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What is a viral video?

December 1, 2020 | Web Marketing

You might think you need millions of views on YouTube to have a viral video; but, you don’t.

A viral video is one that is shared above expectation for the level of views it has received.

But, based on research by Karen Nelson-Field in her book Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing, fewer than 10% of any online content, including viral videos, is ever shared, by anybody.

Cover of The Science of Sharing
Cover of The Science of Sharing

Most online content simply read or watched, without sharing.

Therefore, a video that is shared by 50% of it’s viewers is a viral video, even if it only gets 1000 views.

Go viral in your own backyard

This definition of viral video success is why we started looking at viral videos for marketing small businesses in 2006 when YouTube first arrived.

Lots of small businesses like dentists, real estate agents and even doctors have face-to-face encounters with customers every day.

Video moments captured and shared may go viral, even if the number of views are not, by conventional standards, ‘viral’.

But, small business owners should think about 2 aspects of viral videos to improve their odds of going viral: arousal and valence.

Before we define arousal and valence, however, let’s further define the concept of a viral video.

An Example of a Viral Video

One of the earliest viral videos is called ‘Evian Roller Babies’ and is a professionally produced video from 2009 for the brand of Evian bottled water:

Business Insider called the Evian Roller Babies video “The Most Successful Viral Video of All Time” in 2013.

The original video has over 100 million views on YouTube.

More importantly, Evian Roller Babies was shared 44% of the time which seems to put it solidly in the ‘viral’ category.

If Evian could so effectively ‘manufacture’ a viral video then why don’t more small business owners try this approach?

Even more interesting, as noted by Nelson-Field…

“…the most successful creative approach (to a viral video) appears to be to feature personal triumph.

When a video included a creative story of personal triumph, it shared more than other creative devices.

Interestingly, despite being a more applicable creative device for ensuring sharing success, personal triumph is rarely displayed in viral video content.”

Karen Nelson-Field

Nelson-Field suggests that stories of personal triumph are harder to create than other videos (p.39).

Maybe it’s difficult for Madison Avenue advertisers but I’m not so sure stories of personal triumph would be as difficult for small business owners.

For many small businesses, stories of personal triumph are what you see every day:

  • Real estate agents see 1st time homebuyers.
  • Doctors and hospitals see people recover and get well.
  • Lawyers see people find justice.
  • Sports events see athletes win.

Here’s an example from my own field, physical therapy, of someone who achieved a personal triumph:

This brings tear to my eyes every time I watch it (full disclosure: FYZICAL is my day job).

And, this is one of the best examples of a story of personal triumph that I have seen in a viral video.

Why don’t more entrepreneurs attempt to make viral videos?

Perhaps they do try; they just don’t have the same raw material small business owners have available…

One-on-one face time with customers, every day – that’s the kind of raw material that we can use to create high arousal, positive valence videos that have a chance to go viral in your own backyard.

Before we get to that, however, let’s take a look at one more recent viral video example.

Take a look at this next example.

A Negative Example of a Viral Video

Karen Nelson-Field advises advertisers to steer clear of ‘the negative space’ when creating videos for social media.

Yet, US Senate candidate Gary Chambers embraced the controversy full-on in January 2022 when he launched his congressional bid while smoking marijuana on video.

His ’37 second’ video instantly went viral with over 280,000 views as of 1 week after it’s launch.

Even if you don’t support de-criminalization of marijuana, you’ve got to admit Gary Chamber’s ploy is brilliant, along the lines of “Any promotion, negative or positive, is good promotion” when you’re the incumbent.

Nelson-Field classifies Gary Chamber’s video as a ‘low arousal, negative message’.

Chamber’s video is of the ‘community message’ creative type – only 5% of all viral videos are of this type.

It’s not babies or puppies or a hilarious pratfall off of a treadmill.

It’s hardly the stuff of video fame – and yet it did go viral. Perhaps because of the turbulent political climate in the US nowadays.

Who knows?

low arousal video graph from Karen Nelson Field
Low arousal video graph from Karen Nelson Field’s Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing

Chambers’ video is categorized as negative valence because he is aiming to shock his audience, according to NPR.

Average sharing for videos based on arousal and valence
Average sharing for videos based on arousal and valence

According to Nelson-Field…

“Video content that draws a high-arousal positive emotional response is shared 30% more, on average, than content that draws a high-arousal negative response.”

Alright, let’s put a pin in this blogpost by defining valence and arousal.

What is Arousal?

Arousal is an emotional response characterized by heightened sensory awareness. Think how you feel when a person you are attracted to is in the room – that’s arousal.

So, what is Valence?

Valence is simply positive or negative emotion.

Arousal is one of these emotions: amusement, surprise and happiness are all positive valence emotions.

Anger, sadness and disgust are negative valence emotions.

Learn to create viral videos in your local, small business

Get started with these 6 free tools you’ll use to create viral videos in your small biz.

Create emotional connections with people online because their brains don’t distinguish what they see on video from what they see in real life.

Finally, use your viral video to acquire new customers and grow your business.

Get the free app – save time and $$

If you are an influencer who deals face-to-face with people, like a dentist or a real estate agent, you can become an online influencer using short, testimonial videos on popular social platforms.

We can show you how.

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All the hashtags, hypertext links and tech-y stuff?

If not, just let the WOW Promoter app do it for you – for free!

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