Jon Thomas
Jon Thomas
Communications Director

8 Traits of Successful Viral Videos

Making a viral video is just like that carnival game where you throw the whiffle ball into the big basket. It looks easy, but when you try it, it’s surprisingly tough. Then you fork over more money to try again because your girlfriend is obviously disappointed in you. After three more misses your now ex-girlfriend has left you and you’re wondering what went wrong.

Viral videos seem so easy to make. I mean, even Rachel Black made one! However, the reality is that virality is ever-elusive. There’s no single equation. You can’t buy it anywhere. No internet marketer/video editor, no matter what they tell you, has the one formula to guarantee viral success. It’s not like six pack abs—those are sought after but there’s a clear formula. Eat well. Exercise often. That’s it. That’s the formula. You heard it here first. Just look at my abs as proof (please don’t).

But it is possible to create a video that goes “viral” (however you want to define “viral”). We may not be able to unearth the scrolls that house the secret formula, but we’re going to dig deep into why some videos have found success, and why audiences were so compelled to share. Here are 8 traits we found in some of the most successful viral videos.

Note: This isn’t comprehensive, nor exclusive. Also, just having any one or two of these traits doesn’t guarantee success.

1. Extremely Funny

Arguably the most common aspect of a viral video is humor. Audiences love to share videos that will make other people laugh. It’s human nature. But being funny isn’t easy, and many people have failed at this. If you put the effort into it though, it can be a huge benefit for your brand, like this video from John St., a Canadian advertising agency.

The flipside, and a legitimate concern for brands taking a shot at viral success, is that a video can unintentionally be funny, ending up as the butt of the joke. Rebecca Black uploaded her music video in hopes of pop stardom, but it reached viral status when the lyrics of the song were carefully dissected. “Fun, fun, fun, fun. Looking forward to the weekend!” Though it’s very arguable that it’s the best thing that has ever happened to her.

2. Something We Can All Relate To

When the content of videos appeal to a wider audience, the likelihood is much greater that someone is going to share the video throughout their social networks. A recent viral success, Sh*t Nobody Says is a prime example. A spinoff of the viral meme Sh*t Girls Say (which falls in both this and the previous category), this version found a topic that we can all relate to instead of the niche crowds the other spinoffs targeted (not that those don’t have value). Well written and acted, Sh*t Nobody Says spread like wildfire. I mean, does anyone understand taxes?

A subcategory of this would be “Something Useful.” There have been a number of videos that have seen viral success within their targeted communities by creating a video that the audience not only could relate to, but also found useful and shared with others that would appreciate the video. One such example is Janssen-Cilag’s (client) Living with ADHD video. The video wasn’t intended to reach millions (the audience is parents with children who have ADHD), but is considered one of Europe’s most successful pharma videos. Brands creating valuable content that audiences can use is a great way to encourage audiences to not only share but come back for more.

3. Exposing the Truth

One aspect of viral video success that seems to go under the radar is exposing the truth. Ever notice those crazy before and after weight loss pictures (specifically those you see as featured videos on YouTube)? Ever wonder if they’re real? Or if not, where the pictures come from? I came across a video that exposed how these body transformations happen, and this guy did it in 5 hours. Three days and over three million views later, the video was viral.

Of course, as Dominos will tell you, you can come out on the wrong end of a viral video exposing a sad truth. Luckily they were able to rebound with a quite effective ad campaign, but they were forced up against the ropes for a while.

4. Emotional

One of the best angles for brands to take is to weave an effective story into a video that draws emotion from the audience or targets a pain point they can relate to. A recent branded viral video (and a personal favorite of mine) came from the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund. Well written (you’ll notice it’s funny in the beginning to get/keep your attention, but gets serious at the right time) and well produced, the young nonprofit (founded in 2007) has had the English version of their video viewed over 5 million times. They also have Spanish, French and Russian subtitled versions.

Brands take note: The video includes real stories, and stories are powerful and inherently want to be shared.

5. Completely Unexpected

2010 saw one video go viral that had everyone saying, “What, what sound just came out of that man’s mouth?” The homeless man with the golden voice appeared on YouTube courtesy of a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch, and immediately Ted Williams’ life had completely changed. Nobody driving through that intersection would ever expect Williams’ voice to sound like that, and the sidewalk story in the latter half of the video helped create a piece of viral history.

6. Something You’ve Never Seen Before

Creativity is key when producing a video in hopes of viral marketing success. LA-based musical quartet OK Go are the poster children for creating videos with content so unique and amazing audiences are compelled to share it. They were so successful that we wrote a post outlining some of their secrets to success. In reaction to that post, the OK Go twitter account gave me this reply:

Here’s their latest video for their song “Needing/Getting” in which they partnered with Chevy (another way to leverage viral success). Over 7 million views in three days (thus far). I think they’ve got this viral thing down.

Brands like Old Spice have found success by creating sharable content unlike anything anyone has ever seen, although it’s difficult for me to categorize a national ad as a viral hit.

7. Interactive

Some brands utilized the interactive capabilities of YouTube to gain viral success. Both TippEx and Hell Pizza created a “Choose Your Own Adventure” series that garnered millions of views. TippEx put the fate of an unsuspecting bear in the hands of the viewer in their Hunter Shoots a Bear series. Hell Pizza painted an accurate picture of the inevitable 2012 apocalypse in their series where the viewer has to help a delivery man deliver a pizza to a woman trapped on top of a shipping crate surrounded by zombies. I mean, who hasn’t had that happen?

8. Right place, right time

These are the ones you can never predict, and it’s rare for a brand to take advantage of situations like this because the situations themselves are rare and inherently unpredictable. Videos like Charlie Bit My Finger and David after Dentist are organic. When the person behind the camera hit record, they didn’t know what they were going to get. While this is a commonality found in many viral videos, it’s not one any brand should bank on. Oh, and here’s Charlie and Harry for your viewing pleasure.

What shouldn’t go unrecognized is the inherent risk in creating viral videos. Many successful viral videos required a large investment in time and money to create something that is not guaranteed to go viral. Few brands are willing to take this risk, but there’s no way to ever guarantee success.

What are some great examples of branded viral video success? What traits did we miss? Let us know in the comments.


We’ll be peering into the future of all things content marketing, advertising, journalism and social media at our Post-Advertising Summit, March 29th in New York City. We’ll stop talking and start DOING with workshops that put pen to paper and truly create a piece of valuable content. Speakers including Simon Dumenco (AdAge), Shira Lazar (What’s Trending), Joe Pulizzi (Content Marketing Institute) and more. In order to get the best price, reserve your seat at the Summit table today!