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An experiment on virality

On December 1, 2020 an uncrewed vehicle of the Chinese Chang'e 5 sample return mission was about to land on the Moon.

There was a lot of excitement and interest. Which I shared as I'm an astronomy and space enthusiast. These fields are a major part of my creative endeavours.

Space experts, scientists, and reporters were sharing online a lot of information on the mission and the vehicles. But they were hardly talking about Mons Rümker (Latin for mount Rümker), the spacecraft's planned landing site.

The Mons Rümker area is of great scientific interest. But it's a subtle lunar feature that may be difficult to locate even if you know where to look for.

So I played with Google Maps a bit to explore this area of the Moon and get a refresher ahead of the landing. Mons Rümker looked great in Google Maps. Therefore, the night before the landing I made a video to share and contribute to the online mission coverage and conversation.

It's a simple 2-minute video that navigates to and zooms in on Mons Rümker. I just opened the Google Maps website, switched to the Moon view, and recorded a screencast with a Chrome extension.

I uploaded the video to YouTube and added a music track from YouTube's music library. I also drafted for my blog a 200 words post embedding the video and providing some context and details.

Then I decided to hold on to the content a little bit more for a little experiment on virality.

Although the video and the post were ready the night before the landing, I decided to publish them a few hours ahead of the event. I knew that was when the attention of the space community on Twitter would peak. The timing turned out to be right.

On landing day, I posted 2 tweets linking to the blog post and shared the video with a few friends and venues.

The video went moderately viral.

Within 24 hours, the video got almost 9K views and now it's at 10K and counting. The first tweet got 900+ views and ~30 interactions, the second tweet more than 11K views and 360+ interactions. For context, I have 2.8K Twitter followers. Traffic on my blog peaked at over 700 views, about twice the average.

As highly expected, this was drive-by traffic that didn't stick or convert.

I got a couple more Twitter followers and half a dozen new subscribers to my YouTube channel. Nobody subscribed to my newsletter. And I didn't sell a single copy of my ebook, both linked from my blog and Twitter profile. That's it.

Although viral spread is hardly reproducible, I think I can draw a few tentative takeaways.

The first is I was confident that specific content would go viral. I did zero research, not even a few YouTube searches. I just monitored my Twitter feed that's well stuffed with space news and outreach sources. This made it clear nobody was talking about or showing what Mons Rümker looked like. It pays to know a niche well.

The other takeaway is I put together the video quickly and with very little resources. It's a single-cut screencast of a Google Maps session with no spoken commentary or editing. Making the video and writing the blog post took me an hour or so. Keeping production costs low and quality okay but not stellar may not be an issue if the there's demand for the content.

Finally, YouTube is a greater source of traffic than I expected, also for small fishes like me (my channel has around 260 subscribers). About 28% of the views came from YouTube recommendations, over 16% from YouTube search. Slighly over half of the views came from external sources.

This was a fun experiment. I'm not sure anything about it is reproducible, even by me. But the experience will motivate me to pay closer attention to my niches and play a bit more with YouTube.

  1. 1

    Thanks for sharing this Paolo! I'm not much into astronomy and space but this was a refreshing read considering it's a breakaway from the topics that are usually mentioned around here.

    The video you menioned is this ,right? https://youtu.be/lQJEnoArKtI

    1. 2

      You're welcome, thanks to you. That's indeed the video.

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