The secret to viral videos

UK2 Group 2014 – on Midphase

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 22.58.09The secret to viral videos
It seems pretty random but it’s not – there’s a reason why that one video of a cat in a box, or that man gushing over a double rainbow, went viral. There are specific characteristics to a viral video, and marketers are studying this closely as they realise the power of the viral video to spread a message and create engagement.

Of course, it’s far from easy – internet audiences hate it when brands look like they are trying too hard to sell. And often, the videos that end up going viral never intended to do so, starting out mainly because the creator wanted to share: cats in boxes are cute and funny. Incidentally, those are the feelings identified by researchers as being the key triggers to getting us to hit the “share” button. Getting a so-called tastemaker, or influencer, interested in the video is one way to get something to go viral, or making something so quirky that it becomes a meme – people like sharing videos where they feel like they’re in on the joke.

“Unlike the one-way entertainment of the 20th century, this community participation is how we become a part of the phenomenon – either by spreading it or by doing something new with it,” said Kevin Allocca, trends manager at YouTube, in his TEDYouth talk. In other words, if people are creating parodies of the original video, that’s one way to know it’s arrived. “We all now feel some ownership in our own pop culture,” said Allocca. “And these are not characteristics of old media, and they’re barely true of the media of today, but they will define the entertainment of the future.”

But what makes a video go viral? First of all, it has to make people feel good. US gossip blog Gawker learned this the hard way after posting a video of a firefighter rescuing a kitten, which went viral for all the other websites who published it, but not Gawker. Why not? Because Gawker included an extra detail that everyone else skipped: the kitten died of smoke inhalation shortly after. While people will share a video that makes them feel something intensely, they are much more likely to do so if the feeling is good.

This conclusion was supported when Unruly, the London-based social video marketing specialist, issued a White Paper earlier this year on the science of sharing. The company studied the 14 video ads from February’s Super Bowl, using its own algorithmic tool containing over 100 variables, derived from 430 billion video views and 100,000 consumer data points. Unruly now claims it can determine how likely a video is to go viral with approximately 80% certainty. Here are some of its research findings on what characterises a viral video:

– Getting a video to go viral doesn’t necessarily mean people will remember the name of the brand. But if people come to the video via social sharing (as opposed to finding it on the web themselves), they are more likely act after watching a branded video.

– Using a celebrity won’t necessarily make the video any more popular. The research does suggest a celebrity may make an already shareable video more popular, but if the content is rubbish, adding a big name won’t help.

– While humour can be very effective if it’s so funny that people actually laugh out loud, this is a risky tactic: “The statistics indicate that [humour] is the most overused emotional trigger, the most culturally sensitive trigger and also the most difficult to do well”.

– A safer bet to trigger sharing is to try to provoke another feeling: happiness and warmth. Pride, inspiration and amazement are also responses associated with more sharing.

The Unruly report concludes: “Shares are the global currency of social video and a measure of deep engagement. Views can be purchased, but shares have to be earned, and they are valuable. If someone shares a video, they have stopped whatever they are doing to share information about your brand and product.” So if you’re just looking to make a video of your cat to share with family, none of this probably matters very much. But if you’re a marketer looking to generate buzz around a brand, getting a video shared is important because it’s a solid sign of engagement.

Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.