What Makes a Video Go Viral?

Published on December 14, 2015

One presentation at Digital Capital Week, a ten-day festival in Washington, D.C. stood out above the rest.

This is how it began:

Once the video finished, Emily Brew, formerly of the NIKE Foundation and co-creator of The Girl Effect, took the stage to explain how a campaign that started in 2002, which aims to help end violence against girls and women and promote gender equality worldwide, took off with an infectious viral video that has been watched over 1.7 million times and counting.

A viral video is one which spreads well, like a virus. It passes from person to person, and Facebook feed to Twitter stream and back again, infecting everyone who sees it. 

But what made this video go viral? What makes any video go viral?

You may have been told it's impossible to make a viral video. But the following four factors can contribute to a video's success.

1. Authenticity and Deep Connections

With more than 100 million views in six days, Kony 2012 became the most viral video in history. Similarly to The Girl Effect, Kony 2012 tugged on the heartstrings of viewers to establish deep emotional connections with its core audience.

Within the first few frames, the video quickly establishes a connection with the narrator—Jason Russell—by allowing the audience to share in one of Russell’s most private and personal experiences—the birth of his son. Russell also assigns a face to his cause via Jacob, a boy living in Uganda who wishes for change in the region. As Russell takes viewers with him throughout his journey to raise awareness about Invisible Children, Inc., he continues to leverage compelling images and descriptions of Joseph Kony's brutal guerrilla warfare tactics, his success in building online and offline communities surrounding the issue and the U.S. government’s response to Invisible Children’s efforts.

Connections such as these can be created with the use of visual storytelling, compelling imagery, a charismatic narrator or host, or a heartfelt message.

2. Creative Disruption

Brew argues that The Girl Effect video was so successful because it’s not your typical social issue-driven video. There were no pictures, no images and no face assigned to its cause. There were only words. 

The video was different, and therefore disruptive. 

This description brings to mind another popular viral video. Not because of the power of words, but because of houses, a carousel, memorable dance routines and… singing from a toilet. There’s not doubt that the music video for Gangnam Style put South Korean rapper PSY on the map. The video set a Guinness World Record for the most likes ever on YouTube, and according to Unruly Media, shared 29 million times.

Gangnam Style has been viewed 2.5 billion times.

Gangnam Style is completely outrageous and unexpected (not to mention catchy)—even for today’s overhyped music business. While this level of creativity may not be exactly replicable in B2B markets, businesses can still create viral videos that stand out in their respective industry.

Special glass and ceramics maker Corning released its video “A Day Made of Glass... Made possible by Corning," which uncovered the future of specialty glass and its eventual impact on our everyday lives. Corning brought to life a relatively simple product with a different and new idea. Released in early 2011, the video now has more than 20 million views.

3. Community Influencers

Developing a viral video can also depend on what happens after the creation process. This TED Talk from Kevin Allocca, Trends Manager at YouTube, explains how Jimmy Kimmel ignited the viral sharing of the popular Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow video.

You can increase the popularity of your video with little nudge from the influencers and tastemakers within your relevant online communities.

Sometimes, this can take on a life of its own... 

4. Good Luck

Okay, so you can't control for this factor, but some of the best viral videos are accidental.

Chewbacca Mom was making some returns at Coles when she found a mask, and the company got a lot of free exposure.


It may seem like a simple thing to replicate for your brand, but don't be tempted - astroturfing rarely ends well. 

There's no perfect recipe for a viral video, but a deep connection, differencing characteristics and any sort of promotion or recognition by influencers in your community are key aspects that can help propel the popularity of your video.

A version of this post was originally published in December 2012.

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