What Drives Video Viral ?

This post first appeared in MENG Blend:


Wouldn’t we all love to have “the viral video” on our brand? Case in point:  Evian’s “skating babies,” a classic of viral earned media, has been viewed over 16 million times on YouTube.

Evian Babies -- What Drove it Viral ?

It’s every CMO’s dream:  low to no cost video that extends reach beyond paid advertising, stirs emotions, and in some cases, even drives sales. It’s a tool that should be in every CMO’s toolkit.

Viral Video Success Formula:  There’s No There There

Alas, the viral video success toolkit looks empty. Why? Unfortunately, there seems to be no success formula for creating successful viral video content. What we do know from the dynamics of viral marketing is that most viral efforts of any kind tend to quickly lose steam and gradually peter out before having any kind of brand impact.

What makes videos go viral beyond the obvious fact that people share them? Who knows. We know plenty about what makes successful advertising—breakthrough, branding, persuasion, etc. But viral video? To paraphrase a famous feminist: there’s just no there there.

Evidence Based Marketing:  Measuring Viral Video

Stage right:  enter evidence based Marketing. A recent study by Ehrenberg-Bass examines the why behind successful (or not) viral video and draws some highly practical and relevant conclusions.

Ehrenberg-Bass studied 400 user-generated videos shared on Facebook. They asked consumers to score each video on different positive (e.g. astonishment, surprise, etc.) and negative (e.g. shock, discomfort, etc.) emotional states. Positive and negative emotional states were scaled as either high arousal (e.g. astonishment, shock, etc.) or low arousal (e.g. surprise, discomfort, etc.). In total, they tested 16 different positive/negative high/low emotional reactions.

The emotional reaction scores for each of the 400 videos were then matched up against the viral success of each of the videos to understand what emotions cause people to share videos.

Viral Video – Key Learnings

  1. “Amusing” and “boring” are the most commonly elicited consumer emotions.  Note that these were just the most commonly elicited emotions when consumers were exposed to the videos, and had nothing to do with the propensity for consumers to share the videos.
  2. More videos elicited low arousal states than high arousal states.  This makes logical sense; you would not expect most videos to elicit extreme emotional responses, and the data supports this.  “Amusement,” “happiness,” and “boredom” are all examples of non-extreme low arousal states.
  3. High arousal state videos are more likely to be shared than low ones. Said differently, the videos that had the most sharing were ones that elicited a more extreme emotional reaction, like “hilarity,” “exhilaration” and “anger.” Low arousal states such as “boredom” and “calmness” spelled bad news for viral video.
  4. Positive emotions are better than negative ones.  On average, consumers are more likely to share videos that make them feel positively (e.g. hilarity, exhilaration). However, there are exceptions. While not the norm, negative emotions such as “anger” and “sadness” drive sharing about as well as positive emotions.

Ehrenberg-Bass sums up their findings with the pithy “make em laugh, make em cry.” But most of all, don’t just amuse or bore them !

What To Do ?

Traditional copy testing metrics are insufficient to this new age Marketing tool. And, there are no standard testing services which purport to predict the likelihood of a video going viral to my knowledge. That said, CMO’s can continue to live in the dark or begin thinking about metrics that are predictive of success for video viral sharing.

We need a data based approach to measuring the likely virality of video, along with defined success criteria. Looking for videos that elicit high levels of very strong positive or negative emotions is a good starting point.

Evian Babies -- Making People Happy Drives Videos Viral

Now, back to those skating Evian babies. I don’t know about you, but I find them hilarious and amusing, and most of all, they just make me happy. And that’s why I shared them with you :>).

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3 Responses to What Drives Video Viral ?

  1. Jestyn says:

    Beware the “low or not cost”.

    Sure, the media cost per impression of the Evian Babies may not have been high, but the production costs will have been ENORMOUS!

    • beardrs says:

      Hi Jestyn–You make a valid point. There are two different ways of driving viral video. One is to create your own content as Evian did, and then use the right tools to accelerate sharing. Obviously this can be just as expensive as creating traditional TV ads. The other is to pick up videos created on your brands behalf by consumers, and help drive these viral. This was where the “low or no cost” expression came from. I probably need to do a better job of not mixing metaphors going forward ! Thanks for the comment. Randall

  2. Xiaofei says:

    Love those Evian Skating Babies, too cute!

    I agree, Randall, Viral videos can be very effective, because:
    1) We are more interested in watching a video recommended by friends
    2) The video will get our full attention – unlike sitting in front of a TV with many other things going on and we intentionally want to skip ads
    3) It allows a longer format so can hook our emotion better

    Now it’s Chinese New Year – the tradition is young people go back to parent’s home to celebrate together. There are a few powerful brands such as Pepsi that just launched very touching videos on weibo (Chinese twitter) and got enormous number of re-tweets .Have a look (sorry Chinese version only)


    The brand get into people’s heart so much (including mine – the video makes me feel better when drink Pepsi) – I hope it pays out the production cost (use huge stars in the video).


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