A YouTube Exec’s 3 Tips For Viral Ad Success

Lucas Watson, VP of global video sales at YouTube, won’t tell you what the algorithm is for guaranteed viewership for your online ad. But he does share three simple but crucial ingredients that give an ad a head start for success.

A YouTube Exec’s 3 Tips For Viral Ad Success

Surfing YouTube last week, I stumbled upon a new type of pre-roll ad I’d never seen before. After clicking on a video, YouTube gave me the option to watch a single advertisement by a brand I knew, or two ads by brands I didn’t.


“You saw that on YouTube?” asks Lucas Watson, VP of global video sales at YouTube. “It was very possibly a test. We’re constantly playing with different ways to advertise, and what you probably saw was some experimentation around the right way to give our users control. It’s part of a broader trend you’re probably experiencing: When we give users control, they love us more than when we force things down their throats.”

The trend is one you’ve likely noticed not just at YouTube, where the site’s 800 million monthly viewers often have the option to skip over ads they don’t find interesting or relevant, but across the digital advertising space. Brands are now, to a large degree, in the business of opt-in marketing–they need to create content that gets consumers to follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, everywhere. “We only get paid if we find consumers that are interested in watching your ad, so we have an incentive to put the right ad in front of the right people,” Watson says. “It absolutely raises the creative bar: If you’re Old Spice, you need to make an ad that is both on strategy and effective at establishing your brand benefit, and also that is fascinating and interesting to watch.”

Old Spice, of course, is no stranger to success on YouTube–it’s one of the brands that gained a huge audience with a combination of traditional and digital advertising. So what’s the secret to attracting willing viewers? “People ask me all the time how things go viral; what the conditions are for success, and what makes something get seen on YouTube,” Watson says. “The short answer is: I don’t have any science or proof any better than anybody else does. So what’s the guaranteed formula? There is no formula for success.”

However, Watson does offer us three rules that, as he says, will help set the right “conditions to improve the probability that you’ll strike a chord in a YouTube video.”

Oh, The Humanity

“The first rule is that the work has to be grounded in great human insight–people who understand the audience who they serve,” Watson says. “That has nothing to do with YouTube; it has to do with people. The brands that understand the human insights better than other brands have a better chance [of success].”


Ignite Conversation

“Brands that understand that advertising and content needs creative tension are going to do better,” Watson says. “The question is: Have you struck a chord, a creative tension that’s going to spark interest, debate, dialogue, or polarization among the audience? That’s the second condition.”

Connect Emotionally

“The third thing is, have you addressed something that I’d call universal human truth? I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of viral videos include babies, dogs, or relationships between men and women,” Watson says. “Often, those are things that are the most relatable and universal. So if you take something that can relate to my relationship to my pets, my relationship to my kids, my relationship to my spouse, and find an insight that we haven’t thought about before–then put creative tension into it–you may have the conditions for something that sparks conversation in the social graph, in video, better than others.”

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.