweets) and articles in the likes of Time magazine, Economist and on Mashable.

The media frenzy was also fed by The Washington Post's Maura Judkiss, running a piece that my research leads me to believe led to an internationally used article from the Associated Press newswire service.

Tweet and search volumes slowed considerably from September 2nd to the 9th, but still maintained an overall upward trend. YG and Psy had no need to worry though; they were about to unveil a partnership that would prove to jettison them into the big leagues.

Late on September the 3rd, a YouTube video showed Psy drinking a shot with Scooter Braun, THE Scooter Braun offa Justin Bieber manager fame, seemingly celebrating them working together started doing the rounds.

This was a huge announcement and the media, once again, went into overdrive, with seemingly every gossip and music site writing up the story.

Activity over the next two weeks triggered the biggest spike in the entire campaign, as Scooter Braun made some inspired media bookings. Alongside these bookings, Scooter also has a contact book to die for and his own artists have some of the largest marketing databases in the world, all of whom Psy now had access to. Viral heaven!

Thanks to Scooter Braun, Psy appeared at the MTV Awards as a last minute guest and alongside another of Scooter's clients, before going on to make his first appearance on the TV Show Ellen alongside Britney Spears. Britney (of course) tweeted this, creating a huge 1.3m tweets containing the term "Gangnam Style" over those few days alone.

Just as growth started to slow again, Scooter got Psy a spot on NBC Today show, and a second appearance on Ellen, that triggered a final but forceful spike in searches, tweets and video likes.

The very final peak, the icing on the cake so to speak, was when the Guinness World Records team issued a release relating to Psy breaking all known records for the number of views that the video has had. At this point, everything slows and a slow decline begins.

A host of "hilarious" copycat videos then began flooding YouTube and Twitter and the media is seemingly giving all of them air time, but this cannot buck the overall downward trend in terms of consumer interest, searches and tweets.

This takes us up to the last two weeks where media coverage has increased but public interest appears to have dropped off, especially on Twitter where mentions are now nearly back at the same level as at the very start of the campaign.

This has certainly been one of the most successful viral campaigns to have been executed and a huge amount of credit needs to be given to Psy and the YG Entertainment team.

The end goal of bringing KPop to a mass US audience has been completed and Psy has paved the way for other Korean musicians to get a foothold in the highly lucrative US, UK and wider European music charts.

Throughout the entire campaign Psy has handled himself brilliantly, even in the face of a gruelling schedule and probably the same questions and requests to "do the dance" that would drive most musicians crazy. Everyone at 10 Yetis doffs their cap to this hugely successful campaign, one that will set the benchmark for digital media campaigns for years to come.

Finally, our 6 Golden Rules to Creating a Successful Viral Campaign:

  • 1. Have a final goal in mind (likes, shares, sales leads, entering new territory)
  • 2. Organically grow a large seeding platform of engaged followers (online and database driven)
  • 3. Create content that is engaging & shareable and crosses social/economic/language boundaries
  • 4. Tease to known fanatics and early adopters
  • 5. Have a plan to reignite the campaign along the way (media)
  • 6. Have an exit strategy/cease the campaign, leaving people wanting more

NOTE: I used the following tools to help me research this campaign, Google News, Google Insight for Search, Topsy (pro), YouTube Trends, Journalisted, Google Blogs, Twitter, ViralVideoChart.com and good old Google Search.

How Did Gangnam Style Go Viral? The Viral Marketing Playbook from Andy Yeti-Barr

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