November 4, 2020 - By Hawke Media

The 7 Common Elements of Viral Videos

Content Marketing

Virality is an elusive beast. There’s a misconception that folks can snap their fingers and create something that “goes viral.” You can’t control virality, but there is a formula of sorts that you can use to give yourself the best chance to create a viral hit.In our recent interview with Joel Ackerman, Chief Creative Genius at Ackermania Creative and most famously the director of Poo-Pourri’s “Girls Don’t Poop” video, he taught the seven elements of virality. While they’re not a perfect formula, they are “ingredients” or “colors” that you can mix together to give yourself the best shot at creating something memorable.And in case you’re wondering, no, you won’t find “cats” anywhere in this list.

The 7 Common Elements of Viral Videos

If you set out to make every video viral, you’ve got a limited scope. There are so many uses for a video that don’t involve the sharing of that video. In fact, there are lots of reasons to create videos that aren’t viral, at times.But of course going viral is usually a great thing, and there are seven elements to videos that make it to that privileged level:

  1. Visual Spectacle
  2. Universality (or “Relevance”)
  3. Reality
  4. Controversy
  5. Humor
  6. Emotion
  7. Bandwagon

Let’s look at each in a little more depth.

1) Visual Spectacle

You can make something visually impressive, even on a restricted budget. Is it harder? Of course. But it’s not impossible.Sony Bravia did a commercial in which they threw hundreds of thousands of bouncy balls down a street in Italy; that requires a lot of money. Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was also expensive. What was impressive was that they did sets that came apart so they could film it in one shot.You can’t emulate Sony’s commercial without money, but if you’re creative enough, you can do something like Old Spice’s inexpensively. It just may take you a lot of time.If you don’t have money for videos, but you have time, do what you can—spend more time on them.

2) Universality

People don’t care about beverages on a gut level. They may like drinks, but drinks are not relevant on a social level. So what does Coca-Cola do? They make videos about peace and happiness among all people across the world. That’s something people can get behind.If your product is hygiene-related, that’s relevant to people every day, and you have an inherent advantage. If not, you have to find something that is important to a lot of people and make your video about that thing. A good example is Dove, which made videos about empowering women. Those videos weren’t just about soap or shampoo. This element is about a brand affiliation exercise more than a value prop.

3) Reality

If something is real, people are more interested in it than if they know it’s fake. For instance, Red Bull did a stunt where they skydove from the edge of space. If instead, they had made a video with good special effects that gave the appearance of someone skydiving from space, it might have gotten some views, but it wouldn’t have gotten near the amount of views it actually got.Similarly, there was a “World’s Toughest Job” video where people were interviewed for a job in which they would work all day, every day without pay, as a shout-out to moms. The producers used actors, but it looked and felt real enough that people thought they were actually interviewing the people. Because of that, it was shareable.

4) Controversy

The big key here is “Don’t offend the wrong audience.” Joel just directed an ad for a company called The ad posed the question, “Why do we think people who wear glasses are much smarter?” Then it answers: “Because people who wear glasses actually are smarter.” A bunch of people online got offended, but who were they? People who don’t wear glasses.If it’s a mild controversy, it gets people talking, and it’s not so offensive that your brand gets blackballed and no one will buy from you because they’re boycotting you. Even Carl’s Jr. has decided to be blatantly sexist, choosing to appeal to enough people that they’ll take the heat and reap the profits. You may not agree with it, but it is an adaptable, successful model.

5) Humor

As a general rule, humor is the hardest element to get right: you can’t just be moderately funny, you have to be very funny. To make it even harder, everyone has a different sense of humor.What you generally find in viral videos is that you have to go broad with comedy, even “low-brow.” This doesn’t mean they have to be stupid: the Poo-Pourri video was intelligent, but at the end of the day it was bathroom humor that was broadly appealing. Sadly, the world probably isn’t interested in all your beloved inside jargon.

6) Emotion

In some ways, this may be the most underused viral tool. A lot of non-branded viral videos that regular people post are emotional: a father singing to his daughter, people who get cochlear implants and can hear for the first time, etc.There are a huge range of emotions we can capture. If you can find a way to do it without seeming to exploit people (which is the real danger), it’s an untapped tool.

7) Bandwagon

Volkswagen is the example Joel always uses for this. In one of their commercials, they have a little kid in a Darth Vader costume starting the car by use of the force. There was nothing in the universe more popular than Star Wars at that time, and the brand jumped on the bandwagon.Anytime a brand uses a celebrity, they are jumping on a bandwagon, relying on that person’s popularity. Use this carefully. Joel doesn’t love this one because it seems too easy, and while often bandwagon videos get you the virality you’re going for, they sometimes don’t perform as well getting people to change their brand preference. Viewers may remember the video, but they remember it by Star Wars, or Michael Phelps. So you’re always taking a risk that your brand may not pop, even if the video or commercial itself is popular.


You can email Joel for a free whitepaper on the 7 elements of viral videos at [email protected].But there’s one last key thing to remember here: these elements don’t live in a vacuum. You can’t say “We’re going to do a video with reality or humor.” Again, they’re colors, ingredients. You’re going to mix them, and then you still have to give it an interesting form.They’re good colors, though, so mix away.This episode is based on an interview with Joel Ackerman from Ackermania Creative. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to the Hawke Media Podcast.