What Really Goes Into Making a Great Viral Video?

What Really Goes Into Making a Great Viral Video?

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What makes a great viral video? I was recently asked that question during a TV appearance and it’s a question I get asked often. Everybody seems to want that 15 minutes of fame, to capture that “lightning in a bottle” moment and monopolize water cooler conversations in offices across the country. But the question is, how do you get it? Well, there’s no exact science to the “it” factor per se, but there is a formula that will increase a video’s chances of gaining those coveted millions of views.

Tell a Compelling Story

First and foremost, you need to have a story. Audiences need to be entertained throughout the video, so your content must have a strong beginning, middle, and end. People often wonder what the perfect length for a video is; the truth is, the length of your video matters infinitely less than its ability to tell a story. If it has all the right story elements a video can be several minutes long, or it can be as short as ten seconds. Don’t believe me? Below is a ten-second video featuring a man that gets kicked in the head by a train conductor while trying to take a selfie next to the train tracks. The video went viral last week to the tune of 30 million views.

The clip is dangerously close to not having a beginning, which almost destroys its potential, but it clearly has a middle (where the guy gets kicked), and it most certainly has an end. Without the funny sound bites in place to put a button on the video and finish telling the story, there’s no way that that clip goes viral. The viewer would be confused and left unsatisfied by the lack of information conveyed.

Just remember to keep it engaging and hold the audience’s attention. If your video is ten minutes long, you had better make sure that it’s an entertaining ten minutes. Keeping a video shorter allows for more concise storytelling. (It also helps if you have endearing characters in the story, such as the hapless Jared above; babies and kittens work well too.)

Make the Content Shareable

There’s a major difference between entertaining people and inspiring them to take an action. The entertainment aspect has to be there, but making the audience feel something is the key to eliciting a share. A playback is easier to get – attractive thumbnails can do the trick – but shares are much more difficult.

As human beings, we are more governed by our emotions more so than we’d like to admit. Subsequently, the story has to resonate with the audience on some emotional level. And while any kind of emotion is more effective than no emotion, certain emotions do better on the “shareability scale”, so to speak.

Strong positive emotions such as excitement, inspiration, surprise, and awe are great, according to viral video star Karen Cheng. Negative emotions don’t do as well. Although anger is also a strong emotion and can be a fueling factor for virality, it doesn’t create as strong of a response as happy ones. Because the prevalence of social media sharing is becoming especially pronounced as of late, fewer and fewer consumers turn to YouTube directly to get their video kick—instead they just play the content from Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Without shareability, videos don’t get the boost they need to go viral.

Don’t forget Video Marketing

This element is by far the most underestimated part of the equation. Many have the impression that videos just “happen” to go viral effortlessly, spontaneously; those that are in the digital video business know that rarely true, even if a video has good story elements and emotional triggers. While there is the rare video that, due to sheer brilliance and/or novelty, does go viral organically—like, for instance, “The JK Wedding Dance”—smart creators have detailed, strategic game plans to get the video out there.

The right marketing plan for a video should include everything that can be controlled down to the last detail – the day and time that the video will be released, carefully optimized metadata, a comprehensive social media strategy, and most importantly, targeted influencer outreach.

In other words, the video needs to get in front of the right people—major social media sites, aggregators, and what the industry calls “tastemakers.” These are the folks that can make or break a video. Is the video newsworthy in any way? Get in touch with local or national news outlets that might be interested. Every news station has a website and social media pages, and they all post video content. Do you have a good circle of friends, family, coworkers, and contacts? Send them the video via email. Every little bit helps, especially when a video is first launched.


While there’s no exact science as to why a video goes viral, these elements sure do help to break it down a bit. What’s really interesting about the whole phenomenon, however, is not just the mind-boggling concept that anyone can create content that can be viewed by millions, but further, just how accessible it makes the idea of “fame.” Never before have the keys to the pop culture zeitgeist kingdom been so accessible. Sure, it may only last for 15 minutes, but in this day and age, what marketer or video creator can afford to let 15 minutes of fame pass them by? To quote the ever-wise Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”


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