The song "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" was an unstoppable force in pop culture in 2015.
Silentó's maniacally catchy track not only cracked YouTube's 10 most watched music videos of the year, but also became a runaway dance phenomenon. The dance spawned thousands of imitators who served to amplify the effect of the official video's 622 million — and counting — views. A video of toddler Heaven King dancing to the song was named YouTube's most viral video of the year.
But if you think the dance's success was a happy accident for the artist, a viral hit that simply captured the imagination of the public at the right time, you're wrong. The explosion in popularity of the "Whip/Nae Nae" dance was pushed along by a carefully orchestrated campaign from one particular company.
DanceOn, which counts Madonna as a cofounder, is in the business of creating viral dance hits.
CEO Amanda Taylor describes the company as a digital network that promotes the work of about 1,200 creators of dance content — she uses the term "influencers." A creator will film a dance video and DanceOn will work to get it exposure and subsequently help it bring in revenue.
Though most of its contracts have slight variations, DanceOn generally takes a percentage of an artist's revenue for services, including promotion, ad sales, and management. And DanceOn can work with a dancer on a single video or an entire catalog, depending on the situation.
But the innovative part of the company rests in how DanceOn can leverage this network to create a worldwide dance trend.
How does it do it? Let's look at "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)."
Taylor says that after approaching Silentó for permission to make unofficial dance videos for the song, DanceOn tapped 50 members of its network to make their own variations on the video. The song already had YouTube traction on its own, but those 50 partners drove 250 million views to their personal videos in under three months. And when you have that kind of momentum, it snowballs outside the network. Taylor says variations on the dance totaled about 500 million views during that period.
The exposure catapulted Silentó into a major label deal with Capitol Records. "DanceOn's campaign was one of the biggest factors in helping make my single a viral dance hit," Silentó told Billboard.
Taylor founded DanceOn about five years ago after noticing that YouTube was causing all kinds of new types of video to pop up.
"People were recording themselves talking about clothes, or playing games, and getting famous for that," she says. She thought the universality of dance videos would let them become one of these emerging forms, a belief that was confirmed with the viral popularity of things like flash mobs.
To capitalize on the potential of dance videos, and turn them into a money-making format, Taylor sought to create "a third party that wasn't the individual artist, and wasn't the platform." That idea turned into DanceOn, which makes money not just by taking percentages of ad revenue, but also by doing sponsorship deals directly with brands like Coca-Cola, Sony, and Reebok.
But Taylor says that only in 2015 did the DanceOn network become robust enough to create a truly viral dance hit.
DanceOn's first experiment with this type of campaign came in early 2015, when DanceOn asked artist Trevor Wesley for permission to create an unofficial music video for his song "Chivalry Is Dead." DanceOn tapped a choreographer/dancer, Ian Eastwood, and partnered with Jamba Juice to create the video, which has 9.4 million views. Taylor says her team was driven by its success.
"We scratched our heads and asked, 'Can we do this at scale?'" she says.
With "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)," instead of one dancer driving 9 million views, 50 drove 250 million — and more outside the network. But Taylor doesn't want to stop there. DanceOn's network is 1,200 people, she says, and growing.
If Taylor gets her way, next time you are dancing in your bedroom, trying to recreate the latest dance trend, you'll be helping build DanceOn's latest hit.