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June 5, 2008 / davebirss

What makes a viral video?

While writing a document on web video this week, I was searching for some useful information to steal and pass off as my own genius. I wanted to include a bit about the different techniques you can use to make a video viral but – alas – after a fruitless half hour on Google I gave up. So I decided to write it myself and share it with the world.

This isn’t about the psychological reasons that people pass on video. If you want that information, you won’t do any better than this post on Seth Godin’s blog. Instead, this is intended as a resource for people wanting to create virals – or tell a client why they shouldn’t or couldn’t do one.

So – what is it that makes something viral, then?

Quite simply, people will only pass something on if it causes some kind of emotional reaction. The stronger the reaction, the more chance it has of going viral. If it just leaves the viewer with a ‘meh’, they’ll close the browser window and forget they ever saw it. So in an attempt to categorise viral films, I’m listing the variety of reactions they can cause – ‘oh!’, ‘ooh!’, ‘ugh!’, ‘huh?!’, ‘wow!’, ‘ah!’, ‘aaaaah!’ and ‘hahaha!’. Naturally, there’s a bit of overlap between categories so I’ve included an example for each one to try to clear things up a bit.

Here we go:


Be shocking, surprising, politically incorrect, frightening or show something amazing. This is all about astounding people in some way and poking them in the eye with some kind of extreme-ness.

Granny kicks a baby


Get a bit fruity. Be sexually explicit, show nudity or tease with a huge dollop of sexiness. If you want to, you can take this further and end up in the next category.

Lynx webcam girls


Be gross or gory and turn people’s stomachs. This is the kind of stuff you pass on to gross your friends out.

Two girls One cup reaction – I’m not linking to the actual video!


That WTF moment. Being so totally out there and weird that people are stunned, baffled and intrigued enough to share it. You really need something that is so original it doesn’t fit with any frame of reference.

Leave Britney alone


Show something that people think is impossible. Something that will have them trying to work out how it was done. That will make them watch it again and again, pass it on and discuss it.

Ronaldino crossbar tricks


This is where human observation comes in. Pick out things that people recognise within themselves or from the world they live in.

Dove evolution

This is the emotional one where you show laughing babies, cute puppydogs and delightfully confused pensioners. It’s all very human and honest.

I’ll kick his ass

Good old comedy. Probably the hardest one to do. YouTube is full of clips from the best comedians since the invention of moving images. It’s unlikely that you’re one of them.

The Landlord

Have I missed anything out? Do you have any better examples of viral films that fit in to the categories? Please leave a comment and let me know.

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