“But it’s probably also worth saying that people weren’t interested in the video because of the table tennis, they were interested in the learning. Going from not knowing something to getting quite good at it by being dedicated and putting in the work.”
– Sam’s take on why the video went viral

Sam tells Emma about what led up to and how exactly his obscure table tennis video went viral and got more than 12 million views. They delve into the numbers of how much it made, and the long-term impact it has had on his different businesses. They also discuss how to recreate the success – a small number of views in the right place in front of the right people can snowball and lead to massive results.

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00:47 – The initial idea for the video
03:25 – Reddit and the video going viral
04:25 – Interviews on random Danish TV shows
05:53 – The videos Sam and Ben made that didn’t get press
07:29 – How the video finally got traction
09:45 – The inaccuracy of the coverage
12:14 – Effects of the viral video
14:01 – How the book idea came about
16:42 – People’s interest in dedication rather than in table tennis
19:10 – Sam on trolls


SAM: Hello and welcome back to another episode of the lazy entrepreneur, we’re your host Sam and Emma Priestly.

EMMA: Hello.

SAM: Emma today, I want to tell you the story – actually unlike most the stories I tell you which you’ve never heard before, I think you were around when this happens.

EMMA: Yeah I think I was.

SAM: I think I have been seen by more than 10 million people, romping around in really short shorts, playing table tennis.

EMMA: I was going to say that’s a good intro with that saying playing table tennis.

SAM: You got a bit excited there didn’t you, oh that sounds fun. That is back in 2014, I had a friend come to me Ben Larkin, there’s actually an episode where I interviewed him. And he’s got a table tennis blog and he said he wanted to take someone who never really played Table Tennis before, train them every day for a year and he’ll give him private coaching, and then that person would then go and do like the semi pro circuit and try and get into be one the best in the country at table tennis. He had this theory that you could, by training someone properly, you could do that kind of 80/20 thing where you get rid of all the rubbish training everyone was doing and be really efficient and get really really good at table tennis. So he came to me, and I said yeah sure let’s do it and we videoed it every day and I spent the year playing tennis and I got quite good but I was nowhere near like world-class. I got good for someone who’s been playing table tennis for a year. I didn’t get good for someone who’s playing table tennis professionally. But yeah, that’s alright it’s kind of interesting anyway. So in the cutscene are all the videos we made at that year, made like a one second a day compilation of it, put it onto YouTube, nothing really happened, we had a few followers who were following my progress and maybe we had I think we had 15,000 views or something just from those initial few.

EMMA: In how long?

SAM: Two weeks maybe, but it was kinda like we sent it out to our email lists and then they watched it and then that was kind of it.

EMMA: Yeah and Ben’s table tennis blog is pretty big.

SAM: Yeah and so a lot of people watched it, but then it wasn’t really getting many views of the day.

EMMA: And you hadn’t really planned to do anything with it right?

SAM: No because we kind of thought the challenge was a bit of a failure really. Yeah I got quite good, and we ended on a video that’s quite good, I started the video pretty useless and then by the end I’m pretty good.

EMMA: Yeah you can see the progression.

SAM: You can see the progression which is quite cool but we thought there was no need to push it because it’s not that impressive. Like I did, I think I did I went on the semi pro circuit and I’ve had 120 matches or 110 matches of which I lost all but four or five of them.

EMMA: Yeah.

SAM: So I’ve had this like two and a half months where I’ll just get battered. I was competing every weekend just getting wrecked all the time.

EMMA: Yeah including Christmas, it was horrendous.

SAM: Yeah because there were competitions every weekend. So Christmas was on a Tuesday and the weekend before I was off on tournament somewhere around the country and then a weekend after at another tournament and so yeah we thought nothing much of it and then one day I woke up to loads of text on my phone, and turns out someone had gone and posted it on reddit and I think it’s just a bit weird, like the idea that someone spent a year playing table tennis and putting it together.

EMMA: Quite niche.

SAM: So people kind of loved it and it went viral and now it’s got over 10 million views and so I thought we can just kind of talk about what that was like, how that happened, because I’m quite interested in all the stats, I kind of monitored how that journey of the viewership happened from where it started and how it spread across the internet, how the viral stuff works and also how much money it made, like what use is it actually having a viral video. So you were there when this happened, but I’m not sure we’ve talked about this that much.

EMMA: No we haven’t we talked about it very much. You talked about what it was like to receive phone calls from press people, it was quite exciting, do you want to do this interview on this random TV show or whatever.

SAM: Yeah I think it was a Danish TV. I think we were on.

EMMA: That was quite cool.

SAM: And we thought it was going to be just a voice interview, so I think we were just kind of sat in my living room, me and Ben on skype and I think I was in a dressing gown or something, like proper bed hair and I think we were just live on this Danish TV show, live streaming and I don’t think they were prepared for it and it was all in Danish, so we’d say something and then the hosts were talking Danish and we’d kind of laugh and they’d ask us something again and I still have no idea what they were speaking about, probably joking about us.

EMMA: Well my impression of the video was it was a bit of a whim that you made one. I didn’t think anything of it and then all of a sudden it went viral and it was like, oh wow actually maybe we should put some effort into this.

SAM: Well what we were doing throughout the year, was every week we were uploading a compilation of video the previous week with us talking over it, talking about what I learned, what I was working it.

EMMA: Yeah I see that is quite a lot of work.

SAM: It was loads of work into the videos and they never really got that much traction, we had people interested in it, people were interested in the first week and then we kind of lost interest and then a few people who kind of watched all of them, and we did do lots of work into that. We did Q&A sessions, we hired sort professional videographers to do some of the filming. None of that actually made it, or got into the final one second a day video, and yeah and it was fine like it it did the purpose. The challenge was a little bit of failure, I got better at table tennis which was quite fun, and then at the end of it, Ben kind of thought, well let’s do something to set it all off, so we sort of close this chapter in our life, which was this one second a day video. And we’d been watching a few other ones, one second a day videos were getting a bit popular at the time, and I think soon after that I started doing one of my own, just of daily life and you quite like because people who you know take a picture of themselves every day and you can see them getting older over the course of a few years. I always thought that was quite cool. But anyway, so the video came out, about two weeks later someone posted it on reddit, and then and it I think got to the front page of Reddit and that got it to about 50,000 views, so not that many and so you can look at the chart of the viewership from where they’re coming from and you see it go peak for reddit and then reddit dies off and just as it is almost dead, the traffic coming from reddit you start seeing the other ones pick up, and basically what happened was, is that as soon as it started appearing on that sort of trending section in YouTube and people and other media personalities and writers sort of saw it on the front page of Reddit, they started writing articles about it.

EMMA: Yeah.

SAM: And then after about five hours I reckon from it being posted on reddit, we started seeing all these other articles start popping up around the internet on Huffington Post and LadBible and The Telegraph and BBC News and BuzzFeed and.

EMMA: Amazing.

SAM: All these different places and then that got it a few more views and I think that got it to about 1.5 million.

EMMA: In how long?

SAM: Maybe like three or four days.

EMMA: Wow.

SAM: So we had 50,000 from reddit which started it all off, then 1.5 million from all these other news sites and then over the next year and a half, the other eight point five million, the vast majority of the views just came from the YouTube algorithm slowly feeding it traffic. Sort of a few hundred thousand every month.

EMMA: It’s so interesting isn’t it, thinking that reddit started it and it was only fifty thousand.

SAM: That’s it, it was this kind of like little explosion which showed people were interested. Fifty thousand of the ten million.

EMMA: Yeah that’s amazing. And you couldn’t have one without the other.

SAM: No, you couldn’t have one without the other. There was something about reddit then that momentum sort of pushed it everywhere else. It was interesting. I find very interesting in the vast majority of viewers were coming from YouTube, so YouTube obviously they’ve got their algorithms to work out what it is that people actually want to look at, and there must be something about that initial momentum and then all the traffic coming from all these other reputable websites that made everyone think this is good and then just keep feeding it traffic for years to come, and it still gets fifty thousand to a hundred thousand views four or five years later. That was quite interesting and I also feel that is the sort of thing you can replicate. Like it can’t be that difficult to force those initial views, like getting to the front page of Reddit is the sort of thing you can pay like a black hat hacker type person to do, it was interesting. So I’ve never really tried to repeat it but it’s always something in my mind that actually, to get that ten million views you only need a very small fraction of that. But in a short space of time in the right place for it then to sort of spread throughout the internet. The other thing that was really interesting was how inaccurate a lot of the articles ended up being.

EMMA: Yeah that’s what I was gonna say, did you have any involvement in the content of those articles, like BBC, Huffington Post, like the Telegraph, the more well-known.

SAM: So the Telegraph was the only interview we did with a journalist at the time.

EMMA: Was that a phone call?

SAM: Yeah a phone call. The BBC article was actually written about six months later and that was a lot more in depth and a lot better so that was actually quite good and the person spent maybe a couple of weeks writing that. Whereas all the other articles and stuff was what people had written in probably about half an hour just to get the content out there. And there was so much, so much inaccuracy. Bear in mind, this was a challenge that effectively I failed. I was just trying to get good and didn’t get, I wasn’t even in the top 1,000 in the UK and the articles were saying stuff like, he’s now a professional table tennis player. He’s the best in England, that he smashed a challenge, that this proves that anything’s possible.

EMMA: Because that’s what the readers wanna hear isn’t? They want the positive spin.

SAM: And these reputable places as well, you think they just haven’t really bothered in doing any background research because they just wanted you to get the article out as quickly as possible. And the Chinese whispers of it are where they’re getting information from. Like some of them, the better written ones would have links to our website. We had a website, expert in a year dot com and they’d link to that but most of them wouldn’t have read that it was quite obvious you know that we wrote a short sharp description of what happened. And most people just never bothered going to that and they just referenced other articles that they’d read who’d been written just as quickly by someone with no knowledge of anything and it’s just this Chinese whispers where each one is slightly exaggerating on the last one they read. Until it’s not really truthful at all, but some of them got the name wrong, they said it was Ben Larkin who learnt where actually he was the one who coached me. A lot of them spelled my surname wrong which seems to happen all the time anyway.

EMMA: That happens in life.

SAM: It was just, it was quite eye opening I thought because generally you can have had this idea that at least the facts in sort of mainstream media is fact checked. But that obviously just wasn’t. So that is what happened, I thought it was quite interesting to talk about what the effects that has been you know how valuable actually is a viral video, how much has it made and has it affected my other businesses.

EMMA: Yeah how did you monetize it?

SAM: So YouTube itself has a monetization algorithm where it put adverts before and after, and so we have that and the way it worked is we had used someone else’s music as the background and what YouTube did is it split the royalties between us and the person and the musician.

EMMA: Wow.

SAM: And so the total royalties came to about two thousand dollars per million views of which we got about half of that, so over the ten million views, we’re talking about ten thousand dollars. So not that much really.

EMMA: No, but considering you didn’t really think it was gonna make any money.

SAM: Considering I was just luck, but on the other hand if we were trying to make viral videos and we’d made twenty of them, which one went viral and these videos, they’re not easy, they take a lot of time and work. 10 million views is a lot of views for like an indie video producer.

EMMA: Yeah.

SAM: But if I made a documentary, I wouldn’t get anywhere near that amount even if it was really really good. So that’s quite interesting. The other thing we try to do is we wrote a book about the thing, it’s called expert in a year, the ultimate table tennis challenge.

EMMA: And did you plan to write that book?

SAM: No, we wrote the book as a result of all the publicity we got off the back of this video and all the media stuff and a couple of publishers kind of approached us, not with any real firm offers, just being like maybe you should write a book about this.

EMMA: And that gave you the idea.

SAM: That kind of gave us idea because we thought who wants to read a book about learning table tennis, it’s so niche. That book came out maybe, we wrote it quite quickly so I think it was about six months after the video had gone viral that the book came, put a link to the book on the YouTube video and on our web site and I don’t think we got we got hardly any sales of the book as a result of the video on the video. So I think we sold about 5,000 copies in total of which I reckon most of them are because we kind of gamed the Amazon algorithms a little bit and so we were the best seller in table tennis for two or three years so anytime we search for a table tennis book on Amazon our thing would come up, so I think that’s where the vast majority day sales would come. We basically found the little niche, table tennis books, nobody’s written books for that before really and then we were just the top result for that for a long time. We also had our table tennis business where we made table tennis bats. That was already doing alright before the video came out and I kind of looked at the sales over that period where we were getting loads of views and there wasn’t really any change, we saw a huge jump in the number of impressions, the number of people viewing our listings.

EMMA: Yeah.

SAM: And very few extra sales, so we probably got some interest because it’s quite a decent business. Over time I wouldn’t be surprised if that made the same again as what we made actually just from the YouTube adverts. So maybe another 10,000 dollars.

EMMA: Yeah and it’s just because customers were purchasing when they were viewing your product pages there and then, they may have gone back and purchased it later.

SAM: Exactly it’s so hard to try to plan this thing, especially when it’s an already established business. How do you track whether that blip is just random, where it’s just natural growth or not. And we don’t 100 percent know how algorithms for these sort of things work because one thing we did notice is to the expert in a year website, expert in a year dot com started to get a lot more google traffic after this and I think it’s because they’ve ended up with all these links, high value SEO links from all these kind of reputable media sources, and even today we haven’t written a post on that website in four years or something, and it still gets 100 200 300 people a day just coming to it from from Google.

EMMA: Yeah, which is worth doing isn’t it.

SAM: And that might have then have led to some sales of the book, might have lead to some sales of the table tennis bats. But it’s probably also worth saying is that people weren’t interested in the video because of the table tennis, they were interested in the learning. Like going from not know something to getting quite good at it by being dedicated and putting into work and obviously being a bit of a clumsy. I think in the BBC article they called me an uncoordinated computer geek, which is one of your favorite terms.

EMMA: It really is. It makes me laugh so much.

SAM: And I think you quite like that, seeing being rubbish to being quite good. Seeing that you can improve. So if we’d written a book about, just about progress, about conquering your goals, that might have done a lot better. Whereas not many people actually went there and then started playing table tennis and then bought a table tennis bat. We did actually try and transition a little bit, we started a podcast, the expert in a year podcast which I think we did maybe three or four episodes of before stopping. We did, on the website we changed it a little bit to try and become an expert in anything in a year, and like a community hub for people doing different challenges to work together and our kind of idea was that a year is not good enough to make you an expert in anything, but is good enough to make you good enough. Better than all the people you know basically, better than any amateur which I still believe and I went off and I started doing brazilian jiu-jitsu afterwards and Ben went off and started doing marathons afterwards.

EMMA: Yeah more challenges and self development.

SAM: More challenges and self development. So we could have made more of it, but we didn’t and really it was just quite an interesting experiment.

EMMA: And also it was quite out of your comfort zone. I think it was quite interesting to have something like an online video and then it leading to more traditional press like BBC and Huffington I know they’re online articles but they are traditional press which is an industry you and Ben have no experience in.

SAM: Yes I agree agree and it’s a great way to get into those sort of mainstream media type stuff because they’re looking at what is popular with the people online to decide what they think will be popular with their readers. Because we had 50,000 from reddit who are kind of the early adopters, then we had the mainstream media who actually had way more reach than reddit did, but are looking to reddit for inspiration, which I think is where the main lesson is there and something I’ve been meaning to do more on. Meaning to spend a bit more time experimenting with viral marketing and just haven’t done yet. And one of the reasons I haven’t is because you get so much criticism, like so much, so many mean comments and stuff. Whatever you’re doing, I’m playing table tennis for a year, like how, what how can you be angry at someone for doing that? It’s ridiculous and I’m not very good at taking criticism, I’ll take things way too personally.

EMMA: Yeah.

SAM: There might be a thousand comments of which two were mean and I remember the mean ones. That’s what it is. Well there you go. You find that interesting?

EMMA: Yeah. Yeah I did. What’s next in the viral marketing? And what are you going to do next on the back of this?

SAM: What are we going to do next? What crayz stunt can we pull? I don’t know we can think about that. If you have any ideas listeners, please email us at hello at sam priestley dot com. If you have any general feedback for the podcast, email us that as well. On that I would like to say goodbye.

EMMA: Goodbye.

SAM: And adios.