How to Go Viral: 'Gangnam Style' vs. 'Harlem Shake'

You can learn a lot from these points describing why music memes get shared online.

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It's one thing to always hear about ditching record labels and marketing yourself online now that the internet has levelled the playing field. But knowing that is barely the first step.

What can your band do to gain traffic and record sales using YouTube?

This week's industry post is going to be a little different. We'll be looking at what made 2013's biggest YouTube music hits successful, then find ways that you can apply this to your band's videos. You probably won't shake the world in the same way that everyone's favourite Korean Psy did, but with some simple tips you can get a real boost to your traffic potential.

Why "Gangnam Style" and "Harlem Shake" went viral

A study by Face Group compares this year's two biggest music memes to understand what made them tick. Here's a roundup of what a video needs to "go viral" and how they applied to "Gangnam Style" and "Harlem Shake."

1) Have a clear lead character

Overall, "Gangnam Style" was bigger than "Harlem Shake" because the meme apparently "lived" for 172 days, compared to 29 for "Harlem Shake" (where "lived" means it was shared at least 500 per day).

One reason it lasted longer is because it had a clear lead character in Psy, who viewers could easily remember, describe and search for. It's easier to tell friends about the Korean dude with a catchy song, with lyrics that you can sing, than describe the oddball dancing and lyric less dance theme by Baauer.

2) Get a burst of early shares

Both videos were given an early boost from celebrities like Katy Perry who shared the video to a big network of millions of followers. In turn, these followers might only have a few hundred followers on Twitter or Facebook, but sharing to them scales it up to an even bigger number of people. This is called "top-down" sharing.

It's okay; you don't need a celebrity to share your video. Use a special Twitter search engine like Followerwonk to find popular twitter users from your area, get to know them, then let them know about your video when you post it. Or look elsewhere for big tweeters who are leaders in your genre of music, and do the same with them. Get a big impact early on with their help.

3) Join a community and get them behind you

This is similar to the last point, but instead known as "bottom-up" sharing. It's where you get a lot of people with a low number of followers to share your link all at once, which provides a similar effect as top-down sharing but with more people.

This is how "Harlem Shake" took off. Lots of wannabe-shakers took their own videos and shared them to friends, who in turn searched found it funny and seated for other "Harlem Shakes" on YouTube.

Forums are excellent places for this kind of thing. Music forums like on Ultimate Guitar or for other music blogs that cover your genre are a good place to start. Spend a few months getting to know them and becoming a regular visitor, and they'll be willing to hep you when you kindly ask for their support when your video launches.

4) Have international appeal

If you're singing about how it sucks to live in your town, that's fine - just don't expect people from elsewhere to relate to you. That limits your appeal elsewhere, and in turn, limits your shares.

Psy might be Korean, but the key lyrics in his song are simple for people in any country to copy and sing along. They consist of the title of the song, and those "oh" sounds which are hard to type but you know exactly what I mean because you're singing the darn song in your head now. That has international appeal, and therefore garners shares.

Another good example is that awful "boom boom boom" song by Black Eyed Peas. The word "boom" translates in every country, and that's catchy.

You may look at the comparsion between "Gangnam Style" and "Harlem Shake" in infographics here.

These appoints should help you get started on your road to video success. We're not claiming that you'll earn millions of views and global success after reading this post, but take these points on board and you'll be in a better position to build a strategy that really works.

In a future post we'll discuss other things you can do to your YouTube videos that will help people stumble across you on search engines, ways you can inflate the number of plays on a video without cheating, and most importantly, direct people to buy your music.

If you liked this article, hit the Facebook button to encourage us to write more how-to guides and analysis articles. We'd love your feedback as we explore how to improve the weekly industry posts, and as usual we'll be joining the comment conversation to answer any questions you have.

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22 comments sorted by best / new / date

    6) Reassure yourself that your video will mostly appeal to 12 year olds 7) Make sure that your video has no meaning whatsoever and is absolutely pointless 8) Avoid seeking help from the UG community (see step 3)
    Basically, if you want to be famous, write repetitive melodies with catchy onomatopoeic words, and get famous people to share them. Also having a single person at the helm makes it less confusing. Wow.
    Id love to see more 'how to' guides on Ultimate Guitar but this one comes across a little senseless for the audience attached to this site. Not that its a problem to post this obviously, but an article on how to create an exploitable gimmick for your band over the quality of the music, is not going to go down too well here I wouldn't have thought. Having said that I guess plenty of rock/metal acts have massive gimmicks historically with their appearance and everything, its just I don't think most rock acts will ever try to mimic the sort of viral videos outlined in this article...
    In the words of Billie Joe Armstrong,"Psy is the herpes of music"
    Really? I prefer Green Day is the herpes of music... This band is just teenage pop...
    Green Day is one of my favorite bands of all time. They continually create fantastic music, and play 2+ hour shows. I can't think of many other rock bands that can say the same.
    screw facebook, screw gangnam style screw south korea and north korea too how 'bout that?
    link no1
    1) So Dress like an idiot and don't let the other 3 members of my band in the video at all so the message is clear to the audience that "he is the frontman". 2) Befriend somebody marginally famous or 2.2/3) Get loads of people to record their own shit versions of my shit video. 4) Sing about nonsense with simple words and simple melodies that any idiot can remember. 5) After this, fade into obscurity after around a month, never to be heard from again despite writing a better follow up single. I dunno...I think in 20 years I would rather be known by a few people who are like "Hey yano that band? They're on tour for their new album! Can't wait" rather than remembered by a few "Hey remember that guy and his one hit wonder? No? Neither do I".
    The name "Harlem Shake" always reminds me of break dance... I really hope there is no racism inside me.
    Thankfully, I've never heard either of these. Nor have I ever heard Justin Bieber, or Lady Gaga, or Dubstep.
    Shame since Lady Gaga has some catchy tunes and there's some nice dubstep inspired artists.