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What makes a video go viral?

December 1, 2020 | Web Marketing

Four factors affect a video’s propensity to go viral:

  1. The viral video is a story of personal triumph.
  2. The viral video is emotionally arousing.
  3. The viral video has something called ‘positive valence’.
  4. The viral video tells a story with an engaging narrative.

Source material for this post from Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing by Karen Nelson-Field and Joseph Romm, author of How to Go Viral.

But, you’re thinking, ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ didn’t have most of those features and it was one of YouTube’s 1st viral videos in 2005.

Karen Nelson-Fields calls this ‘the obsession with the single instance’ (Viral Marketing, p. 7) where a video is SO popular that it becomes the new standard for what a viral video needs to achieve.

But, the definition of a viral video is ‘the degree to which it is shared above expectation for the level of views it has received’.

In other words, if your videos normally get 30 shares per post and a new video gets 60 shares that video is ‘shared above expectation’ and is, by definition, a viral video.

Personal triumph is the creative device that is the MOST common among viral videos

But, the funny thing is that only 3% of ALL viral videos use personal triumph.

Learn what makes ‘personal triumph’ videos so viral.

Maybe it’s just too hard? Maybe cute cats and babies are easier to video?

But, what do cute cats and babies have to do with your business? Unless you’re a veterinarian or a pediatrician.

Personal triumph videos is the most common creative device
Personal triumph videos is the most common creative device (p. 34, Viral Marketing)

But, don’t real estate agents and doctors and car salesmen have stories of personal triumph, too?

  • What about the patient who gets out of their wheelchair for the 1st time in 3 months?
  • What about the person who bought their 1st home after years of working and saving?
  • What about the teenager who bought her 1st car?

Could these videos go viral?

Not only could they but they have gone viral.

Check out this post for examples of viral videos from doctors, real estate agents and used car salesmen.

Arousing Emotion – Who DOESN’T like to be aroused?

This seems intuitive.

High Arousal videos get shared more; by a factor of at least 2x, over Low Arousal videos.

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

Positive Valence is the opposite of Negative Valence – both are linked to viral videos

Valence is kind of a technical term; we’ll just call them ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ viral videos.

This is also sort of intuitive; some emotions are positive while some are negative.

Here’s the 16 emotions tracked by Nelson-Field in their database of 800 viral videos.

Arousal - Valance grid of 16 emotions
Arousal – Valance grid of 16 emotions

Now, this is where it gets interesting…

Notice how the Positive and the Negative emotions are separated into High and Low Arousal?

Tuns out, it’s a LOT easier (and less effective) to produce Low Arousal videos, whether Positve OR Negative.

Prevalence of Emotions in Viral Videos
Prevalence of Emotions in Viral Videos

These are the videos that people produce!

Notice that Amusement (29%) and Boredom (26%) are the 2 most common emotions provoked!

Both Amusement and Boredom are Low Arousal emotions – hardly shareable stuff!

Low Arousal accounts for 45% of Positive videos and 31% of Negative videos – that means only about one-quarter of viral videos produced is High Arousal emotions.

But, High Arousal Negative is probably perilous for marketers – we don’t want to go there – Disgust, Sadness, Shock and Anger.

Not the best way to attract buyers.

But, there’s ALWAYS and excepton to the rule!

Turns out, Shock may be a GREAT way to motivate Voters to vote (or, to donate).

US Senate candidate Gary Chambers of Louisiana smoked a marijuana blunt on YouTube in January 2022…

Then, he burned a Confederate flag on YouTube:

Needless to say, both videos went viral.

He has landed on national TV several times as a result of his YouTube videos – his goal is to unseat incumbent Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana who has almost $11 million in his campaign fund.

Chambers’ Confederate flag video has been viewed 317,798 times in the 8 days since he posted it to YouTube.

His blunt smoking video was viewed 7 million times on Twitter and another 400,000 times on YouTube in about 5 weeks.

Risky stuff – it remains to be seen if Chambers’ ploy will get him elected or not.

But, Chambers has already seen an uptick in his campaign fundraising.

Whichever way the election goes, Chambers’ videos are cetainly effective examples of a Negative (Shocking), High Arousal viral videos.

Tell a story on video

All the major video platforms track video watch time, usually as a percentage of the total.

For example, a 2-minute video that is watched for 1 minute has a 50% watch time.

Both TikTok and YouTube report that their algorithms promote videos with higher watch time to new audiences. The platform is basically ‘sharing’ the video and increasing it’s virality.

People do the same thing when they like a video.

When they like it, then they share it.

So, how to you get a viewer to watch your video all the way through?

Well, you will learn about tools to help you hook your viewers’ attention and keep them watching.

We’ve got a whole masterclass called The Worlds’ Simplest Story that helps you tell your business story.

Find out what kind of business story you should tell.

It’s literally a 1-2-3 format. Very simple.

Also, here are some tips for choosing what type of business story you want to tell.

And finally, you can get your customers to tell your business story for you.

What are you waiting for?

Go viral!

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.

Do you like all the hosting and posting?

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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