Higher Ed TV: How the University of Minnesota got more than 1.5 million views in less than 2 months with one of their YouTube videos

April 24th, 2009 Karine Joly 6 Comments

I stumbled upon this YouTube blockbuster, the Science of Watchmen, just 2 days ago as I was browsing YouTube EDU.

It’s not the most viewed university video of all time (Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture from Carnegie Mellon is with more than 9.5 million views), but this YouTube video produced by the University of Minnesota has really achieved a big success in terms of viewership with more than 1.5 million views since it was posted on February 24, 2009 – just 2 months ago today.

After a quick look at the YouTube channel of the University of Minnesota, I noticed that it included several successful videos (with views in the ten of thousands range for several of them). That’s what pushed me to try to learn a bit more and to ask a few questions to the person in charge of this channel: Elizabeth Giorgi from the News Service at UMN Office of University Relations.

Here’s the transcript of this interview – it’s long but definitely worth your time if you’d like to learn more on smart tactics to go viral on YouTube with educational videos.

KJ: I was really impressed by the number of views this video got in under 2 months. Did you keep track of the progression? Would you be willing to share some of the stats available in YouTube Insights about this video?

Elizabeth Giorgi: In a lot of ways, this video was a test run for us for moving in an unconventional direction with our video content. We watched the video very closely, because we wanted to gauge whether or not a higher education institution could truly produce a viral video with an educational twist and actually get watched. Sure enough, it built a lot of steam that week leading up to the movie, but the Watchmen opening weekend was a game changer. I have attached a few images from our Insights to show you the incredible increase in viewer ship starting at the weekend when the movie opened. For instance, on March 6th, we had nearly 500,000 views that day.


One huge part of our success was working with YouTube directly to promote the video. I let one of our contacts there know about the video and asked him if he thought we could get it featured on the Science and Technology page. After viewing it, the editor of that section thought it was a great video and as a result, 23% of our views came from that promotional spot. Once it built steam however, the featured video on the home page of YouTube happened on its own, and is responsible for 59% of the hits. That week, we peaked as one of the most watched channels, I believe the 23rd, and were getting inundated with requests to speak with Professor Kakalios to ask him more questions about his work.


In addition, Warner Bros found out about the video and contacted us to let us know that they would be sending out a press release about the video to their contacts as well. A huge part of this effort was building those partnerships, and we feel it has been a successful effort.

KJ: At 6 minutes, it’s rather long for YouTube and I’d be curious to find out if people are watching the full video or dropping at some point. With some many views, there’s very interesting and relevant data there.

EG: The data here shows that viewership interest peaks at right around the 5 minute mark, which gave us the impression that people thought the video length was appropriate. The blend of video clips between Watchmen footage and the experiments definitely helped to keep viewers interested. There is also an attached image for this that shows the peak.


When we started brainstorming this idea, we realized early on that in order to get through all these topics, we needed to get footage from the movie. We normally would not approach the 5/6 minute mark, but the quality of the topic and the fact that Professor Kakalios is so well-versed and connected to the subject gave us the impression that it might be worth breaking our own rules.

KJ: How did you promote the video (and your channel)? Did it became viral after something special you did? Was it featured for a long period of time on YouTube homepage?

EG: We strategically timed the release of the video to come out around the time that the initial Watchmen movie reviews would be in the media and on blogs. This was in the hopes that we could get reporters and bloggers to embed our video in that initial week. This was a fairly successful tactic, as about 4.8% of that viewership came from embedded players. The idea was that as we were pitching Professor Kakalios to the media, we would also send the video their way to give them: 1. An idea of how well versed he is on the topic, and 2. Provide them the opportunity to include the video on their story or post. The result? 396 individual hits on blogs, tv and news papers between coverage of the video, Professor Kakalios and mentions of the video and Professor Kakalios in stories about Watchmen.

We also did a lot of research about bloggers that had written about Watchmen in the past. We knew there was a cult following out there, but we weren’t sure how to tap into it. A critical part of this was getting the video posted on a Gawker site. After it had reached the front page of YouTube, it was there for about 3 days, which far exceeded our expectations.

KJ: I’ve had a look at your other videos and you got quite a few successful ones. Have you defined special features a video needs to have to get great viewership on YouTube?

EG: This video has helped us figure out new ways to approach our content. We have adopted a strategy that we call REE. That stands for Research, Educate and Entertain. We believe that if you can make research accessible by teaching people about interesting concepts while entertaining them, you will have them hooked. Also, it is important that we maintain that educational component because of how our faculty members view these things. Professor Kakalios even told us, “I could teach 500 students per semester for over a century before I would reach this many people.” For them, teaching is a priority and we want to make sure we are highlighting their incredible talent.

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