A Scientific Approach To Creating Insanely Viral Videos

If you want your videos to go viral, don’t leave it up to chance. Here’s how marketers can craft chance into scientific accuracy.

A Scientific Approach To Creating Insanely Viral Videos
[Image: Flickr user Republic of Korea]

In an interview with MTV, Psy, the artist behind the most viral video on YouTube, “Gangnam Style”, admitted he never expected so many views.


Too many artists and brands behind viral videos are of the mind that they’re just happy to have done so well, having left the whole thing to chance.

But marketers need to think differently. We can’t depend on pure chance, no matter how much we would love to. We need to plumb that element of chance and craft it to almost scientific accuracy.

Thankfully, by scrutinizing how videos go viral and getting these variables right for your own videos, you stand a good chance for having your videos go viral, too.


A study by Elon University analyzed 20 of Time magazine’s Best 50 Videos, identified certain patterns and determined nine characteristics that contributed to their success:

  1. Title length
  2. Run time
  3. Laughter
  4. Element of surprise
  5. Element of irony
  6. Minority presence
  7. Music quality
  8. Youth presence
  9. Talent

WebpageFX created an infographic on the science of virality, based on this study.

These are the cold stats, but you can’t always adhere to limitations imposed by factors such as “run time,” “music quality,” or “minority presence.” So what are some intangibles–dynamics that you just know–that make some videos go viral?


According to Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, viral videos don’t always have to be cat videos, random memes, and senseless amateur stuff. Some of the common elements based on the email marketing metrics of the New York Times associated with viral videos are:

  • Surprise
  • Interest
  • Intensity
  • Positivity
  • Action

Carter Bowles, who incidentally alludes to Professor Berger and many other sources of authority to explain the science of viral content, has more to share in his post on Kiss Metrics.

According to Carter, viral content is awe-inspiring. It’s positive. It’s the kind of stuff that makes your day. You will eventually share or comment because you care. To get out content like that, Carter recommends approaching video creation with creativity, research, and tons of curiosity.


Needless to say, understanding the psychological triggers that push videos to go viral is important.

Here are some of those triggers:

Social Currency

Stephanie Buck at did an interview with the creative minds behind SeedWell, a creative agency engaged in production and distribution of videos. These guys believe that there’s no such thing as a ready audience that picks up the tab on a particular video soon after its release. There’s no isolated group–like early adopters for technology, for instance–that can carry the burden of boosting shares to get to the point far enough into the “share cycle” to make videos go viral.


As long as a video has humor, surprise, information, and an element on intrigue to elicit strong emotions from any group of people, it would have the potential to go viral.

That brings us to what we call “social currency.” The stronger the video connects with an audience, the more value you can attribute to the video to help it go viral.

As more people and more kinds of people start to react to the video, it gains from similarity, reciprocity, and authority of those reactions, as Dean Rieck describes in his article on Social Proof.


Practical Value

Viral videos can catapult the reach of a brand’s or content. But for marketers in particular, a video on “anything cool” won’t do.

Video marketing is serious business, which can get very expensive without a direction, proper resources, and strategic approach. Andrew Follet, CEO of Video Brewery, points to research by Dr. James McQuivey of Forrester Research, which reveals that a one-minute video is worth 1.8 million words.

An average online user is exposed to at least 32.2 videos per month and more than 100 million videos are watched per day. In addition to funny videos, work-related and business videos are also part of main course for video consumers.


ComScore research, as James alludes to, points out that more than 50% of the total online video audience watches work-related videos. No wonder clinical business advice on starting and running YouTube channels and promoting product videos on the web and mobile abounds on the internet.

Profit happens when the learning element, the informational element, and the entertainment element, all come together into a short video optimized for online audiences.

Go viral, but with videos that make sense.


Emotional Appeal

What happens when you are able to create content that can invoke emotions? Compare a post on a blog you frequent and a general news article. Unless the news is about you, the blog post is able to invoke stronger and longer lasting emotions.

But that’s just stereotyping, isn’t it? Not every post you read can bring out strong emotions. But one does, now and then. Maybe once a day.

That applies to videos too: a few videos can touch your heart. Some can even bring you to tears.


How do you feel now?


While this psychological trigger doesn’t work great for brands in complete isolation, it’s perfect when it combined with other sparks.

Let’s say a video has humor, surprise, and an emotional connect. If so, it almost always also has the element of being “relatable.”


Videos go viral when you see yourself in a character. You suddenly realize that it’s you who’s featured–and automatically reach for the “share buttons” or pass it along your social network.

Take a look at what Apple did with its commercial where it shows a teenager secretly recording a video using an iPhone 5S.

Most creative ads already use this approach to get their brand message across.


Element of Surprise

There’s something about “Didn’t see that coming!” that sets up camp inside your head for a long time. Katla McGlynn has a compilation of videos on Huffington Post, all of which show some kind of a surprise that actually changes your perception. It’s the element of surprise that saves the day for almost every video on this list.

If simple or amateurish videos ever went viral no matter how stupid they were, the surprise element played an important part in adding to the momentum.

So how do you bring in an element of surprise for your videos? That’s for you to figure out.


Speaking as a marketer or advertiser, it’s a warm, fuzzy, and a great feeling when your videos go viral. Your brand gets a boost. You build a community around your brand with tons of engagement, and much of that buzz could lead to sales.

Tell us in the comments: How exactly are you planning to use these psychological triggers while creating videos? What frames are you already seeing in your mind? Which of these psychological triggers excite you?

Rohan Ayyar is a startup-focused marketer involved in creative content strategy, web analytics and conversion optimization at E2M, a premium digital marketing firm. He is also an avid writer, with posts featured on Entrepreneur, Social Media Today, and Business Insider, among other places. Follow him on Twitter @searchrook.