Why do videos go viral?

If you have ever wondered how you might go about making viral content on the web, and particularly videos, this blog might help a little bit. But first let’s answer the question: what makes an item go viral? Here’s an excerpt from a research paper I recently did that explains it:

Phelps, et al. (2004, p. 335) sought to find the answer by studying viral e-mails. They examined participants’ reactions at each stage of the “pass-along e-mail process”: receipt of the message, opening or deleting the message, reading/deciphering the message, and choosing whether or not to forward the message along (Phelps, et al. 2004). The participants were described as either frequent e-mailers or non-frequent e-mailers. The results showed that participants were most likely to forward messages that triggered “strong emotions— humor, fear, sadness, or inspiration” (Phelps, et al. 2004, p. 345). In other words, the people who create messages intended to go viral should create content that elicits a strong emotional response from its audience.

Here are some examples of videos that elicit different emotional responses:

This is the commercial that made Youtube stars Rhett and Link famous. There are a couple of emotions elicited here. The first is humor. The pair played off the ridiculous local commercials out there and a clearly silly idea to use racial harmony to sell a product. With that second idea in mind, the video also possibly spread a little uneasiness among the racially…uncomfortable, let’s say. Both of these factors provided the entertainment and/or shock factor that made people want to share it with others.

This video is of Ted Williams. Not the baseball player who hit .400 for a season. This Ted Williams has turned his life around from being a drug addict, alcoholic, and homeless person by pitching his voice to people on the street. Someone recorded him using his talent and the rest is history. I think the emotions elicited from this video are possibly pity, but also joy and warmness about hearing someone’s story of turning their life around. There is also the unmistakable amazing nature of Williams’ voice.

Other videos go viral for sheer talent. Freddiew’s team puts up new Youtube videos every week that often feature amazing special effects and cool ideas. This particular video plays off the emotions of gamers reminiscing about Super Mario Bros. and the idea that a fire flower actually exists. It’s a funny video for the target audience, but particularly well-done for those that might not be familiar with the source material. Freddiew’s videos regularly go viral because they all have some sort of wow factor and are often funny, too.

Of course there are many other emotions that viral videos can generate in the viewer. And I’m not saying it’s easy to create a viral video. In fact, many of their makers probably didn’t expect much from them. But if you have a particularly good idea that elicits emotion, it has a decent chance of being successful. And I think that’s been true of all video/film content since it’s inception.

Phelps, J. E., Lewis, R., Mobilio, L., Perry, D., Raman, N. (2004). Viral marketing or electronic word-of-mouth advertising: examining consumer responses and motivations to pass along email. Journal of Advertising Research, 333-348. DOI: 10.1017/S0021849904040371


What makes an image iconic?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  That being true, all the years of photography have provided an almost infinite number of those words.  Many pictures are so powerful that they speak to generation after generation, making them easily recognizable by the general public.  Images such as these are often referred to as iconic.  But what causes an image to go from the camera to being a cultural icon?  I think it is because some images are powerful enough to evoke certain emotions that many of us can relate to experiences or desires in our lives.  The four main emotions evoked I believe are: those of certain eras, events, person/people, and artistic/shock value.


World War II soldier comes home.

This photo of a soldier coming home after World War II is sweet, but also is an iconic figure of the beginning of the baby boom and the generation of children born during that time.  It also signals the end of the WWII era, perhaps more importantly.  But that is one cool thing about iconic images: they mean different things to different people.  Baby boomers and generations after will probably see the photo representing my first idea, while WWII veterans will probably think of my second idea.


Moon landing with American flag

Some images are iconic simply because of the event they capture and the way they capture it.  This image has been for many a source of pride, remembrance, controversy, and other emotions.  The pride and remembrance are felt by people who were and are shocked and amazed at the accomplishment mankind made that day.  The controversy is felt by people who wonder if the event actually happened or was staged to scare the Russians.  Whatever emotion it evokes for a person, it is the larger event surrounding this photo that puts it into cultural history.


Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Some images are iconic because of the person the image is taken of.  The above example of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta is iconic because it evokes the memory of one of the most influential people of the 20th Century and an eventual saint in the Catholic Church.  Other people are iconic for their image alone because of bad things; but they are nonetheless famous and easily recognizable by most people.


The Loch Ness Monster

Lastly, some images are iconic because of their artistic and/or shock value.  This image has been the source of much controversy.  Is it a photo of a real sea monster or a clever hoax?  Whatever the case, the idea of this monster has made Loch Ness a famous location and has spawned various forms of fiction dealing with sea monsters.

There is probably an anomaly in the vast sea of iconic images; but I think these four categories pretty well sum up why certain images become iconic.

Best Ways to Live Cheaply During Grad School at Elon

If you are looking for the best ways to save money on everyday things as an Elon University graduate student, this article should put you off to a good start.  In it, I will discuss some of the cheapest options for things from groceries to gas.  Elon’s finance department does a good job of including cost-of-living expenses in your student loans; but saving money is still a necessity and is a good practice in general.


The main grocers in the Burlington area are Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Lowe’s Food , and Wal-Mart.  There is also an ALDI discount market, and a BJ’s Wholesale Club (membership-based).

While ALDI offers great discounts, it is a no-frills establishment and not a traditional store.  The majority of the merchandise is on pallets rather than shelves.  And one of ALDI’s secrets for keeping prices down is to run their stores with minimal staff.  This can mean long lines waiting to check out.

BJ’s Wholesale Club is a warehouse store along the lines of Sam’s Club and Costco.  Basic yearly membership costs $50 and entitles the member not only to the store’s goods, but also to such services as gas stations.  It is not a traditional grocery store, but may be right for you if you do not mind warehouse-style stores.

For the remaining four chain stores, follow this link to a great store comparison by Ande Truman and this comparison by Steve Rhode, The Get Out of Debt Guy. Overall, it seems that Wal-Mart is the winner for cheap groceries in Burlington.


To keep up with the ever-changing prices, visit this site to find out which is the cheapest.

Movie Theater

There are two main movie theaters in the Burlington area: Carousel Cinemas at Alamance Crossing and Graham Cinema.

Carousel Cinemas is a traditional, first-run movie theater (screening new movies).  First-run movie ticket prices tend to rise by the year; but as of this writing, the price for an Elon student evening ticket is $8.50.

Graham Cinema is a second-run movie theater (screening movies a few months old) where all shows are $3.00.

For an unconventional movie experience, Elon’s Student Union Board offers a free movie and popcorn on Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. at Young Commons (rain location is in The Zone).


There are a few decent places to drink around Burlington.  The most popular spots are Piedmont Ale House and The Fat Frogg, both of which feature drink specials that change fairly regularly.  The cheapest beer I have found is at University Grill, with draft prices between $2.00 and $3.00.  But watch out.  University Grill was recently featured on Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible” because of its poor quality of food, service, and atmosphere. It is yet to be seen if the show’s changes will make an impact.

According to this website, the average cost of living in Burlington is said to be $2,694 per month.  I get by spending about $1,300 while still going out to eat once or twice a week.  With these tips and some research on your specific needs, you should be able to make the most of your money during grad school, whether it be from student loans or other sources.

Writing Short for the Web

The best way to write on the web is to use the journalistic style.  Also called the reverse-pyramid style, this kind of writing puts the most important aspects of the story at the beginning and gradually works its way to the least-important details.  In the same way that a good journalist knows that he/she must grab his/her reader from the beginning, so does a good web writer know that most readers just scan headlines, the first sentence, and maybe the first paragraph.

There are two main reasons this happens online.

First, there is the physical situation: the monitor resolution, backlights, fixed reading distance, etc.  All of these contribute to a shorter attention span for the reader.

Second, the online reader has readily available a bunch of other websites to click to if he/she does not find what he/she is looking for immediately.  No matter if your website is the definitive source of knowledge of a particular subject, if it does not give the reader instant gratification, he/she will go to the next source that does, even if the information is not as good.

Information.  This brings up another key point: while people reading a newspaper are reading it to see if it has any useful information, people reading online are most of the time searching for specific types of information.  When researching for this piece for example, I was not randomly searching the Internet for anything.  I specifically typed into the Google search, “Why is writing for the Web different?”

Even when looking for something that specific, searches will turn up a ton of options to choose from.  The best way to sift through those options is to only read the headline, first couple of sentences, and/or an introductory blurb if it exists.  If you do not find what you are looking for, you hit the back button and go to the next option.

All of these issues make it necessary for web writing to be concise, easily readable (scannable), and SEO optimized.

A lot of the ideas of the above piece are a summation from the article, “Why Web Writing is Different,” by Tiffany Sanders (http://www.gnc-web-creations.com/web-writing.htm).

Writing Long for the Web

There is also text on the Web that breaks the mold of Web writing, able to last for pages and still keep readers engaged.  Most of this content has one thing in common: a fan base.

Popular Science, for example, has had a loyal list of followers for many years.  Some followers are specifically fans of authors and editors of the publication.  Because of this, and because it operates under the moniker of a magazine, the Popular Science website can get away with articles of magazine-story length.

The other kind of content with a fan base that supports longer stories is niche content.  This could be anything from a normal article to a wiki.  But a lot of niche audiences are so engrossed in what they are fans of, they want to consume as much information as possible about it.  That is why, for example, there is an entire wiki devoted to the videogame, “World of Warcraft.”

What keeps people reading these long articles?  Tiffany Sanders says it best: “know your audience.”  Are they professionals in a scientific industry, which allows you to write in highly technical terms?  Or are they casual science fans who need to be re-taught scientific principles within certain articles?  Are they a mixture of both?  When you find your audience, you can figure out what their interests are, and thus figure out how to keep their attention.

How digital interaction can foster empathy

In today’s world of ever-decreasing attention spans, it is becoming more important to figure out creative ways to engage users of media, particularly on the Internet.  Gone are the days in which flashy graphics and sound effects enchanted viewers into taking in Internet media despite its lack of substance.  People are so used to computers now, these kinds of things are expected and the users look for deeper content.  One of the best ways to create deeper content is to create a sense of empathy within the user.

For me, empathy only partially happens online.  If you go to a website with an interactive experience such as The Durham Poverty Game, you will get, for example, a sense of what it can feel like to live on a meager salary.  But this is only a simulation.  The real empathy will come if the site convinces you to get involved with its Urban Ministries partner.  It is only when you meet poor people and work with them that you might truly start feeling for them.  I think the Durham Poverty Game does a decent job creating at least a little bit of empathy, enough that one is inclined to clink on the link about how to help.  Although, the point of help it highlights the most is a $5 donation.  While this is good and fine, it is very easy to donate money and then forget about the organization altogether unless someone reminds you about it again.  This is not empathy.  The better path, if you have the time and are inclined to do it, is to get involved with the organization and do hands-on help.

All this being said, I think the best way that a website can generate empathy is to get the user involved in a real-world activity that will generate true, personal empathy, rather than empathy from the comfort of their computer desk.  So, how can we do this?  In her book, “Reality is Broken”, Jane McGonigal talks about alternate-reality games.  These can be digitally based, but can also just be any game that creates a set of rules to live by and gives awards based on the performance of these rules.  One example of an alternate-reality game is “Chore Wars,” a game that awards points for doing household chores and results in family members doing chores to compete for high scores.  This is a game that promotes real-world improvement, not just a donation to a cause or to promote awareness of the need to do chores.  It is a specific call to action with rewards and motivation to achieve them.  McGonigal believes that alternate-reality games have the potential to change the world.  I’m not sure about that; but I do believe they have the ability to change how we view the usefulness of the Internet and the convergence of the physical and digital worlds.


Durham Poverty Game: http://playspent.org/

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken. (1 ed.). USA: Penguin Press HC.

Examples of video ads with stand-alone audio.

Audio is perhaps the most important part of an ad. Without it, many ads would lose their impact. Here are three examples of video ads with good audio that can stand on its own:

This is an old commercial for the McDonald’s Bic Mac burger.  Before this commercial came out, the jingle already existed that described the burger’s ingredients: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame-seed bun.  This later ad is effective because it plays on how the jingle kind of captured America and how everyone knew at least a part of it.  The audio stands alone because each person has a very distinct voice; so one can tell that different people are all trying their hand at singing the jingle correctly.  Also, the jingle is sung in its entirety twice, a jingle that puts a picture (and maybe even a taste) in your head by the end of the spot.

This is a 1977 commercial for Tootsie Rolls. There are not many commercials like this anymore, ones where the entire ad is backed up by a 30-second jingle. The only ones that come to mind are for freecreditreport.com and Mentos. Jingle commercials are particularly effective when done well I think because the 30-seconds of lyrics are easy to remember and a catchy tune is fun to sing again. It actually promotes word-of-mouth advertising because a lot of people are just drawn to singing the songs. This Tootsie Roll commercial is effective even more than 30 years after it debuted. It gets its staying power by bringing people like myself back to their childhood when they hear it. It stands alone as audio because the message is clear: Tootsie Rolls are so good, when you eat one it becomes your whole world.

This is a commercial for the film, “The Dark Knight.” The audio for this trailer is effective for a number of reasons. First, it has selections from among the best lines in the film from The Joker, a character who was getting a lot of pre-film buzz because of Heath Ledger’s performance. The sound effects are over-the-top, making it fairly easy to not necessarily know exactly what they are, but at least know that they are action-movie sounds. The voice-over is good because it tells you about when the movie is coming out. It also tells the tagline of the movie: “Out of the darkness comes the Knight,” and that the movie is PG-13. It is important to give little bits of information like this without revealing too much. The audio stands alone from the video because of the combination of all these things.

What makes a solid social media campaign?

This is the question that I have been researching lately for graduate school social media project.  P.T. Barnum once spoke about “how to make misrepresentation tolerable to the consumer” (Staiger, 1990).  He was talking about advertising at a time when peddling one’s goods changed from pitching products that consumers already needed to convincing them they needed things they never knew they wanted (or existed).  Since that time, advertising has taken on a lot of forms.  Today, the Internet has opened up many new avenues for advertisers and has the potential to open up many more.  Social media is one of the newest developments in how advertisers market their goods.  Most of us already know this, of course, as we see it every day.  But what are the best practices for using social media to market your products and services?  Upon doing some research, I have found some useful sites that talk about just that.


This website lists five different social media campaigns that have proven successful.  I won’t get into too many specifics for any of my examples in this post; but I have taken away few things.  For example, one of the best social media sites to team up with if you want to offer deals to your customers is Groupon.  Coupons have been around for ages; but with Groupon’s social media twist and its capability to offer local coupons, this really takes product discounts to the 21st century.  Another success on this site was for Mountain Dew, which allowed customers to create a new flavor and come up with a marketing campaign for it.  The winning group would have its flavor created.  What really worked in this campaign is that it was not only a fun project for participants; it also allowed them to participate with the company.  The lesson to take here is that consumers feel good when they can be a part of your success.  The last example I want to talk about is Starbucks, which has been very social-media friendly.  In addition to giving special deals on the obvious sites like Facebook and Twitter, Starbucks teamed up with Foursquare to offer deals for those reaching “mayorship status.”  If you aren’t familiar with Foursquare, this is a status achieved when a participant “checks in” at a location the most times out of all participants over the preceding 60 days.


This article makes one very good point: your social media advertising does not do any good unless there is a clear call to action.  To summarize, it asks if your social media items get your users to:

  • Engage with your business or organization
  • Learn more about your business, organization, area of focus, offerings, or services
  • Tell friends about you
  • Share your content
  • Advocate for your cause
  • Learn more about what you offer
  • Read an article you wrote or published
  • Write a review
  • Marvel over your industry expertise

Any moral way you can get your users to do this is great.  And the site offers a few examples of “call to action posts”: “What do you think of this topic? Share your thoughts on our Facebook Page.” “Have you ever experienced this situation? Tweet about it and mention our Twitter handle.” “Want to learn more? Visit my profile on LinkedIn.”


The last site I want to talk about gives a more complete view of what your social media campaign should be as a whole, listing seven steps to help.

1. Make sure your main web presence, whether it be a blog or a website, does all that it needs to do.  If the rest of your social media campaign is awesome and gets people to visit your site, it doesn’t matter if your site doesn’t do what it needs to do to get the word out.

2. Put a human face to your company.  Add a little bit of your personality to your social media campaign, without getting too personal.  If you can put a good face and personality to your company, people will have a positive view of your company.

3. Figure out who your audience is and look at what other websites are doing to bring those customers in.  If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.  There is nothing wrong with emulating the social media strategies of a successful company that has customers that you want as well.

4. Pick the best social media platform(s) for your customers.  If you did step three and find that they are all on Facebook, for example, then that should be your primary platform.

5. Manage your time.  Decide on a certain amount of time per day you will spend checking social media sites, and don’t go over or under it.  Stay productive.

6. Content is key.  Make your posts educational and useful for your customers.  Rather than spending a bunch of time on social media making a lot of posts, make sure that you write one or a few posts that are top-notch.

7. This is not so much a social media thing; but the last thing the site advises is that you do not forget about SEO just because you are on social media.  SEO is still a very important way for new customers to find you.

The thing that I take away from all of this is that a lot of social media campaigns are probably trial and error.  One can try all the things talked about in this post and not get that many results.  But this doesn’t mean that these are bad strategies or that they only work for certain people.  It’s just that every social media campaign has different needs.  So while it is a great thing to come up with a solid social media plan, make it flexible.  Keeps tabs on what seems to be working and what is not.  Change your plan accordingly.  Like the Internet itself, the best ways to reach customers are changing all the time.


Staiger, J. (1990). Announcing wares, winning patrons, voicing ideals: Thinking about the history and theory of film advertising. Cinema Journal, 29(3), 3-31. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225178 .