How Harvard Medical School Earned 20 Million Video Views in 4 days

How Harvard Medical School Earned 20 Million Video Views in 4 days Jay Shemenski Blogger Extraordinaire Simply Measured

There’s something ironic about content on bacteria going viral, but that’s exactly what happened recently with a video we produced at Harvard Medical School.

Social Video Cheat Sheets

In under a week, the video received more than 20 million views. It trended on Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit, and had placements on over 50 digital outlets, including CNN, Wired, Vox, Gizmodo, NPR, Slate, and The Atlantic (among others).

How video content gains digital traction still requires some luck, but there are ways to increase your chances. Here’s how we did it.

The Video


The inspiration for the video came from a conversation with the research team, leading to the belief that what they had created was highly visual and told an important scientific story that was easily relatable for a wide audience.

Moving off of this belief, we used footage provided by the research team and voice-over narration to explain what is happening on-screen. Color graphics, background music, and polishing of the raw footage were added for the final product to increase clarity and context.

In the video, in less than two minutes, an emotional story is told that has both niche and mass appeal through the impactful visualization of a digestible concept and a message that elicits a reaction. There is constant action with suspense that’s magnified through background music and production value.

Captioning made the video easier to watch without sound on different channels, and the visuals could be chopped into multiple content types, while still maintaining a coherent narrative.

Pre-Release Targeted Outreach

Before the video went live, we disseminated it through a Vimeo embed, along with a press release and invitation to conduct interviews with the featured researchers.

In our pre-release promotion, we targeted outreach to outlets that have a strong digital footprint in science and health coverage. We also reached out to individual reporters with interest in infectious diseases, bacterial drug resistance, and biomedical science.

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The press release accompanying the video helped contextualize the content and its significance. The narrative included in the release was designed to provide whimsical and compelling detail about the backstory, the Hollywood inspiration behind the video, and the dramatic visualization of life, death, and survival. The press release also highlighted some of the pivotal findings described in the paper and provided quotes from the investigators to be used for coverage.

Social Media

We turned to social media to promote the video once it was off embargo through our own channels and select strategic partnerships. The main driver for social sharing was Facebook, where we directly posted a captioned version of the video.

To amplify our own efforts, we worked with the main Harvard account to post the video directly and help promote it through an article embed and social outreach.

As mentioned, we then atomized the content across our own social channels by creating GIFs and condensed versions of the video.

This experiment shows bacteria as they encounter increasingly higher doses of antibiotics up to 1000x the strength of a normal dose. Over the course of 11 days, mutant forms of E. coli progressed through each stage, showing how antibiotic resistant bacteria evolve. #HarvardMed #science

A video posted by Harvard Medical School (@harvardmed) on

Beyond the Harvard community, we also allowed others to post the video directly and customize it for their audiences — while maintaining our branding.

As the initial buzz died down, we began promoting a larger article that explains the video further and includes an embed to get one last bite at the apple.

We’ve also used this article to answer questions and respond to comments that appear on the video.


The top-level numbers are pretty impressive:

22 million views

70 million people reached

850,000 total engagements

The video also trended on Reddit, YouTube, and Facebook — all a first for any Harvard Medical School content.

YouTube ViewsNot only did the video trend, but it also had high retention, with 29% of Facebook viewers watching until completion, and an average view duration of 1:27 on YouTube (76% of the video).

93% of the views on the HMS Facebook page came from shares and people who did not previously follow HMS, providing support for the video as an audience acquisition and demand generation tool.

As we pivoted toward retention of these audiences, we focused on sharing content that related to similar themes and topics.

Additionally, we saw above-average increases in followers on all of our channels, with Facebook and YouTube unsurprisingly experiencing the largest lifts.

Facebook GrowthThe video also led to increases in searches for E. coli and Harvard Medical School channels on Google, with HMS receiving a 150% increase in searches and a 2,350% increase in related topic searches to E. coli.

Google TrendsOver the course of a week, the article on our site with the video embed became the second-most-visited page, behind the homepage, and one of our highest-converting pages for email subscribers.

Most importantly, this boost led to a 33% increase in subscribers from the article and from actions on our Facebook page.

Facebook Actions


There have been some key lessons and takeaways through this experience.

  • Content is still king. This whole experience started with great content that was packaged in a way to encourage sharing.
  • Ensure internal alignment. Our success was in part due to the fact that all of the elements — production, PR, and social — were on the same page. In some organizations, these pieces are spread out across various teams or agencies and need to have open communication with each other to have the greatest impact.
  • Proactive outreach is crucial. Traditional and targeted outreach were critical in generating the initial momentum behind the video. Work with both external influencers and internal ones within your community to build the initial push.
  • Integrate across multiple channels. Seize the opportunity by trying to get as much reach as possible at the same time through promotion and creating channel-specific snackable bits of the larger video.
  • Amplify mentions. Set up alerts to monitor placements and social mentions, and then leverage these to magnify their impact.
  • Cede some control. Make sure branding is prominent within the video, but at some point you have to just let the Internet take over. The whole effort would have been dead in the water if we had tried to force all of the pick-up to be funneled through our owned channels or one central URL for tracking purposes.
  • Extend the life of the video. By creating longer-form pieces that the video can live within, we were able to achieve some long-tail success beyond the initial spike.

long tail views

  • Convert the attention. We put so much focus on creating reach with the video that we didn’t think about how to convert the viewers. Although we did convert some organically, a CTA or end goal to retain a portion of the attention to support business objectives is vital.

With enough preparation and cross-channel emphasis, viral success for your videos is possible — but it needs to be tied to business goals. Download Simply Measured x Nate Elliott’s Beyond Engagement Guide below for a thorough explanation of what social success means in 2016.

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Jay Shemenski

Jay Shemenski

Jay Shemenski is the Digital Manager at Harvard Medical School. He is a content strategist with 5+ years of experience in non-profit, in-house, and freelance environments. His expertise is in developing comprehensive brand experiences and digital marketing strategies to successfully engage markets and establish long-term growth.