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Couple watches a viral video on their phone.
December 29, 2021 - By Hawke Media

The 7 Common Elements of Viral Videos

Viral content is something of a Holy Grail for marketers and brands alike. It’s easy to see why: A viral video seems more authentic to the viewer, and makes the budget go significantly further through advertising that is effectively free. 

But when a brand requests a video that “goes viral,” marketers should be wary of overpromising. You can’t control virality, but there is a formula of sorts that you can use to give yourself a better chance to create a viral hit. While it’s not a perfect formula, there 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 on this list.

What Does It Mean When a Video Goes Viral? 

The average person is exposed to more than 5,000 ads every day, from online banner ads to billboards and TV spots. Most of us would struggle to remember a single one. Viral videos, on the other hand, capture our attention immediately, and encourage us to engage, share, and communicate. They fill up our social media feeds, surge to the top of the trending hashtag list, and quickly evolve into memes and catchphrases. But beware! Nobody said that this was for the purpose the creator may have intended. Viral videos can circulate for the wrong reasons, too. The key quality of viral videos is that no creator is in control. The success and reach of the video are down to the viewers themselves. 

What Makes a Video Go Viral?

Anything from ’80s actor auditions and regional network-TV bloopers to red-carpet zingers and Super Bowl ads can gain momentum and go viral. The video may be hosted on YouTube or TikTok, and may have lain dormant for years — something that Conan O’Brien turned into a running gag with Paul Rudd, using a clip from the 1988 movie Mac and Me — or suddenly burst on the scene. All it needs is a handful of influential figures with large audiences to tag it, share it, and set the ball rolling. In turn, established media outlets such as newspapers, online publishers, and TV networks will pick up the trend and distribute it to a more mainstream audience.   

Can Someone Guarantee They Can Make You a Viral Video?

Although some agencies might promise a viral video, in reality it’s easier to harness the wind. There’s no formula for why some videos go viral, and context is everything. No marketer or creative can control that context in an authentic manner. You can certainly put the recurring elements of a viral video in place, but the audience has the final say. 

The 7 Common Elements of Viral Videos

If you set out to make every video viral, you will be limited in scope. Viral potential simply isn’t a factor that’s in your hands. Instead, set goals for creation and distribution that aren’t limited to going viral; focus on authenticity and entertainment value. Despite this, there are certain recurring qualities that viral videos tend to have in common: 

  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

Remember the part about context? Few brands have read the room better in recent years than Nike, which hit all the right notes in the middle of the 2020 pandemic with “You Can’t Stop Us.” The video immediately went viral, clocking up over 20 million views on Twitter. Apart from a compelling, authentic message, it was the visual spectacle that struck a chord with the audience. And not in the way Nike usually does it, either. This time, instead of big-name athletes and expensive production values, the video deployed a simple split-screen device, impeccable editing, and a heartfelt message that brought together established athletes and ordinary people. Crucially, the clip wasn’t overtly trying to promote a product so much as a universal message about resilience and community. Those values resonated in a well-received viral hit. 

2) Universality

Want a viral video to spread around the world? Top tip: Feature a dance. From “Gangnam Style” to the latest TikTok challenge, the list is endless of dances and routines that have been reproduced, copied, and imitated globally. That was exactly what happened in 2020 with “Jerusalema,” a fairly unremarkable but certainly catchy song and dance from South Africa’s Master KG. The song, which is in the isiZulu language, first appeared in 2019 and became popular locally. A group of friends in Angola who uploaded their version lit the fire, and within months the dance was being reproduced around the world by celebrities, police departments, nurses, and more. The song has been streamed more than 85 million times on Spotify, and the video viewed more than 460 million times. Even if few listeners of the song understand the lyrics, its message of hope and unity made it a universal viral hit, while the African rhythm chimed perfectly with a renewed interest in African musical genres throughout 2020. 

3) Reality

If something is real, people are more interested in it than if they know it’s fake. A brand that understood that early and rode the insight right to the top of the drinks market is White Claw. In fact, the beverage manufacturer, which has now cornered over 40% of the hard-seltzer market, deliberately held back on conventional advertising at first, preferring user-generated content instead to build a dedicated following. Spin-off viral content was inspired by the 2019 “White Claw Summer” video by Trevor Wallace. Crucial to success was the fact that the videos celebrated the White Claw lifestyle rather than the tasting features, generating more than 4 billion social media impressions as a result. 

4) Controversy

The big key here is “Don’t offend the wrong audience.” A video that goes viral for the wrong reasons is a beast that’s difficult to tame, and it can take months or even years to recover from the reputational damage. Even the world’s biggest brands can find themselves caught out. In 2020, Microsoft released a video for mixed reality featuring artist Marina Abramović. That controversial choice — the Serbian artist has been accused of Satanism by conspiracy theorists — soon led to more than 24,000 downvotes on YouTube and a storm of bad headlines. Microsoft removed the video soon after. While no one would argue that the episode caused Microsoft significant damage, it did distract focus from the launch of the HoloLens 2. The saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity doesn’t apply here. If Microsoft were an unknown start-up trying to get noticed, perhaps; but for a respected tech giant with a reputation to preserve, the controversy backfired. 

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 lowbrow. This doesn’t mean they have to be stupid. Snickers got it just right with their 2020 Super Bowl commercial “Fix the World,” whose self-deprecating humor was made even better by the fact that the ad debuted on the biggest global stage of all. But it has to look effortless, and marketers should be wary when a brand wants “another Dollar Shave Club” video. That kind of beat-perfect copy and performance is the exception. 

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, and so on. 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 a great tool. One of the key attractions of TikTok is the diversity of content, from irony and farce to deeply sincere and emotional first-person testimony. Come at the challenge with sincerity and an authentic connection, as Google did with its postpandemic “Get Back to What You Love,” and audiences will share. Fake it, as Pepsi was accused of doing with its much-derided Black Lives Matter video featuring Kendall Jenner, and your video will still be remembered for the wrong reasons some five years later. 

7) Bandwagon

Anytime a brand uses a celebrity, it is jumping on a bandwagon, relying on that person’s popularity. Use this carefully, because unless there is a clear connection between the star and your brand, your creative efforts will be known for the former, not the latter. That’s especially true when two competing brands in the same sector go toe to toe using the same creative strategy. For years, Adidas and Nike, for example, prepared for big global tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games with expensive campaigns featuring their celebrity partners. These videos went viral, of course, and many are still remembered fondly years later, but often consumers struggled to recall which of the two sportswear manufacturers a given ad was for. Increasingly, audiences are weary of celebrity endorsements, too. The format is tired, and from a creative point of view there’s often the perception that it’s a substitute for a good idea. Bucking the trend, however, are brands such as Aviation Gin, whose viral videos featuring Ryan Reynolds poke fun at the celebrity endorsement itself and breathe fresh life into the bandwagon strategy. Of course, you can still jump on the bandwagon without any celebrity star power to call on. If you can add value or perspective to a trending topic (ideally while it’s on the way up), then jumping on a Twitter hashtag or building your own spin-off content on TikTok or Snapchat can hit the right spot at the right time. Hitting the right tone is key, something Lego did tastefully with a #BlackLivesMatter post that made an authentic link between education and its role as a toy manufacturer. 


No, we can’t promise to make your video go viral. But if you want to develop an insight-led strategy to launch ideas that will catch the imagination and go beyond conventional advertising, we can do that. To find out more, discover the premier agency for Gen Z here.

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