What Actually Drives Views? A Look at the Lifecycle of YouTube Videos

Allow me to be morbid for a second.

Imagine a man who’s gone into cardiac arrest. His heart ceases to function. All that’s left is the loud wail of the warning monitor that is flat-lining.

The medic on scene grabs a defibrillator. She rubs the two paddles together and places them on his chest. 


She shocks his heart back into rhythm. The monitor starts beeping again. There is life.

This is how I view the birth of a YouTube video. First, there is nothing. Then, once the “publish” button is hit there is a shock. A video is born.

Then what? The majority of the time, very little. 50% of YouTube videos receive less than 500 views.

Much like how it can take a few shocks from a defibrillator to get a heart working again, a YouTube video will need multiple shocks to keep it relevant beyond its initial publication.

It’s vital to realize this when conducting influencer marketing campaigns.

The Initial Shock: Audience Amplification

When a video is first published, its primary source of views is from the channel that published it. For the vast majority of YouTube videos this will be the largest and only shock they ever receive. Once the the channel’s audience has consumed the video, it will see a steep decline in views until it levels out, emulating the standard power-law graph:

At a certain point, a video will decline to the point of complete relaxation and will provide no additional value.

What about the most popular videos on YouTube? These videos enjoy one or multiple phases of increases in views. A declining video receives a shock, causing view spikes and keeping the video relevant for a longer period of time.

How can we ensure videos see multiple phases? There are five methods that can deliver additional shocks to a YouTube video.

Method: Rapid Audience Growth

A channel that is rapidly growing in audience can deliver a shock to their existing videos. New subscribers are drawn to the channel through a particular entry point (perhaps one of their videos went viral) and tend to explore other videos that have been published. The videos that benefit the most are ones that reside on the channel’s front page. This includes the channel trailer, popular video playlist or a custom playlist that is featured. These videos become the most visible content on a growing channel.

In our influencer marketing efforts, we’ve seen a number of resurgent video placements from influencers we worked with that saw a sudden jump in subscribers. Here’s an example of one our videos. Notice how it was had settled into its relaxation period before it was shocked out of it after 2 months:

This video happens to have a prominent position on the homepage of a fast-growing channel, so we’ve been able to see additional value past initial publication.

We’ve written a lot about identifying growing influencers. They can be very beneficial for this reason. We put together an ebook on how to identify influencers on the verge of rapid growth. Download it here. It’s a strategy you can follow right now to get more value out of your influencer marketing campaigns on YouTube. It will help improve the long-term value of your videos.

Method: Trendjacking

Trending events can deliver quite the shock to a video. This unfolds in two ways:

  1. A relaxed video sees a sudden burst of views due to an event that renews interest in its subject matter
  2. A video is created to capitalize on a current trending topic

A good example of #1 is the view graph of this video depicting the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope

We can see the spikes in views this video received right when Rogue One came out. It was uploaded in 2010, long before Lucasfilm was sold to Disney and a new series of Star Wars movies were announced. The video is benefiting from an external event that it never could have predicted. I like to refer to this as “accidental trendjacking.”

Videos created about a trending topic (#2) is traditional trendjacking. These videos build upon the initial shock that a channel’s audience provides, but their value will last only as long as the trend. After the trend expires, it will follow the same power-law graph curve of audience amplification – but the peak will have been higher.

Matching an influencer with a trending topic can lead to terrific engagement right out of the gate.

Method: Social Triggers

A video is amplified by various social triggers, which cause recurring shock events. A social trigger is an event or daily occurrence that makes one think about a particular item. In his book Contagious, Jonah Berger gives two examples of them:

  • Every morning, conversions surrounding Cheerios spike. Morning triggers thoughts of breakfast, which triggers thoughts of cereal, which triggers thoughts about Cheerios.
  • In 1997, NASA’s Pathfinder landed on Mars. This triggered more people to think about Mars, which inadvertently led to a rise in sales for the Mars candy bar.

Conversions around Cheerios is an example of a recurring trigger. The increase in sales of Mars Bars is an example of a one-time trigger. People weren’t going to be triggered until Mars was in the news again.  

Both forms of triggering can lead to a shock, but we should all hope to produce a video with a recurring trigger. The shocks would come in a predictable pattern and allow a video to remain valuable for a very, very long time. For example: the 90s summer anthem “Summertime” by Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff has a view graph that probably doesn’t surprise you:

Every summer, like clockwork, views of “Summertime” jump. The recurring trigger of summer will continuously shock the views of this video for as long as summer or YouTube exist.

Method: Search Triggers

Creating a video with a recurring trigger that leads to consistent shock can be extremely random. Creating a video that ranks for a popular search term is far more predictable.

“Summertime” is most likely only going to be found by people searching for the title of the song.

Juxtapose this with this video on how to tie a windsor knot. It has insane traffic because it ranks for a high-traffic keyword. It’s constantly getting shocked:

Until someone creates a video that outranks this one, it will receive almost daily shocks as viewers looking for the relevant information happen upon it.

SEO is the most valuable trigger. While it may not last as long as a social trigger, it’s far more consistent and predictable. It will also last longer than a video propelled by trending content or the growth of an influencer.

Relevant: we recently went on a deep drive on how to use influencers to own YouTube SEO

Method: Social Sharing

The final method is least predictable but can deliver the biggest shock. All viral videos are propelled by social sharing. YouTube’s most viewed video, Gangam Style, isn’t propelled by a social trigger or SEO. It wasn’t propelled by the size of the channel on publication. It’s achieved over 2 billion views because it spread like wildfire through users’ social feeds and became a social phenomenan.

A video doesn’t need to go viral to receive a shock from social sharing. Anyone with a decent sized following on social media can send a shock to a relaxed video.

Additionally, social sharing can influence how YouTube ranks videos for various search terms – leading to so much more value.


The more phases activity a video has, the more value it will possess. Too often, influencer marketing campaigns care solely about the initial shock. This forces them to drive maximum ROI in this short period of time, because the video won’t have any value after the phase ends and the relaxation kicks in.

The goal is clear: extending the lifecycle of a video will increase overall value.

I’ve written before about the need to look beyond subscriber counts to judge an influencer. Equally as important is ceasing to look at publication as an end goal, and strategizing for how you can make your video more valuable by extending its lifecycle.

Our customers are using our software and our insights to develop influencer marketing campaigns using the various methods of amplification listed in this article. We’d love to show you how.


The Lifecycle of a YouTube Video: Phases, Content and Popularity

Robust dynamic classes revealed by measuring the response function of a social system

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