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Harlem Shakedown: A Case Study for Sound Viral Video Principles

It seems to happen every few months:  Tebowing, planking, etc.  Something comes along in social media that dominates mass market conversation across all media channels.  We now expect these viral shock waves, but their timing is  impossible to predict.  The latest phenomenon, the “Harlem Shake,”  is a series of videos made by thousands of people worldwide that share a number of key elements. Every video is composed of two cuts of video: one with a single person dancing, the other with many dancing. Each is based on a 30-second clip from the song “Harlem Shake” by DJ/producer Baauer.


Here’s what everyone can take away from the meteoric rise of the Harlem Shake and its successful viral predecessors:

  1. It’s repetitive but catchy. Harlem Shake videos all share the identical song cut and length, which drives awareness by implanting the tune in collective consciousness. There’s no substitute for a song that you just can’t get out of your head.
  2. The video is extremely easy to film, produce and upload.  Similar to Planking and Tebowing, Harlem Shake videos can be made and posted in the public space by anyone with a camera, computer and internet connection.
  3. The theme is easy to personalize. That means firefighters, schools, ad agencies, swim teams and more are all uploading their “take” on the Harlem Shake – not unlike the geographic theme that inspired people to plank in new and interesting places.
  4. It’s a short guilty pleasure. Harlem Shake videos catch the viewer’s attention for 30 brief seconds.  Rather than featuring long, drawn-out dialogue, these videos are only as long as the ads that likely precede them, leaving the viewer wanting more.

The next time you consider video for your social strategy, be it a contest, user-generated submissions or other execution, remember the Harlem Shake’s best qualities.  Integrate a tune, phrase, image or other distinctive visual element. Give your audience guidelines that will make each of their videos similar but not identical.  Keep the submission requirements simple and allow as many people to participate as possible.  Open the door for creativity and personalization: inspire people to add their unique take on the theme.  Finally, require submissions to be short.

Your next video project might not be as big of a viral success as the Harlem Shake, but you’ll likely see a huge upswing in participation if you follow these “viral principles.”

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