The Science Behind Viral Videos

It’s the Holy Grail of marketing: a low-budget video promoting a brand gets picked up and goes viral. Buying ad space is unneccesary – users upload and share the content themselves, spreading the video across the globe. Maximum exposure, minimum investment.

Or is it? According to research by Harvard Business School, digital content marketers face four main challenges when it comes to viral ads:

1. Prominent branding is a turn-OFF: it seems fairly simple, but when the logo shows too often, viewers feel like they’re being pushed and tune out. A successful video is Coca-Cola’s Happiness Factory: a colorful, detailed digital animation that follows the journey of a coke bottle through the magical world inside a vending machine.

2. People get bored right away: such are the laws of the internet. If it isn’t interesting, viewers leave.

Good videos generate interest either through joy or surprise. Either way, the viewer must be grabbed in the first few seconds of the video. Old Spice’s huge success The Man Your Man Could Smell Like grabs the attention with a half-naked Isaiah Mustafa (aka ‘the Old Spice guy’) bombards the viewer with so many ridiculous things that you keep watching.

3. People get bored after a while: if the opening is interesting, but nothing much happens after that, people leave too. Good viral videos are either very, very funny, or have a story arc that keeps it interesting. Consider the Liquid Mountaineering video, an item about a group of adventurers who practise the extreme sport of walking on water. It turned out to be a promo for shoes with special waterproof technology.

4. People like, but won’t share: even though people may enjoy viewing an ad, they do not automatically feel the need to share it. The study shows that whether an ad is shared depends on the personality type of the viewer (extrovert and egocentric people are more likely to share ads, to show their connectedness and maintain their social status). Advertisers should adopt a consumer-centric attitude, asking themselves how a video might serve a viewer, rather than just how it best presents the brand.

Of course, a stroke of luck is always involved in viral videos – and that’s the fun thing about them. You never know what’s going to catch on and what isn’t. So with the science in mind, creativity is still the most important characteristic of a good viral ad.


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