Let's paint a scene: You're a business owner catching up with a friend, who asks if you've seen a video that's going around. When you see that the video has received 2 million views in just three days, you wonder, "How can I get an audience that big for my company?" You decide to make some videos in hopes of going viral.
Videos modeled off one success story probably won't go viral, however. Instead, you should consider all the factors correlated with videos going viral. Though viral success is never guaranteed, there are some best practices you can follow to boost your chances of making a viral video.
What makes a video go viral?
There's no one way to make a video go viral. Between the complexity of social media algorithms and the unknowns involved in targeting any audience, it's challenging to predict which videos will go viral. That said, most viral videos share a few factors:
- Strong emotional pull: Whether a viral video is funny, adorable or infuriating, it went viral because viewers had a visceral reaction to it. A viral video might also depict an experience that viewers find widely relatable and choose to share, resulting in an internet ripple effect of additional shares.
- Brevity: With so much content available to them, most people are less likely to watch videos that last more than a minute or two. Many viral videos don't even reach 30 seconds, let alone a minute.
- Relevance to current events: As social media overtakes traditional forms of journalism, more people are turning to social media platforms for news. That's why so many viral videos pertain to current events. A person looking for news who encounters an unforgettable video detailing or satirizing the matter might feel compelled to share it.
- Eye-catching thumbnail: People have always loved a good picture, so choose an attractive thumbnail for your video to draw people to it. On certain video platforms, you can customize your thumbnail to be a screenshot from the video with added text and graphics.
Of course, some videos go viral through a carefully considered, non-organic marketing push. Boosted social media posts, influencer sharing and other digital efforts may help your video go viral, but even a heavily marketed video is unlikely to go viral unless it incorporates at least some of the above criteria.
Video platforms to consider
Another factor in a video's potential to go viral is where you post it. These are some popular choices:
At the start of 2020, there were approximately 1.3 billion videos on YouTube, with approximately 5 billion views on the platform per day. It's also the preferred platform for video embeds on most websites, which can help spread your video on blogs, news publications and more. In other words, if you want your video to have the largest possible theoretical audience, it's a good idea to post it on YouTube. You can also harness the platform's livestreaming function for on-the-go video creation.
Although the future of TikTok in the U.S. remains uncertain, it was the most downloaded app in all categories at the start of 2019. It remains a highly prominent platform for user-created videos less than a minute long and has a massive Generation Z audience.
Since its inception, Instagram has grown from a photo-based app into a popular video platform as well. It has over 1 billion users globally and allows users to share their own native videos and others' feed videos via direct message, Instagram stories or Instagram feed posts. It also includes livestreaming functions and allows you to save streamed videos to your profile for later viewing. However, users can only privately share videos that were shared as native Instagram stories.
Facebook remains the most popular social media platform, with 2.6 billion users as of 2020. Like Instagram (which it owns), it allows for video sharing via direct message, Facebook stories, Facebook feed posts and Facebook live video. You can also use Facebook to create video playlists, and if one video in a playlist goes viral, its viewers are more likely to encounter the playlist's other videos.
As of early 2019, Twitter had 30 million monthly users. Like Instagram and Facebook, Twitter can be used to create native videos, but unlike on Facebook and Instagram, the dominant method for Twitter sharing is one-click – just hit the retweet button, and the video hits your Twitter profile. Also, since Twitter is meant for brief posts, its audience may be looking for shorter content, so the brief content you prepare in hopes of going viral may fare better there.
Vimeo is functionally similar to YouTube in that it enables video uploading, embedding and live creation. You can also use Vimeo to enhance your video and search for professionals who can add high-quality graphic improvements. However, unlike the other options on this list, Vimeo isn't a social network.
No matter which of these video platforms you choose, you'll have advertising, boosting and marketing options. Learn more in these business.com articles:
- How to Get the Most Out of Facebook Business Manager
- 12 Instagram Marketing Tips for Business
- How Businesses Should Use Instagram Reels and TikTok
- 9 Twitter Best Practices for Business
Tips for making your videos go viral
If you share a relevant or emotional video with a short runtime and an intriguing thumbnail on one of the above platforms, it may have a good chance to go viral. Here are some more specific tips on how to make a viral video:
1. Make it actionable.
In a University of Pennsylvania study, two professors reviewed The New York Times' list of most-emailed content to determine the shared attributes among the most popular items. They found that 34% of the list's items offered practical utility – in other words, actionable content. This finding might explain why videos showing "life hacks" are so popular: Viewers can actually use videos that show how to improve their lives.
Take this 5-Minute Crafts video as an example. The phrase "genius life hacks for everyday situations" may compel viewers interested in life improvement to click on the video, as may the unusual, initially inexplicable thumbnail. People seem eager to figure out what's happening in the picture and how what's depicted can improve their lives – the video received 1.3 million views in its first week.
2. Target intense negative emotions.
Earlier, we mentioned that videos that trigger emotional reactions are more likely to go viral. The University of Pennsylvania study on actionable videos also found that not every emotion leads to sharing. According to the study, videos that make viewers sad are less likely to be shared. For full viral potential, your videos should instead inspire awe or anger in your viewers.
A combination of anger and awe may have led Amanda Todd's potentially triggering video, "My story: Struggling, bullying, suicide, self-harm," to go viral. In the video, which Todd posted on Sept. 7, 2012, she uses flashcards to reveal her struggles with being bullied. When Todd took her own life a month later, widespread anger among viewers caused the video to swell to 1.6 million views in three days. The video has now been viewed over 14 million times.
3. Target intense positive emotions.
In a different UPenn study, professor Jonah Berger found that videos that make viewers feel highly positive emotions are also likely to go viral. Berger's study scientifically explains why videos involving cute animals or kids often go viral: People who see kids' or pets' unabashed happiness often experience a version of it themselves. With that rush of intense positive emotions comes an urge to share the video.
Perhaps the most famous example of a cute viral video is "Charlie bit my finger – again!" This video was one of the very first to go viral and was previously YouTube's most viewed video. Its cuteness is almost entirely responsible for its viral spread, and the family that posted it has reportedly earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from advertising placed on it.
4. Get it into the right hands.
No matter how well your video checks all the boxes necessary to go viral, you still might not see much attention on it – at least at first. If you can get a prominent public figure, internet platform or publication to share your video, you might suddenly see an uptick in views. Send your video to influencers, internet forums, or online publications to increase the chances that more people will encounter it and, ideally, share it so much that it goes viral.
Karen X. Cheng took this approach to make her "Girl Learns to Dance in a Year (TIME LAPSE)" video go viral. Cheng employed a formal marketing strategy that involved getting her video to the front page of a popular Reddit subpage (better known as a subreddit). From there, online journalists picked up the video for news coverage. Cheng then contacted companies whose products appeared in her video for shares, and sometimes, they obliged.
5. Once you've gone viral, work to stay that way.
While recounting her experience going viral, Cheng said that the work doesn't stop once you go viral. As her video went viral, instead of celebrating, she took the time to respond to as many emails and tweets as possible, especially those from journalists. The work paid off: After several startups asked Cheng to make videos for them, she launched her own production business.
Follow Cheng's lead to not just go viral but capitalize on that success. Even if your company's video is only briefly viral, your 15 minutes of fame could lead to a lifetime of business opportunities.