viral_content_art_scienceVirality. It’s a topic of mystery and longing. All brands long to go viral, but for most brands, going about creating viral content is a mystery. There is no secret recipe for the perfect viral video, and yet there are videos that receive millions of views every year. What’s the secret?

Unfortunately, virality is more of an art than a science. While there is no tried-and-true formula for virality, there are some elements that we consistently see -- and knowing what they are puts you one step closer to attaining that viral glory.

So let's take a look at some of the research that's been done on viral videos and identify some of the commonalities that can make them internet-famous. 

The Science of Virality

Though there have been many analyses on why content goes viral, we're going to dive into two key sources: a study by Elon University and a book by Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Wharton, called Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

1) Elon University Study

Elon University conducted a study on the factors that make content go viral. They evaluated 20 of the most viral videos on the web, as determined by Time Magazine, and recorded their various characteristics. The goal was to identify certain factors that may have contributed to the video’s virality.

The sample videos in this study included:

  1. Charlie Bit My Finger,” a video in which an English boy gets his finger bitten by his younger brother.
  2. Evolution of Dance,” a video in which a man shows the evolution of music and dance through choreography.
  3. David After Dentist,” a video in which a young boy experiences side effects to anesthesia from a dentist visit.
  4. Here It Goes Again,” a music video in which band members perform on treadmills in one continuous take.
  5. Rick Roll,” an Internet meme where a person provides a seemingly relevant hyperlink that actually links to Rick Astley’s music video for his song, “Never Gonna Give You Up".
  6. Leave Brittany Alone,” a video in which a man tearfully defends Britney Spears.
  7. Don’t Tase Me, Bro,” a video in which a University of Florida student is tasered by security personnel after being forcibly removed from a session with U.S. Senator John Kerry.
  8. Keyboard Cat,” a video in which a cat plays the keyboard.
  9. Dramatic Chipmunk,” a video in which dramatic music is played and a chipmunk turns his head to look at the camera.
  10. Hitler’s Downfall,” a video that depicts a scene from the movie Downfall where Hitler is very outwardly angry about the war, and replaces the captions to suggest that Hitler is angry about the iPad.
  11. Flea Market Montgomery,” a musical video advertising for a flea market.
  12. United Breaks Guitars,” a musical video that narrates a man’s negative experience with United Airlines breaking his guitar.
  13. Kittens, Inspired by Kittens,” a video in which a young girl narrates a book about kittens.
  14. Potter Puppet Pals,” a musical video in which Harry Potter character puppets perform a puppet show.
  15. Jill and Kevin’s Big Day,” a video of a wedding in which the bridal party dances down the aisle to Chris Brown’s song.
  16. Sneezing Panda,” a video in which an infant panda loudly sneezes.
  17. Otters Holding Hands,” a video in which two floating otters hold hands.
  18. Literal Music Videos,” a video in which the lyrics to popular songs are rewritten to reflect exactly what happens in the music video.
  19. OMG, Shoes,” a musical video in which a man dressed as a blonde woman sings about being obsessed with shoes.
  20. Baby Laughing,” a video in which a baby boy laughs hysterically at the noises his father makes.

8 Common Characteristics of Viral Videos

Upon analyzing these videos, a few factors were determined to be the most prevalent (and therefore most important for creating a viral video):

  • Title length: 75% of the videos had short titles (3 words or less), with the average title length being 2.76 words. 
  • Run-time: 60% of the videos had short run-times (3 minutes or less), with an average run-time of 2 minutes and 47 seconds.
  • Element of laughter: 30% of the videos featured the element of laughter (defined as seeing or hearing someone laughing within the first 30 seconds of the video).
  • Element of surprise: 50% of the videos exhibited the element of surprise (defined as seeing or hearing an expression of surprise, such as a scream or gasp).
  • Element of irony: 90% of the videos featured an element of irony (defined as an element contrary to what was expected). The majority of ironic elements in the videos displayed the breaking of social norms.
  • Musical quality: 60% of the videos displayed a musical element (defined as singing, background music, or popular song references).
  • Youth: 35% of the videos featured children seemingly under the age of 18. 20% of them displayed children seemingly under the age of 10.
  • Talent: 30% of the videos were composed of songs, dances, or performances that required practice and talent.

2) Jonah Berger, Author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Jonah Berger, New York Times bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, was also interested in what makes content go viral. Based on his years of experience in the marketing industry, Berger believes that word of mouth is more effective and more important than conventional advertising because, “we don’t listen to ads, we listen to our social ties.”

And word of mouth largely depends on motivation. You need to create video content that appeals to people enough for them to want to share it with their networks. In Contagious, Berger identifies six key principles (or STEPPS) that motivate people to share content:

  1. Social currency: People share things that make them look good to others.
  2. Triggers: The stimuli that prompt people to think about your product or campaign.
  3. Emotion: People are more likely to share things that are emotionally arousing (with positive emotions being more viral than negative ones).
  4. Public: People are more likely to participate if their participation can be readily made public (such as “I Voted” stickers and wrist bands for causes).
  5. Practical value: People are more likely to share practical pieces of information, so they can help their friends and families.
  6. Stories: People are programmed to recognize, respond to and share compelling stories.

Like I mentioned in the introduction, even with all of this data around viral videos, there's no set formula -- that's where the art comes in. Read on to learn how to use this data in the every-day. 

The Art of Viral Videos: Applying Data to Real-Life Scenarios

Based on the findings of both studies, it would seem that the ideal viral video contains some combination of the following characteristics:

  • Has a short title (3 words or less) and a short run-time (3 minutes or less)
  • Is told in pre-rehearsed story format
  • Is emotionally arousing
  • Makes you laugh
  • Involves elements of irony and/or surprise
  • Allows participation to be made public
  • Is practically useful
  • Features young children

Great. Now all you have to do is translate this list to craft a unique, viral message that represents your specific brand. Easy, right?

Not quite.

Some of these items (like a short title and run-time) are self-explanatory. But others (like story format, elements of irony and surprise, public indicators of participation, and practical use) may not be as evident, so here are some tips for addressing these more complex factors.

Tell a Story

Since the beginning of language, humans have been programmed to consume stories. In fact, stories activate chemicals in our minds that provide sensory experiences and influence our way of thinking. Because of these chemicals and responses, people are naturally attracted to content that’s in conventional story format.

Lucky for you, this is easy to do, because you are human and your brain is already programmed to share stories! Just make sure you have the traditional elements of a narrative (beginning, character, conflict, climax, and resolution) present in your video, and your viewers will identify it as a story.

You could also experiment with using well-known tropes in your video as well -- for example, a mother constantly cleaning her kitchen becomes Cinderella, or a young boy tells a lie and his nose grows like Pinnochio.

For example, Oreo’s “Wonder if I Gave an Oreo” video is a cartoon ad that imagines giving an Oreo to common story characters like the Big Bad Wolf and a vampire. The ad narrates how giving an Oreo to these characters would alter their stories, making them friendlier and giving the stories a happier ending. This kind of video is a cute, funny way of incorporating that theme while still focusing on the brand.

Be Ironic

As the Elon University study found, irony is the most common factor among viral videos at an astounding 90% of surveyed videos. That makes it a pretty high priority when crafting your viral message.

How do you incorporate irony? You do what the majority of the sample videos did -- you demonstrate the breaking of social norms.

Think: Are there any social norms associated with your brand or product? Is there any way that you can break one of those relevant norms in an ironic yet on-brand way?

Let's take a look at an example. Marvel published a brilliantly ironic video for the release of Thor in 2011. Called “Little Thor,” the video is a parody of the adorable Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial that starred a little boy dressed as Darth Vader trying to harness the power of the force. In “Little Thor,” a girl dressed as Thor is going around the house, trying to use Thor’s hammer to wield great power on the dog (appropriately named Loki), a doll, and her peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

As we watch this, it’s practically identical to the Volkswagen commercial, and we assume that it’s probably another video in the same series. In the end, the father comes home, and she runs outside for one last attempt with her hammer. We assume that her father will sound the car’s alarm, just as the father did in the VW Super Bowl commercial, but instead -- the car explodes! We then realize that this commercial is not for Volkswagen, but for the upcoming Thor movie.

This video is ironic on multiple levels. First, it’s an ironic parody of a popular ad. Second, the child dressed as Thor is a girl, which goes against gender stereotypes (and breaks a social norm). Third, the car explodes, which is ironic since the video is a spoof of a car commercial.

An ironic video like that is a humorous way to introduce people to your brand personality.

Surprise the Audience

Half of the viral videos contained an element of surprise.

Why do people like to be surprised? In a world where we view thousands of ads a day, people are tired of seeing the same things over and over. A surprise is a nice, refreshing change of pace to all that monotonous content.

So how do you incorporate elements of surprise while still making your video relevant to your company?

Your company should be the surprise.

To be more specific, the benefits that your company provides should be the (pleasant, funny, positive, etc.) surprise element to your video.

Let’s say that you sell inserts for shoes to make them more comfortable. You could show a video of a woman, strenuously climbing a desert mountain in the sun amidst various obstacles. We’re rooting for her to get to the top, and when she does -- the camera looks down to her feet, and we’re surprised to see that she’s been wearing high heels this whole time.

Thanks to your cushy inserts, she was able to climb a mountain in notoriously uncomfortable footwear.

A video like that is a fun, surprising, and memorable way to casually share your product benefits online.

Or perhaps, you can exaggerate them. Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” video campaign is an excellent example of using a surprise element to exaggerate the benefits of their body wash in a fun, ironic way.

The ad features a towel-clad actor in a bathroom with the shower running behind him. He says that, while your man is unfortunately not him, your man could smell like him with Old Space body wash. Then suddenly, the shower backdrop is pulled right out from behind him to reveal that he is on a boat! He’s holding a clam in his hand with tickets to “your favorite thing” in them. Look again, and the clam has transformed into flowing diamonds! A bottle of Old Spice rises up from within the diamonds, while the camera pans down to reveal that the actor is now on a horse. With the constantly changing wardrobe, props and backdrop, viewers are constantly surprised and excited to see just what “the man your man could smell like” will do next.

While not every brand has the budget to do a video like Old Spice, think about how you can surprise your audience in both small and big ways -- it could help your video get shared.

Encourage Sharing

Berger said that people are more likely to participate if they can publicly indicate their participation. Why? Because people like to show off and feel like they’re in the know.

It’s easy to do for people who interact with you in person -- a branded t-shirt, bumper sticker, or pen will do the job just fine. But it’s harder to provide public indicators of participation for people who interact with you online.

Correction: it was harder to provide them before social media came around.

Nowadays, social sharing buttons are on practically every form of online content there is: YouTube videos, website articles, audio clips, etc. This is to allow people to share the content they enjoy with their friends, who can then share it with their friends, etc.

By incorporating social sharing buttons on your videos and wherever you end up hosting them, you meet your audience’s need to share their experience with others.

Think Practicality

The two things we all have in common is that we all have problems, and we’re all looking for solutions to fix them.

From self-diagnosing an illness to looking up recipes for a last-minute potluck dinner, people search for informational content all the time. Chances are, your customers are looking for information regarding your field or industry as well. And it’s in your best interest to provide it for them.

By creating a practical, useful video, you accomplish a few very important things:

  1. You provide information to people who prefer to seek it on their own.
  2. You can encourage those people to then share that information with their networks (accommodating those who seek advice from their friends).
  3. You establish yourself as a helpful tool and source of information, increasing trust (and hopefully loyalty).
  4. If you have strategically placed calls-to-action in your video, you could hopefully convert viewers to the next stage of the buying journey.

Is there any way that your video can provide practical information that your customers might be looking for? A good first step is to identify a problem your customers are having, and then provide information as to how they can fix it. 

Maybe you sell makeup, and you have a lot of customers who aren’t sure how and when to apply it -- you could create a how-to video for tips and tricks to apply makeup. Or maybe your company provides eye exams, but a lot of first-time children are scared of the visit -- you could film a tour of your office, with a step-by-step explanation of the eye exam for mothers to show their children.

By providing this useful information, you help people associate you with solutions -- which'll come in handy when they want to buy something down the road.

Take Pillsbury’s video for “Crescent Mummy Dogs,” for example. It’s an instructional video that shows how you can make a fun, playful dish for your children at Halloween. Parents might be searching for a recipe like this for their child’s school party, and Pillsbury has provided not only the recipe, but also a how-to video to accompany it. This way, they make completing this recipe as easy as possible, so parents who try it love it and will be more likely to share it with their friends -- and heck, maybe even buy Pillsbury dough to make the recipe.

In Conclusion

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for the perfect viral video, but there is a general guideline. By understanding the elements that make content successful, you can predict (and even create) the content that will become popular in the future. This information is crucial for successful viral marketing campaigns, as it will allow you to strategically create videos that are more likely to be widely distributed online.

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Originally published Jun 17, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017


Video Marketing