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How Did Gangnam Style Go VIral?

We're all feeling sufficiently fed up with Gangnam Style, be it the original or the enormous number of spoofs, but how did Psy hit the big time? This is about more than one Korean pop star becoming a global phenomenon it’s about our obsession with the word viral. How does something go from a YouTube video to a viral video? This week has seen the release of a hilarious spoof video by agency St John’s, based in Toronto, that mocks the growing trend in buying views to make your brands video at least appear to be a viral hit. 

There was no gaming when it came to the spreading of Gangnam Style, this was the real deal; a video that people wanted their friends, family and distance acquaintances to share in the enjoyment of.  

The label behind Gangnam, YG Entertainment, had a plan long before the video went live. They knew they wanted to break into new markets and started building a platform they would be able to push content out on. Looking at their various YouTube channels they had 2.5 million subscribers pre-Gangnam and had achieved in the region of 1.6 billion views of musicians’ videos across those channels. Having these subscribers is key and meant they could get a high number of views in a short space of time helping them quickly gain shares and get featured in YouTube’s daily chart. 

Having an audience is a good start but you need them all to share it and watch it, again and again. YG Entertainment did their research when it came to casting the video and by featuring popular celebrities from South Korea they knew this would get the media’s attention. They had a famous entertainer who is the chap thrusting in the lift, the guy in the yellow suit is a renowned comedian and the kid is popular from Korea’s Got Talent. All helping it debut at number one in the Korean Pop Chart and gain 500k views on its launch day of 15th July. 

Over the next month the video started to build global momentum, but the volume of tweets and searches rose at a far slower rate than later on in the campaign, and predominantly featured traffic and search emerging from South Korea.

In mid-July there were then a few further tweets from @AllKPop, relating to the video's general profile, sales of the song as a ringtone doing well etc, but nothing out of the ordinary. Although much has been made of the impact of various celebrity supportive tweets, my interpretation is that mainstream media coverage initially brought it to many people's, including celebrities attention. 

On 30th July Gawker wrote it up leading to 19k in Facebook likes/shares. I believe this lead to Billboard writing it up and the barrage of well followed celebrity tweets that followed, all pushing lots of traffic to YouTube. 

There was no stopping Psy after this, with coverage in Time Magazine and Mashable followed. The next big announcement came on September 3rd when a YouTube video showing Psy drinking a shot with Scooter Braun, who is best known for managing Justin Bieber. This shot wasn’t just some friends catching up over a drink it was the start of them working together and marked Gangnam for big things in the states. 

Activity over the next two weeks triggered the biggest spike in the entire campaign, as Scooter Braun made some inspired media bookings. Alongside these bookings, Scooter also has a contact book to die for and his own artists have some of the largest marketing databases in the world, all of whom Psy now had access to.

Thanks to Scooter Braun, Psy appeared at the MTV Awards as a last minute guest and alongside another of Scooter's clients, before going on to make his first appearance on the TV Show Ellen alongside Britney Spears. Britney (of course) tweeted this, creating a huge 1.3m tweets containing the term "Gangnam Style" over those few days alone.

Just as growth started to slow again, Scooter got Psy a spot on NBC Today show, and a second appearance on Ellen, that triggered a final but forceful spike in searches, tweets and video likes.

The very final peak, the icing on the cake so to speak, was when the Guinness World Records team issued a release relating to Psy breaking all known records for the number of views that the video has had. At this point, everything slows and a slow decline begins.

A host of "hilarious" copycat videos then began flooding YouTube and Twitter and the media is seemingly giving all of them air time, but this cannot buck the overall downward trend in terms of consumer interest, searches and tweets.

If this has been too wordy for you here's a video summarising Gangnam's rise to fame with me and the boss. 


If you're hankering for more information on the rise of Gangnam you can see the full whitepaper we produced here.

Join The Conversation

  • Nov 9 Posted 4 years ago yeahnoooo

    I just want to say that you're like... completely wrong about YG Entertainment. They did not "build their audience to build up to releasing Gangnam Style".

    K-pop is a huge music movement. YG Entertainment's most popular acts, pre-Gangnam Style, were Big Bang and 2NE1 (and still are.) PSY was no where near the most popular YG artist. He was an older artist who had gotten in a lot of scandals, and YG signed him to help save and advance his career. YG's biggest focus had always been K-pop (PSY is technically NOT K-pop), and IDOLS are the biggest thing in K-pop. Big Bang (5 member boy band) and 2NE1 (4 member girl group) are IDOLS. YG's focus was mostly on the idols. 

    Neither PSY nor YG expected Gangnam Style to be that big. PSY was no where near their most popular artist, and YG had been investing most of it's time & money into Big Bang & 2NE1's respective world tours this year. (Big Bang currently is in New York performing, and just did two sold out shows in LA). PSY is a funny artist. He was respected for putting on great concerts and being a class A performer, but honestly, even as a fan of YG Entertainment, I didn't know much about him. The most exciting recent additions to YG (after PSY joined) were Epik High and Su:Pearls. PSY was never famous internationally, like his Idol label mates, and honestly... he's not the type of artist the typical K-pop fan likes. 

    So, don't talk like YG was poising itself to release Gangnam Style all these years. When YG's youtube channel first opened, PSY wasn't even their artist yet. AND that's not what YG is about, at all. Gangnam Style is just PSY being PSY; it wasn't YG's master plan. 

    Check out Big Bang, 2NE1, Epik High, new darling Lee Hi, Se7en, and Gummy. YG was NEVER ANYTHING like "Gangnam Style" and they didn't gain their followers by making silly, funny "viral" style videos like "Gangnam Style." They gained their followers because people are fans of Big Bang, 2NE1, Epik High, Se7en, Gummy, and the new girl group that hasn't debuted yet. 

    YG is a hip-hop/pop label, not a "let's make funny Gangnam Style videos" label. And trust me; they had NO IDEA it would get that popular. If they did, they wouldn't have used so many Korea-specific inside jokes. K-pop has a large international following, even in the US, and Europe, and PSY was never an artist that really spoke to the international fandom. Even now, a lot of international K-pop fans don't really "like" PSY, even though we're happy & proud of him for going so far. But... yeah, YG wouldn't have known PSY of all their artists would get this type of recognition. They actually were preparing 2NE1 for US debut, not PSY. 

  • Nov 8 Posted 4 years ago CBinn

    Appreciate your shoutout to 'Buyral', but we're from john st. not 'St John's'  :)

  • Kent Ong's picture
    Nov 8 Posted 4 years ago Kent Ong

    Thanks for the analysis. I was looking for it. It is a great strategy, for me, even though I don't like the video.

  • Nov 7 Posted 4 years ago MrDCGN

    For the record what made it go viral outside of Korea was the GSL ( GSL is a popular competitive gaming tournament show that is broadcast from Seoul SK, but is most popular outside of Korea. On the show they often feature Kpop music and do cross promotional events where Kpop bands will perform while a Starcraft tournament is occuring.

    The song was already popular in Korea (as you mention) and then it became popular among the Starcraft competitors on the show who were copying the dance, etc. Because it was featured as part of the show, the youtube video started getting a massive amount of views. Once that happened it hit the trending section of Youtube for North America, and subsequently Gawker picked up the story.

    If you Google "gangnam style gsl" you'll find lots more info.

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