Viral Government Videos: Let’s Do It!


In my career as a Strategic Communications Consultant, I’ve had several government clients say: “Janice, I want (fill in the blank government program) to go viral.”

OK, let’s be honest here.  Government content just isn’t that interesting to most people.  Now if a government staff or executive messes up—that will go viral. Maybe even be memorialized in song or highlight reel.

This original song about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s relationship has over 9 million views.  And ridicule is non-partisan.  George W. Bush’s blooper reel has over 11 million views.   Even Barack Obama has a blooper reel but with only 754,336 views.

In GovGirl’s video blog “Can Government Do Viral Videos?” she touts a San Francisco government parody video of “Call Me Baby” that got 9,000 views (yes, 9k – less than 0.1% of Clinton’s or Bush’s views).

So the bar for calling a government-produced video “viral” is pretty low. When you Google: “how to make a video go viral” you get a multitude of blogs with tips or advice “10 ways” “4 tips” “6 qualities,” etc.

What do these have in common? How does this apply to government videos?

Here is a roll-up of these tips, tailored for government:

  1. Keep it short. One of the hardest things to do.  Your Program Manager will want to include every little detail.  S/he will want to have all of the executives and partner executives, plus the subject matter expert(s) and her/himself on camera.  S/he will stress about leaving anyone out. This will be a tough battle, but fight it.  Keep it under 90 seconds or it won’t have a chance.
  2. Post on a Monday or Tuesday. Because people goof off at work watching videos and are doing other fun stuff offline on weekends. That’s an easy one.
  3. Get your friends and family to share it. Or in the case of a government program – your key stakeholders, partners and contractors.  But given the internal review and approval cycle many partner agencies have, that may be tough … but us government workers have friends and family too … ok, let’s move on.
  1. Be timely. This means trying to hook into an existing Internet meme, popular topic or news event and riding that wave.  Can you get your content surfboard pre-approved by Public Affairs?  If yes, ride on (and don’t fall).  But if your content surfboard is in a stack on the beach waiting to be approved by the lifeguards (aka Public Affairs), you’ll be stuck on shore.  If you work in Public Affairs, perfect.
  2. Be involved. This means engaging with a live audience and responding quickly to comments.  This could make Public Affairs go crazy because the topics are driven by the audience, not the agency.  The messaging is hard to control.  There are tools to moderate and weed out weird and crass questions.  It’s tough, but could be possible if you push it.  If you work in Public Affairs, this means dedicating the resources to monitor and respond to posts across all media/social media with correct messaging and information.   This could be challenging if the information is about a technical or programmatic topic.  It will require close coordination with the program operations team.  But it’s worth it – especially for agencies that are seeking to maintain or rebuild public trust.
  3. Make it easy for others to vote, comment, rate, share and embed your video. Interactivity makes people feel more invested in the piece.  This too will need to be cleared with Public Affairs, but it’s possible.  Agencies with leadership that embrace transparency already have this.  But see # 5 regarding the resources required to monitor and manage this properly.
  4. Be informative. YES! That is what government programs do best!  But remember tip #1.
  1. Be positive and inspiring. While negative often gets attention, it’s not always the right kind of attention. Find a heart-warming human story and don’t forget the music and video releases.
  1. Make sure your video is good: Hire an expert video firm or any video firm with a GSA AIMS schedule.  Or hire a video-savvy intern.

You were probably expecting me to say “make it funny” or “add a cat/dog/baby.”  I agree those can be fun to watch but  information from the government must be politically correct.  Funny is risky.  Also, you will have to transcribe the video and add closed captioning to make it Section 508 compliance – making that timeliness tip challenging.

For our government clients, our team usually focuses on outreach to specific target audiences.  For one client, we were tasked with developing materials and manning a table at two conferences.  Seeking to extend the conference’s outreach effectiveness, we brought our camera along and set up a photo booth with props.

Attendees came by and we invited them to answer: “What does (program mission) means to me” on camera.  We got a signed release and posted the images to Facebook on the spot and tagging them.  We hoped their friends and family would also see the message and click-through to our client’s web page for detailed information.  It worked (see tips #3 and 4).

Here are several government videos used to kick off meetings/conferences or PSAs circulated to TV stations in the hopes of a midnight freebie.  While they didn’t go viral, they convey the message to the target audience in a more human way.

So GovLoop readers – have any of your government videos gone viral (more than 9k views)?

Post your government videos here. I promise to watch them if they are less than 90 seconds.  No guarantees if they are longer than that. That will be one view.  Together, let’s make them go viral!

Janice John Roper-Graham is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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