[Read: Why You Should Launch a Side Gig Now.]
In 2007, Adam Schleichkorn made a 35-second video called "Fence Plowing," in which he hurled himself through a wooden fence. That video, posted on YouTube, was a modest hit – it has had more than 130,000 views as of this writing – but it received enough attention that he was interviewed by "20/20" and other media outlets in a slew of stories on viral videos. He became one of the first video creators to be accepted into YouTube's Partner Program, in which producers receive a cut of the profits from the ad revenue their videos generate.
"Anyone who gets paid through Google AdSense isn't legally allowed to say how much you're making, but I was doing all right, living on my own for years and paying my bills," Schleichkorn says.
But as YouTube began recruiting more corporate top-tier production talent, Schleichkorn says making a living as a mid-level producer became more difficult. After three years of creating videos, he had to stop doing it full time. He now is a freelance video editor and videographer and runs the website HiddenTrackTV.com. He may not have gotten rich off viral videos, but viral videos have certainly informed his career.
Nothing happens without the content. Miletsky suggests keeping your videos short ("More than half of viewers drop off after the second minute," he says), and while episodic Web shows work well, you should be able to watch one without having to watch all the others.
But what should the video be about? Something universal that touches all of us, Hecht suggests. The video, he adds, "may express some fear, overcoming hardship, being bullied, watching something grow, laughing intensely. But it should be a snapshot video of a moment that we've all experienced and perhaps previously thought we were experiencing alone. Many successful viral videos thus actually are popular because they – aside from perhaps being put to catchy music – help people self-identify with others, ideally through laughter."
Keep your expectations in check. "If you want to create videos that you put on YouTube and then, a week later, you're being interviewed on 'Fox and Friends' and 'The Today Show,' then you might as well decide to make a career out of winning Powerball," Miletsky says.
You may not become rich from producing viral videos, but you may still be able to make a career out of it. Miletsky's company has 15 employees and generated $7 million in revenue in 2012. He expects revenue to reach $17 million this year and to add another five employees.
But Miletsky doesn't spend all day filming videos of cute hamsters; most of his day, he's in talks with advertisers or is looking to partner with other companies or buy them, or he is dealing with the day-to-day challenges of running a business that produces educational and informational videos on topics like food and fashion.
"You have to decide what the word 'viral' means to you," Miletsky says. Being interviewed by Matt Lauer may not be a realistic career goal, "but if you want to create video content that is shareable to more than your immediate audience, like you get it out to 5,000 people, and some of them share it, that might be viral enough for your needs to generate some revenue. And if you take that approach, then, yes, you can make a good living."
Or, at least, good enough.