The science behind viral videos

By Dr Brent Coker

It’s the Holy Grail for marketers – understanding what makes a video ad go viral.

Research usually looks at what makes people share, since it’s assumed something goes viral because it’s shareable. But what makes something shareable? What motivates a person to tell others?

Viral videos have four things in common – four things that motivate us to share and drive up those coveted views on YouTube.


Instinctively we want to grow and maintain our self-esteem, and one way to do this is to earn respect from others. Information that has value to others is shareable because it makes the sender look good. To signal gratification viewers ‘like’ the person who shared it. Movies that go viral almost always make the sharer look good.

Self-intensification can be earned by legitimising membership in a social group, such as a gothic sharing a gothic-style shirt, or by sharing something that is important about your character, such as a surfer sharing information about ocean pollution. But, perhaps the most popular method is to share information that is practically useful. Life-hacks that solve an everyday problem, like this speedy potato peeler from Russia, are hugely successful.

When people contribute useful and relevant information, they earn respect, which makes the sharer feel good about themselves.


Think about a time when you were overcome with emotion – perhaps you had a terrifying experience riding a roller coaster, or maybe you won a prize in a competition. Likely you felt compelled to tell others about it. When people experience strong emotions, the mind naturally attempts to make sense of what happened and this makes them want to share the experience with others. In the same way, the more emotion a video packs in, the more likely it’ll be shared.

Only intense emotions will be shared. One way to increase the intensity of emotion is to shift people rapidly from a negative emotion to a positive emotion, or vice versa. The not-for-profit organisation Save the Children did this really well with their viral advertisement ‘Most Shocking Second a Day’, achieving more than 1 million shares.

It features a series of one-second scenes of memorable moments in a young girl’s life. The girl’s life is one that people are used to living in the Western world, with flat screen TVs, music lessons, and an abundance of food choices. About 20 seconds into the ad, it becomes clear the country the girl lives in is on the verge of war. The scenes switch from times of happiness to times of terror and sadness as the conflict reaches the girl’s neighbourhood. The fighting forces her and her family to flee, and after time spent on the run struggling to find food and escape the chaos, she eventually winds up in a makeshift hospital. The movie shifts from playful, happy, and joyful to fearful and sad, in under two minutes.

Save the Children successfully takes us on an emotional roller coaster from joyful to fearful and sad in under two minutes.


Viewers must be able to connect to the content. Content that is intensely relevant manifests as a feeling of warmth, respect and deep appreciation for an activity, idea or object. Think about a time you heard a song that you used to like but haven’t heard in a long while.

That feeling is affinity and it is now easy to create. Often marketers will try to activate certain memories, tapping into the parts of our lives that are commonly shared.

The ‘World’s Toughest Job’ video successfully uses memories to create affinity.

Affinity is created by tapping into memories most people have about their mother.

The video, which has over 2 million shares, features a prank whereby a fictional company interviews potential employees for the position of Operations Manager. When describing the requirements of the job, the interviewer tells the candidates that they must be willing to stand most of the day and be on call 24 hours. The candidates are perturbed, but remain interested and continue to present themselves in the best light. The interviewer then tells them that they should expect no scheduled breaks and be prepared to work extra hard on public holidays, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. The candidates start to look worried, but persevere. Finally, the interviewer tells the candidates that they must be willing to do the job for free. By this stage of the interview the candidates are shocked, telling the interviewer the job sounds cruel, inhumane, unfair, and potentially illegal.

The video concludes with the interviewer letting the interviewees in on the prank. He explains that there are already many billions of people throughout the world who are doing the exact same job —mothers. Most people have strong memories of their mother and these memories have special meaning, creating the feeling of affinity.


Frisson is a primitive feeling or excitement or thrill. It’s a physical response, like the hairs standing on the back of your neck, an increase in heart rate, the release of endorphins and adrenalin, and in some cases a feeling of chills running up the spine. Interestingly, it activates primitive parts of the brain usually associated with survival (eating, sleeping, and procreating).

In viral advertising, attempts to make something thrilling are common. Red Bull and Go Pro are two brands that frequently use thrills in extreme sports type advertisements. One of the more effective examples is the GoPro Backflip Over 72ft Canyon with close to 1 million shares.

GoPro brings us along for the ride and achieves close to 1 million shares.

The super-viral features point-of-view footage of freeride mountain biker Kelly McGarry, riding his bike across a narrow rocky ridge. At the end he pulls a harrowing backflip. The point-of-view perspective makes the viewer part of the truly thrilling ride, as if experiencing it for themselves.

The facial expression observed when someone watches something thrilling is the same facial expression observed when faced with a fight or ‘flight’ (run) survival encounter. The jaw drops (to enable more oxygen in to feed the muscles), the eyes open wider to enable faster reactions, and the face may even become pale as blood is transferred to the muscles in preparation for energy expenditure.

Viral movies don’t have to contain all four elements. Popular life-hack movies like how to peel 20 potatoes in two minutes aren’t high on emotion and don’t get our heart racing. But in video ads that have gone viral, affinity and self-intensification are almost always present. Each of the four elements, to varying degrees, motivates people to share the content with others. The more shareable a movie is, the more likely it will go viral. The secret to making something viral is to motivate people’s desire to share.

Going Viral – The 9 secrets of irresistible marketing by Dr Brent Coker is available now.

Banner image: YouTube

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

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