How to Make a Viral Video (and Why Marketers Should Care)

A viral video is the ultimate prize for digital marketers. When a video goes viral, the message can be appreciated and shared by millions of people in a matter of hours.

It’s a powerful, if elusive, content marketing tool.

But why do videos go viral? Is there a way for digital marketers to make it happen consistently?

Who is doing all this viral video sharing, anyway? And why should we care?

For those answers, we need to rewind to the dawn of the age of video virality.

Some believe the concept was born on Monday, Feb. 14, 2005, at 9:13 p.m. At that moment, as millions of Americans went about the ritual of Valentine’s Day celebrations, former PayPal employees Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim activated a video sharing site named YouTube.

Others might claim it began on April 23 of that year, when Karim uploaded the first YouTube video. Karim called the 18-second clip of himself babbling about elephants, “Me at the Zoo.” If there is ever a viral video museum, Karim’s elephant clip will hang in the place of honor; it has been viewed more than 33 million times.

The first million-view YouTube video came out in October 2005 – a Nike ad showcasing the other-worldly skills of Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho.

In the ensuing decade-plus, we learned what the fox says, crushed on Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, got “Rick-rolled” countless times and were subjected to (and, let’s be honest, adored) viral videos that featured:

  • An English baby named Charlie who bit his brother’s finger … then bit it again
  • A gyrating South Korean pop singer named Psy who taught us to “Oppa Gangnam Style”
  • A sneezing baby panda
  • Cats – millions and millions of cats
  • A Star Wars-loving Texas mom laughing hysterically – and infectiously – in a Chewbacca mask

And so many more. As YouTube grew into a billion-view-per-month behemoth, the preponderance of viral video “stars” was such that the phenomenon spawned its own category in the annual Webby Awards for outstanding digital content: Best Web Personality/Host.

A bit more background: Google bought YouTube in 2006. The photo-sharing app Instagram launched in 2010, was purchased by Facebook in 2012, and added video sharing in 2013. That was a response to the rampant success of Vine, a Twitter-based mobile app that allows users to share 6-second video clips that roll in continuous loops.

Vimeo, founded a few months before YouTube, also exists as a high-end, virtual “art house” for viewing and sharing better-quality videos. Although overshadowed by YouTube and Facebook, it remains a useful option for digital marketers chasing virality with its 170 million views per month.

That’s the history in a nutshell. Here’s why you should care whether a video goes viral:

  • 85% of Americans age 13-24 watch videos on YouTube
  • 62% of that demographic would buy a product based on the recommendation of a YouTube creator
  • 87% of digital marketers incorporate video content in campaigns
  • On average, Internet users see more than 32 videos per month
  • YouTube reports a 100% year-to-year increase in mobile video views
  • 92% of mobile video users share content with others

Facebook users view videos 8 billion times a day. YouTube’s audience of 1 billion users watch hundreds of millions of hours of video every day.

How, then, does a video break away from the mundane and achieve virality?

While the research conducted by digital marketing firms and viral video factories like BuzzFeed has not uncovered a simple formula to generate virality, it has revealed two major attributes shared by viral videos:

  • An emotional appeal. While humor is a big motivator for sharing, most viral videos elicit a range of emotions. So, yes, make them laugh – or just put on a funny mask laugh into the camera, a la Chewbacca Mom. But also strive to elicit emotions like warmth, awe, surprise and even anger or anxiety (fun emotions work better). Videos with animals and kids incorporate the “cute” factor, and that’s real power. There’s a reason YouTube features more than 15 million cat videos.
  • An influential champion. Social media influencers are what they are because people care what they think, so it often pays to catch their attention online. A celebrity or brand with a few million Twitter followers can share a piece of content and transform it into a cultural phenomenon overnight.

That said, not all social influencers are widely famous.

Here’s a useful example of how even relatively unknown influencers can launch a video into virality. An anonymous Reddit user posted a YouTube video of singer Pharrell Williams’ amazed reaction to student musical artist Maggie Rogers’ song and video, “Alaska.” The video was viewed millions of times and shared tens of thousands of times on social media. It was featured on a number of news sites, including USA Today.

Rogers’ video went viral. The student musician achieved “Internet” fame thanks to her association with Williams through her school and an alert Reddit user motivated to share with a wider audience.

A few more tips:

  • Release the video at mid-morning on a Tuesday or Wednesday, when office workers are checking their social feeds.
  • Tease to it often across all social platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, YouTube, Vine and Snapchat are the hottest networks, but Reddit and StumbleUpon can also find a niche audience willing to share liberally.
  • Test different headlines, using words that strengthen emotional appeal.
  • Stay patient. If a video doesn’t perform as well as you hoped it would, keep an eye on current events and share it again if it becomes relevant.

Finally, a video will almost certainly remain obscure if it is not well-made. Pay attention to story flow, as well as the quality of the picture and sound. Above all, for a video to have any chance to go viral, it must be great.

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