There is no formula for the content of a successful viral video. Some videos build wonderous Rube Goldberg devices which enchant us as they unfold, while others feature wedding proposals, which move us to tears. And then there are cat videos. They have varying subjects, lengths, emotions, and objectives, but through a better understanding of the viewer’s experience and their reasons for sharing content, it is possible to understand some of the traits which make a viral video successful.
Nobel prize winner Jacques Monod, who primarily focused on genetics research, suggested that ideas retain the properties of organisms. They replicate and breed, fuse, and recombine in much the same way that genes do. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, took Monod’s ideas further to theorize that ideas are organisms which exist within culture. Some are harmful, like suicide cults, while some are useful, like CPR. He named these organisms “memes.”
Creating an idea which thrives within culture, then, is comparable to creating an organism which possesses the most traits to ensure its survival. While some feel that the application of virus terminology is not appropriate, it harkens back to Dawkins perspective of ideas as living entities. A viral video, like a virus, must exist for one purpose: to reproduce and pass on its information to the next person. For this reason, understanding how viewers interpret videos and why they are shared is crucial.
Jonah Berger, professor at Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, conducted a study on human responses to viral videos and concluded that the most effective videos evoke a strong, visceral emotional reaction in the viewer. When watching them, the viewer briefly enters into a state of high arousal which makes them far more likely to want to share the content. Decades of research suggest that people often share strong emotions as a means of fostering connection and solidarity. We share to strengthen our social connections through shared emotional reactions.
What are these emotional reactions, and how are they evoked in the viewer? First, The emotion must be strong enough to evoke a visceral response and prompt action (in this case, sharing). This emotion, surprisingly, may not always be “happy” or “funny,” according to Brent Coker, a marketing professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Fear, for example, can evoke a very strong visceral response in the form of an extreme stunt.
Because we share to connect with others, the viral videos with the best chances of being shared evoke a universal response. This ensures that sender and receiver will have the same reaction, and consequently bond, rather than create discussion or division. Prerna Gupta, a digital music entrepreneur speaking at SXSW interactive last year, included some elements of universal response in her list of factors which ensure viral success: music, surprise, and cuteness.
Telling a story, not matter how short, is also crucial to evoking emotion. That story can be a story of trial and failure, risk and reward, heroic accomplishment, karmic justice being served, or a myriad of other stories; the universal is change. Even a simple video like “Charlie bit my finger” has a main character (Charlie’s brother), a conflict (the biting), and a resolution (laughter and asserting brotherly love).
These traits are general to viral videos, but how do brands succeed within this space? For a brand to thrive, it is first and foremost essential for the brand to appear in a way which is consistent with the consumer’s previous associations with the brand. Coker uses the example of Harley Davidson, which is normally associated with freedom, muscle, and membership. Separating it from its usual context (such as on motor scooters) creates a tension in interpretation which will interfere with the success of the video. While brand consistency is always important for brands, it is crucial to avoid this tension to ensure all chances of success.
A brand can play three roles within a viral video: it can hide, serve, or drive. Hiding, such as Gatorade’s “Amazing ball girl catch“ can be effective, but it risks backlash if the video is perceived as deceptive. Regardless of intent, discovering a ruse distracts and divides an audience, which does not create optimal circumstances for sharing. (Note the comments for this Sweet-tarts video, which devolve into arguments over the video’s veracity. It’s fake.)
Brands can serve viral videos to viewers without obstructing the experience. In videos such as Skittles “Touch” series, the brand brings the experience to the viewer without eclipsing it. The brand receives credit through being the conduit for the experience.
Brands can be the centerpiece of the video, such as “Swagger Wagon.” It is important to note, however, that the video is never interrupted by product messaging. The same is true of the Old Spice man, who includes product information while never disrupting the emotion of the ad.
The best approach for a brand, no matter how prominent within the video, is to ensure that the context and messaging are consistent with consumer perceptions of the brand, and to enhance the emotional experience rather than interrupt it. While a formula for viral success does not exist, understanding the emotional experience of the viewer is crucial to ensuring the video has optimal traits to be passed on.
Finally, it should be noted that, like a virus, viral videos can mutate as they spread. Parodies, remixes, re-edits, and reactions may become part of the video as it passes from person to person. Because it is impossible to fully control a video once it is released, this process of change should at the very least be acknowledged as a possibility, and at best embraced as part of what makes a video viral.
Nick Ferrario is an Account Planner at Razorfish and intensely curious about why people make the choices they make. He fills his spare time making films and cycling. His twitter handle is @nferrario
“Why You Just Shared That Baby Video,” Wall Street Journal
Gleick, James: The Information: A Theory, a History, a Flood.
Coker, Brent. ”What Makes a Video Go Viral,” WebReep
“11 Secrets of Viral Video,” Forbes