Viral Videos: what they are and how they work


Anyone that work in a creative agency has found himself at least once in need to respond the following request by a client “I’d like a viral video”.
Is it a request that can be satisfied or is it a digital communication myth, some El Dorado of creativity, that cannot be reached?  And most of all, what does viral video means? It is a heavily viewed clip?Is it about engagement? Both? In which time span?
The answer to these question is complex but we can say for sure that there are linguistic techniques and distribution strategies that, if applied, increase exponentially the possibility that a clip become a viral video
Let try to clarify.
According to Wikipedia, “A viral video is a video that becomes popular through a viral process of Internet sharing, typically through video sharing websites, social media and email”.
A definition that has the merit of focusing immediately on the key concept: the success of a viral video is connected to sharing.
To avoid misunderstandings: we shouldn’t necessarily consider a viral video any clip that has hundreds of thousands views. That result could be exclusively the outcome of a paid distribution campaign or of effectual SEO and SEM techniques.  

“A viral video is a video that becomes popular through a viral process of Internet sharing”

To better understand the concept, let’s look at this Italian clip that a few years ago totaled in a short while more than a million views completely organic (that means without any investment in distribution campaigns). Can we consider it a viral video? Absolutely not. It’s popularity is due almost exclusively to the title “Terrorized web” that gained it a unenviable position in Google pagerank, thus bringing hundreds of thousands views.
From an historical point of view, many think the first viral video has been 1995’s “The spirit of Christmas” that – thanks to e-mail sharing – gained so much popularity in the pre-social era that its creators signed a contract with Fox and then created one of the most successful animated series ever: South Park.
Recently, one of the best examples of viral video has been the “Ice bucket challenge”, whose success has crossed any boundary. .
Apparently, these two contents do not have much in common, leading in fact to think that their success happened by chance, but this is not true. There are in fact specific features that, applied to a creative process, are critical to increase its virality and that are derived by a study of social media users’ behavior.
“A viral video creation is based on the study of social media users’ behavior”
According to professor Jonah Berger, author of bestseller book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On”, to make a content viral, it must take into account some rules synthetized in the acronym S.T.E.P.P.S. (Social currency, Trigger, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, Stories).
Regarding social currency, the meaning is literal: on social network we tend to build a personality that is often different than the one we have in everyday life. For example: we hare kinder, funnier, more attentive to social causes than we actually are in our daily life. To build this personality we spend the so-called “social currency” and is one of the most important features to keep in mind when designing a viral video. A user will be more encouraged to share a content coherent with the personality he built online.
Trigger refers to the existence of a well-designed call to action. For example, in the Ice bucket challenge case, the call to action was very clear: make a donation or get a cold shower. The answer has been hundreds of thousands video and millions of views.
Emotion: when we speak about emotion we must not include only the positive ones. The human emotional spectrum is quite wide and goes from indignation to extreme fun. If our story can touch the right chords, we will have great possibilities to create a viral video.
With “public” we mean a type of behavior well-known to sociologist: people are more keen to share something others have already shared, to avoid feeling isolated.
Pratical value refers to those contents than can have a value outside the simple divertissement and that has a real manifestation: a good example are those kind of viral videos that advice on how to approach creatively some everyday life occurrences, the so called  Life Hacks.
Finally yet importantly, “stories”: if we are able to tell a good story, we will have many possibilities that our video narrative gets shared.
“We are brought to share a video coherent with our online personality.”

The features described until now deals mostly with the characteristics that a video must have from a linguistic point of view. But often creating an excellent content is not enough: to be successful you have to take into account the distribution strategy.
A video built following the described rules can have good chances to reach organically a good share of users. But often to take the big leap in terms of sharing speed, a clip need a well-defined distribution strategy that can be based on exclusively paid models (that means a support is given in the launch phase with one or more paid campaigns on major video sharing or social video sharing platforms) or mixed models where paid campaigns are paired with more or less complex techniques of influencer marketing.
The final objective is always the same: try to convince or more web personalities to share the clip with his or her fanbase, so that the hopes it will become viral can increase exponentially.