Video Essentials

What Makes an Online Video Ad Go Viral? The New Formula for 2014

Advertisers care how many people see their commercials, but in the online world they care just as much about how many viewers pass their eye-catching ads along through social media shares, likes, and retweets.

Viral video success in 2013 made Geico happy as a camel on hump day.

Viral video success in 2013 made Geico as happy as a camel on hump day.

As Richard Kosinski, president of marketing technology firm Unruly Media, which produces an annual Top 20 list of the most shared ads, puts it, “Shares are the currency of social success, and for leading brand marketers, shares are at the top of their wish list.” Unruly’s COO and co-founder Sarah Wood puts it this way: “Shares are a global currency and a gold standard in the social economy. A share is a genuine measure of deep engagement.”

And there are more of those shares than ever. The stats tell the story:

  • During 2006, the third biggest ad of the year was Dove “Evolution,” which achieved 60,954 shares in one year. This year, Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” earned 4.24 million shares.
  • Sharing of the top three ads has grown seven-fold since 2010, from 1.6 million to 11.6 million shares.
  • Eight of the top 20 viral ads of all-time were released in 2013.
  • The top 10 viral ads in 2013 generated 28.8 million shares among them — up 52.1 percent from 2012.

So what works best, and why? What kinds of information, emotions, and reactions trigger the “share” reflex? Do you need a brave fireman? An adorable baby? A camel? And if those don’t work, should you call Jean Claude Van Damme?

These were the ads shared most often in 2013, according to Unruly:

  1. Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches”
  2. GEICO’s “Hump Day”
  3. Evian’s “Baby & Me”
  4. Kmart’s “Ship My Pants”
  5. Cornetto’s “Yalin”

Each one has several of the essential qualities that make an ad go viral, and here’s how you can emulate their success.

Use Many Emotional Triggers, Not Just Comedy

“Americans want ads to be funny, but humor is just one of the attributes that resonates well with people,” says Kosinski. There are actually 19 emotions an ad can try to engage: happiness, exhilaration, awe, warmth, hilarity, contempt, disgust, sadness, pain, pride, nostalgia, surprise, knowledge, shock, confusion, arousal, fear, and anger. Brazilians like exhilaration, says Kosinski, and while Dove trades on warmth, a company like GoPro strives for awe. As for Jean Claude Van Damme’s recent epic split between two Volvo trucks: surprise, shock, awe, and exhilaration for sure.

Making viewers feel an emotion strongly gives them a reason to share, and a spot doesn’t need to appeal to mass audiences in order to succeed. What’s needed is a strong response from the brand’s target audience.

Provide Powerful Social Motivations to Share

A viral ad must also give its viewers a strong reason to share. Unruly calls them “social motivations” and lists nine:

  • Shared Passion: I can connect with friends over this area of interest.
  • Social in Real Life: This ad will help me socialize with my friends offline.
  • Social Utility: This ad contains something relevant to my friends.
  • Social Good: This is a good cause, and I want to help.
  • Zeitgeist: The ad reflects a current trend or event.
  • Kudos: This demonstrates my knowledge. I want to be first. I will be congratulated.
  • Reaction Seeking: The ad will get a reaction.
  • Self Expression: Sharing this ad says something about me.
  • Shared Emotional Experience: I want my friends to have the same emotional experience I just had.

Think about the Dove Real Beauty Sketches spot, for example, and it’s easy to see how one ad can have three, four, or even five social motivations.

Dove's "Real Beauty Sketches" was the most shared brand video of 2013.

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” was the most shared brand video of 2013.

“Our data shows that brands need to elicit a strong viewer response against at least one psychological trigger and multiple social motivations to achieve a high share rate,” says Kosinski.

“We knew we had something magical with Dove Real Beauty Sketches and felt that strategically it would reach the most scale on YouTube and online,” says Fernando Machado, Global vice president for Dove Skin. “The moment that the film was uploaded to the Dove YouTube channel, it quickly started to gain traction around the world with men, women, media, and even other brands sharing the film.”

Understand That Timing Is Everything

The “viral peak” in sharing takes place on the second and third day after an ad is launched. Therefore, if a brand is to achieve sharing success, the content needs to reach a critical mass of viewers within the first 48 hours.

“A video seen by few cannot be shared by many,” says Kosinski. “Since the chance that an ad will be shared by one million people is less than 0.6 percent, your distribution is important must be fast.”

It’s important to get seen by the right audiences in the social environments they frequent, and to do it within the necessary time frame. The key strategy is to extend that peak sharing moment beyond day three, perhaps by amplifying the ad in other media, as Budweiser did when it previewed its Super Bowl ad online and then got many more shares after the game.

Don’t Focus on TV-Style Traditions

Research shows that some commonly held assumptions about good ads don’t necessarily hold up when sharing is the goal.

“Cats and celebrities don’t help,” says Kosinski. “There is no correlation between the appearance of a celebrity and a higher share rate.”

Length doesn’t really matter either. The Dove spot is over three minutes, and this year’s current top 20 run the gamut from 31 seconds to three and a half minutes. It’s also okay to mention the brand up front and not wait until the final second for the big reveal.

“You’re seeing the ad because a friend shared it with you, so it doesn’t matter that it’s an ad. What matters is that your friend believed it would have social utility for you,” says Kosinski.

The bottom line, Kosinski says, is that making an ad viral is a science, not an art: “’Post and pray’ doesn’t work in today’s social media-enabled world. Marketers can predict and create defined outcomes based on following some common practices and creating distribution strategies that will drive sharing.”



Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. All of the information on this article is correct.

    For videos to be successful must have the human element which is emotion. The video needs to have an attachment to human not just comedy but also very other emotions known to human.

    Posted by Custom Animation | December 24, 2013, 12:46 am
  2. Just for fun, I got on the “Elf on the Shelf” craze and created a video for YouTube. In less than a week I had 10,000+ views on YouTube BUT not so many shares directly from the site. Again, for me it’s fun to experiment. Keep doing…

    Posted by Christian Erickson | January 2, 2014, 3:32 am
  3. I would say the virality of a video depends on how much emotion they bring out of the viewer.

    The more emotion the video generate from the viewer, the higher the virality.

    Posted by Selbys | October 10, 2016, 11:14 pm
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