The Key to Viral Videos… There Isn’t One

Every day, roughly 45% of tech bloggers get lazy and throw together an article which is just a round-up of “viral videos”. 10% of these will also make up some statistics to go with it. So let’s get this over with…

I’ve always felt a bit queasy about using the phrase “viral” when talking about videos; not only does it conjure up images of snotty tissues and runny noses, but it’s also a subjective and difficult to define term. What makes a video viral? At which point does a widely viewed video achieve the coveted “viral” status?

Just a selection of the most popular viral videos, including: OkGo, Is this real life? And Charlie the biting baby.

We generally start to talk about the viral status of a video when it hits the 1,000,000 views mark—but viral means so much more than this. Like that nasty bug you brought into work and infected the whole office with, “viral” means widely shared. So landing a gazillion hits on your YouTube video doesn’t technically mean it’s viral. It has to be widely shared between people; through e-mail, blogs and popular websites.

So when you see a company offering to produce viral videos to help your social media efforts, you’ve got to look at this with a certain amount of scepticism. Unless of course they know something we don’t know—maybe there’s a formula for producing viral videos.

Before we determine a formula for producing a viral video, surely we have to figure out what is it that makes us pass them on to our friends like a bad cold in need of a Lemsip.

  • They’re usually hosted on an easy to find and popular platform; and if they don’t start out there, they almost always end up there. YouTube and Vimeo are the most popular choices here; they both offer easy sharing and search functions which help users to find out what’s already popular.
  • Viral videos are usually shared on social media sites; hence the importance of being hosted on an easy to use platform. If you can’t link it up to your Facebook, how will anyone ever know about it?
  • They’re nearly always laugh-out-loud hilarious! Would you pass on a bad joke? Or a sad story? No! Because they depress the hell out of people. The things we share with our friends make us smile, giggle, or laugh hysterically.
  • They’re spontaneous, candid, or unplanned; the second it looks scripted, or has an obvious marketing message, we switch off.

So is humour the key? Possibly. Google attempted to develop an algorithm which would determine the funniest video on the internet, which is partly based on the number of ‘lol’ responses, amongst other factors. As far as I’m concerned, they failed, as their funniest video at the time this article was written was just plain stupid.

Even if you can guarantee that all of these factors are in place, viral videos are still unpredictable and it’s difficult to guarantee results. So if you’re planning to dedicate a huge portion of your marketing budget towards creating the next big internet sensation: proceed with caution. That said, in 2012, content is king! Customers aren’t so much interested in seeing advertisements; they’d rather see entertaining branded content. This is essentially the same thing as advertising, only it’s wearing a subtle LBD rather than a chicken suit. It’s a whole new world for marketing, and it’s also a time for exploring; so don’t be afraid to be a pioneer.

A video gaining viral status should be an added perk of producing amazing content, not the overall aim. Think of it as a pat on the back from the internet.