What Makes a Video Viral?

Last Wednesday, industry reports projected that 129.5 million people will watch online video ads in 2008, and this number is expected to increase to 183.3 million by 2013. This growing audience could be a double-edged sword for online marketers. With added viewers, video content will reach a wider user base, but there will be the added challenge to make an impact on said users who will be exposed to tons of online video.

Viral video campaigns are sometimes hailed as a holy grail to reaching users through the noise of competitors, brand detractors, and negative publicity. However, ‘viral’ is a loaded word. Executing a viral campaign is easy to promise and hard to deliver. Clients are enamored by the promise of thousands of YouTube views, and agencies want to prove they can craft something clever enough to warrant those views. While there are sufficient examples of viral videos, marketers only have a vague idea of what it takes to spur a viral campaign In my experience, it’s difficult to predict which videos will take off. Viral just seems to happen.

What Makes a Video Viral?

While there is absolutely no formula to produce an effective viral video, there are some common themes. Here are two.

An obvious component, but difficult to manufacture, is to create a video worth talking about. A viral video is like the one play of a game that I talk about first. Whether it’s a touchdown pass thrown by a running back or a walk-off home run by a rookie, a viral video needs to show something novel to rise above the rest of the field. It needs to grab attention, be memorable, and ultimately make viewers feel duty bound to pass it on.

For marketing purposes, the video also needs to allude to the brand or product of focus in an unobtrusive manner. The risk of not including a branding message, even if it’s subtle, is that everyone will share the video but not be able to give credit where credit is due. On the flip side, very few users would pass a commercial on to their friends. To be most effective, a viral video must straddle the line between advertisements and CGM (define).

The most difficult part of crafting a viable video is that what internal teams find amusing, interesting, and attention-worthy might not be shared by their user base. To overcome this, marketers must attack a viral campaign from a user-centric perspective. EA Sports’s marketing team got it right with its response to a YouTube post exposing a glitch in the 2008 version of “Tiger Woods PGA Tour.” The glitch occurred occasionally when players hit a shot into a water hazard; Woods was able to walk on water, make the shot, and continue on. In response, EA Sports released a YouTube video that parlayed the original negative video to promote the 2009 version of the game. Using Woods himself, the video showed the golf legend actually walking on water to hit a shot off a lily pad. The closing line was, “It’s not a glitch. He’s just that good.”

The video has generated more than 2 million views to date. I attribute its success to communicating with users in a meaningful, unexpected way. The video would probably have been less successful if EA Sports didn’t include Tiger Woods in its response or if the video’s tone was less playful and clever.

Tackling a viral video campaign can seem like a futile effort since more times than not they fall short of expectations. I do think, however, there’s always value in thinking about a campaign from users’ perspective. With a broader audience on the online horizon, adapting a user-centric perspective will only become more important as advertisers plan their online video campaigns to reach users.

Related reading