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What Makes a Video Go Viral?

As simple as it may seem there is no magic formula for creating a video that will go viral. Skateboarding dogs and talking cats to funny takes on music videos and arguing babies; anything and everything can go viral if it shows up in the right place at the right time.

But there must be at least some method to it, surely? There is no big secret that will guarantee a viral video, but there are elements that are consistent across some of the web’s most popular clips that you can utilise.

Elon University in North Carolina studied 20 top viral videos, as decided by Time Magazine, to see what characteristics they had in common. The videos included clips of a boy biting the finger of his older brother, a music video performed on treadmills, a cat playing a keyboard, a sneezing baby panda and Harry Potter puppets.

The research found that there are eight common features:

  • 75% had short titles of three words or less
  • 60% were under three minutes long
  • 30% featured laughter (seeing or hearing someone laughing within 30 seconds)
  • 50% used the element of surprise
  • 90% featured irony
  • 60% included some sort of music
  • 35% featured children under 18, and 20% featured children under 10
  • 30% required an element of practice and talent, such as music or dance performances

Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, also has a keen interest on what makes content go viral on the web. He believes that word of mouth is a much more effective and important tool than a traditional advert as people are more inclined to listen to and trust their social ties.

This means that content that appeals to people enough that they want to share it with family, friends and colleagues is the ultimate key to making a video go viral.

In his book, Berger identifies six principles that encourage people to share:


  • Social currency – It makes them look good
  • Triggers – Prompts thought
  • Emotion – It arouses, with positive emotion being more likely to induce a viral effect
  • Public – Participation is more likely when recognized
  • Practical value – It is informative or useful
  • Stories – There is a compelling tale

If you combine several of these features you should, in theory, bring together the key ingredients for a viral video. There is no guarantee that your clip will take over the web, but at the very least it should appeal to your target audience and generate added interest in your product or service.

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