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The Ten Most Successful Viral Videos

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What happens when small videos make big returns.

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The bane of both cable companies and helicopter parents, YouTube (GOOG) has produced more unlikely celebrities than four seasons of America's Got Talent. With a simple webcam setup and a user account, folks are given a worldwide audience after a few keystrokes and mouse clicks. Anything they have to say, anything original they can do, is now on public display for the foreseeable future and can earn the creator a bevy of job offers.

But the ratio of quality clips to unwatchable tripe has never been more minuscule in the history of creative works. And for the entrepreneurial artist, this serves as a detriment and a huge advantage.

For instance, a filmmaker who uploads a short in hopes of bankrolling his talent into a feature-length film has to stand among hundreds of millions of similar clips to gain the attention of a desperate producer searching for a diamond in the rough. Sifting through that many videos, watching the same display of inexperience and ineptitude, is a Sisyphean ordeal and one that's almost not worth the effort. On the other hand, a clip that shows an iota of effort and creativity already stands apart from the rest and can spread exponentially by word of mouth.

And then, there are those -- through a combination of timing and luck -- that have gained YouTube stardom and lucrative opportunities with seemingly little effort, if any.

There's no question that viral video business is a wildly erratic venture and sometimes doesn't coincide with exposure. No matter how many views a clip can accumulate, it may not spell a life of retirement in a beachfront mansion.

Stemming from an online prank generated by 4chan.org, Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" has been played more than 150 million times in just 2008, which should have generated millions for its songwriter, Pete Waterman. Despite the constant airplay, it's added up to a mere $16 for Waterman.

The infamous clip of a bride flipping out and cutting off her poorly manicured hair was revealed, two weeks later, to be a product of a Unilever (UN) viral ad campaign for Sunsilk hair care. It earned 2.8 million views and led to a "wig out" marketing campaign. Unfortunately, no one was interested in the ads once the cat was out of the bag, and it failed to earn similar exposure.

However, there's always a chance -- albeit a slim one -- that the stars will align and grant videomakers and affiliated companies overwhelming success from one short, heavily circulated clip. There's just no telling how, when, or why.

Minyanville explores 10 viral videos that ushered its makers toward bigger and better things.

No positions in stocks mentioned.
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