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

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