What makes videos go viral?

Viral content is content that spreads just like a virus through social media – and often ends up reaching mainstream media too. And it’s all because something in the content made people feel compelled to share it. Having your content go viral is every video marketers dream as it means you reach new audiences and puts your video, and whatever you are marketing behind it, under the noses of thousands of new people.

“But isn’t viral content all about funny stuff like ‘look – no make-up!’ selfies or video compilations of cats falling off furniture?” It’s a good question, and it is certainly very difficult to pinpoint exactly what there is in common amongst those posts that do go viral. But, as the great book ‘Contagious’ by Jonah Berger explains, virality isn’t completely random or down to luck or magic. His studies reveal six key steps to drive people to talk about and share your content:

  1.         Social currency: People love talking about things that make them look good, in the know and on the pulse. So create content that makes your readers feel that way too. People enjoy the kudos of being able to ‘like’ or share an impressive or insightful post.
  2.         Triggers: This is all about the idea of “top of mind, tip of tongue” and the things we quickly relate to because of our environments. So find out what’s buzzing in your environment and use those as triggers.
  3.         Ease for emotion: Messaging with an emotional component is more likely to be shared. The more we care about a piece of information or the more we’re feeling psychologically aroused, whether that is positively or negatively, the more likely we are to  pass something on. So focus on feelings and get some strong emotions behind your messages.
  4.         Public: People look to others for guidance and have a fundamental curiosity. So if they see others reading your content, they’ll look too. Go public by starting conversations about it on social media and make sure your content is easily shareable with social buttons.
  5.         Practical value: People love helping other people. The more usable a piece of information is, the more it will be shared. This is why discounts and voucher codes go viral so quickly. Highlighting useful tips in your content can really help to encourage virality.
  6.         Stories: Berger notes that good stories can survive for generations. So create content that tells a wider story and isn’t just about promoting an object. And make it a human story – such as ‘Marriage Isn’t For You’ by Seth Adam Smith, which was shared nearly 2 million times on Facebook and featured on websites from Huffington Post to Buzzfeed; or travel blogger Benny Lewis’ post, ‘29 Lessons Learned in Travelling the World’, which was shared more than 53,000 times on Facebook. Their topics may appear generic and conventional but they also offer lists of honest, relatable and thought­ provoking life lessons. This type of content resonates emotionally as well as offering practical value tied up in a good story.

What’s the moral of the story?

No, this isn’t my summary of these tips, but one final way to create content with the potential to go viral – and it beautifully illustrates Jonah Burger’s advice too!

Content that contains a moral message or a greater life message that people can learn from has a huge advantage when it comes to going viral, as I witnessed with my client, Jeremy Vine:

When the BBC presenter Jeremy Vine took part in Strictly Come Dancing in 2015, he received online trolling (unpleasant criticism) because his dancing wasn’t all that great. He then filmed a video in which he responded to one particular troll who had called his dancing ‘bovine.’ In the video, which he’d filmed as a simple selfie video, he talked about this troll and said that he knew perfectly well he wasn’t a good dancer but would not be quitting Strictly. He explained his reason – as a father with two daughters under 12, he had a responsibility to show them that you don’t give up on something or drop out of a challenge, just because you are not the best. Instead you keep trying to improve for as long as you possibly can, even if people are laughing at you.

We posted the video on his blog and Facebook page and within a week it had reached almost 2 million people, been shared thousands of times, and was being reported by journalists in papers including the Daily Mail, Express and Sunday Times.

Then we started hearing from teachers who were showing Jeremy’s video to primary school children across the UK, and one school even started a hashtag #justlikejeremy and got an entire class to make posters about all the things they would keep trying hard at even though they weren’t the best. The school then contacted their local paper which ran an article showing the children and all their pictures. It also tweeted them to Jeremy which meant we were able to publish a second post containing all the schoolchildren’s artwork too.

At first, both Jeremy and I were astonished at quite how far the video went  the video was certainly not slick or perfect, and at one point contains the rather distracting noise of a lorry rumbling past. But looking at what Berger has discovered about viral content, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Jeremy’s message contains many of the elements Berger talks about, including a story, a topic that is on the tip of a great many tongues (parenting), emotional triggers, and practical value too in the moral of the tale – that you don’t give up just because you are not the best.