What Makes a Viral Video?

What makes a viral video? This is the question that plagues content marketers, CMOs, ad agencies, and YouTube aficionados across the world. And the answer isn’t simple, for it’s not the producer that determines whether a video goes viral. It’s the public.

So do you want to produce a viral video? If you own a business of any kind, or are interested in earning publicity online, chances are you do. And even if you don’t, you’ll be convinced in only a few paragraphs. So take a moment to get an insider’s look into exactly what makes a video go viral, as well as some tips on how you can make yours the next one!

A Brief History of Viral Videos

Though often associated with the rise and popularity of YouTube, “viral” videos existed long before videos even became a staple of internet marketing. One of the first examples was the 3D “dancing baby” GIF, which spread at light speed through email in the late 1990s.

YouTube has certainly been instrumental in the creation and dissemination of viral videos, though. The “Star Wars kid” and the Lonely Island’s “Dick in a Box” all have YouTube to thank for their five minutes of fame.

But YouTube is only one part of the equation. It’s the medium on which viral videos are initially released, but oftentimes it’s not how they are first found. Any video that has gone viral within the past decade has only done so because of the rise of social media as a whole, and not merely YouTube. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, LinkedIn, and Instagram have all played their part in pushing videos viral.

Elements of a Viral Video

Are there any common elements that we can discern in this history of viral videos? Closely inspecting each one, we can see at least 3 factors at play in the video content alone.


Emotion is certainly the foremost element in anything that goes viral, which includes more than just videos. We might think of viral videos as solely comedic, but there have been significant examples of ones that didn’t make anyone laugh out loud (one is discussed below).

One thing that went viral without ever touching a video camera was “The Dress.” On February 26, 2015, picture of the Lace Detail Bodycon Ladies Dress by Roman Originals took the world by storm with just a single Tumblr post. Only a day later, it was the focus of over 10 million tweets, 400,000 Tumblr notes, and 2,700 upvotes and 3,600 comments on Reddit.

What was so special about this seemingly ordinary dress? Behind a single picture was an optical illusion that made the dress seem either black and blue or white and gold, depending on how one looked at it. And, because sight is our entire perception of the world, different people seeing different colors soon became an argument about the nature of reality.

The lesson here is that contention is just as powerful as laughter. The purpose of a viral video — or viral anything — is not merely to make people giggle. It’s to provoke a powerful, visceral reaction that causes them to comment, to share and to engage.


Trendability (i.e. a “hot-button topic”) is another factor, and one that should seem fairly obvious. After all, what are viral videos if not trendy? Of course the subject has to be trendy. That’s a given. However, not everything that is trendworthy goes viral.

So how do you know which videos comprise the perfect mix of trendability and the potential to go viral? The best place to start is always social media. Since the meteoric rise of Facebook and Twitter, at least one social medium has been crucial in pushing viral videos.

To see what other people are talking about and how you can capitalize on this embedded trendability, simply head over to a relevant social platform and check out the discussions and hashtags, like so:


At first glance, it probably seems like nothing here has to do with your business. But, with a little creativity, any of this can apply to your business.

At the moment, Wes Craven is a trending topic because he recently passed away. So, let’s say your clothing store features a video of someone trying on a pair of new shoes. Ghostface (from Craven’s horror classic Scream) appears and looks as menacing as ever, but he’s not here to slash suburban teenagers — he’s here to slash prices!

Attention-Grabbing (and Retaining)

Finally, a viral video must not only IMMEDIATELY grab the audience’s attention, but it must also retain that attention for its entire duration. This is a bit more technical than it may seem, and it gets into some of the hidden, behind-the-scenes work of producing and distributing a video.

First, consider what the viewer sees when they first come across a video. If nothing else, they see: a) the title/headline, and b) the video thumbnail. Both of these must be optimized to drive the maximum number of clicks.

They must take into account the emotions provoked as well as the trendability of the subject, while also making an offer the viewer can’t refuse. The title and thumbnail of everything viral should imply, “You won’t be able to move on with your life until you click this video, so click it right now!”

Even after you’ve managed to get people to click and play the video, however, you’re still left with the task of retaining their attention. This is why, except in extremely rare cases, viral videos are no longer than 2 minutes.

Many studies have been done on this matter, and 2 appears to be the magic number. So, unless you’re confident that you can keep your audience drooling for more after 120 seconds, concision is key.

Viral Videos in Action: “How to Hack Video Screens on Times Square”

Let’s bring the history and elements of viral videos together with an examination of one extremely popular video that went viral a few years ago:

On March 14, 2011, a completely unknown YouTube user named “BITcrash44” uploaded a video called “How to Hack Video Screens on Times Square.” Within only a single week, that video had garnered over 2 million plays and even received press coverage in such esteemed media as Business Insider and the New York Times.

For at least that one week, it seemed like everyone was talking about this video. It even became (according to the New York Times, at least), the most popular viral video on Twitter to date. And guess what? The purpose of the video actually had little to do with hacking the screens in Times Square.

It was soon discovered that this video was part of an extremely clever viral marketing campaign for the new film Limitless. And it worked. By any measurable indicator, whether social shares, video clicks, or mere mentions of it on news outlets, the video was successful in what it set out to do: generate buzz and awareness of Limitless.

Closely examining this example, all the necessary ingredients were well in place and effectively executed:

Trendability: Between the 2010 Wikileaks cables release and the “hacktivism” of the group known as Anonymous, computer hacking was certainly a trendable topic that was in the news with some frequency. Add to this the general tech-savviness of contemporary culture, with its ubiquitous computers and smartphones, and you have a perfectly trendy subject just waiting to go viral. Attention Grabbing/Retaining: What is the title of this video if not attention-grabbing? Given the trendability of hacking in general, certain audiences were bound to find it. But what really catches the eye is the well-known and recognizable location of Times Square. And, the video’s length is 1 second short of the 2 minute rule, just long enough to deliver its content and just short enough to retain viewers’ interest. Emotion: Finally, the hacking video perfectly evokes some very powerful emotions. Without knowing that it was, in fact, a guerrilla marketing tactic, it’s hard not to believe that someone actually hacked the video screens at Times Square. Even the naysayers, those that immediately labelled it a hoax, helped the campaign by sharing and discussing it.

Of course, no hacking was actually done. The studio behind Limitless, Relativity Media, purchased ad space at Times Square. Nevertheless, the fact remains that people believed this story. They discussed it, they shared it, and they helped make it viral.

The ROI of Viral Video Marketing

With all the money and hard work that goes into simply producing a viral video, what is the return on investment that you can expect? Well, we are not exactly soothsayers, but we can give you some historical data that will speak for itself.

Limitless garnered almost $162 million at the box office. The viral video’s budget has never been made public, and it would be difficult to infer its direct affect on movie ticket purchases. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the video got people to talk. And every second they talked was a second they weren’t talking about another movie.

This is the major takeaway. Viral videos are, above all else, about generating awareness. They are about hijacking and monopolizing the public discussion. Even if no one who saw the YouTube video also saw the movie, they certainly knew about it. They spoke to friends and family about it, and then those people saw the movie.

If you are looking for a more quantifiable ROI, consider the case of “The Dress” that was mentioned before. It’s not a video, but this viral phenomenon nevertheless caused Roman Originals to sell out of the Lace Detail Bodycon within a mere half hour of going viral.

And, that viral campaign put Roman Originals on the map. The “hacker” video put Relativity Media on the map. For both companies, and every company that has successfully marketed a viral video, business has been booming ever since.

So that’s it. That’s the ROI, hard as it might be to measure. That’s how these videos are made, and that’s what they can do for you. All you have to ask yourself now is: will the next video to go viral be yours?

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