The Anatomy of A Viral Video

Viral videos have become the stuff of legends.  Did Obama Girl really help to push Barack Obama over the top in 2008?  Would Justin Bieber be a star today without YouTube?  The viral video has launched careers, brands, and cultural revolutions.   And every marketer on the face of the planet fantasizes about creating one.

The first step to actually creating one is breaking through the idea that viral videos happen by accident.  Those that do are the product of infinite-monkey statistics:  there is just so much user-generated video out there that some of those videos are bound to be hugely popular.

But no marketer can take infinite-monkey math into a boardroom and hope to walk out with his job.  In order to create a viral video it is imperative to look at how to make it happen.  Inside the anatomy of viral video marketing, there are three key features.


The idea of a “meme” was first floated by Richard Dawkins.  A meme is the basic building block of thought, just as a gene is the basic building block of an organism.  Some memes (like the urge to protect children) are essentially universal.  Others (like a preference for the color blue) are not.

A video built on universal memes is going to resonate with more people.  It’s going to cross political, ideological, and cultural lines better.  And it’s going to create a stronger connection with the viewer, making it more likely to be shared via social media.


If you look through a list of the top viral videos of all time, you’ll quickly notice that very few of them are complicated.  They aren’t full of adornment.  They don’t try too hard.  The simplicity of these videos is what makes them so popular.  In a world full of bright lights and shiny things, something that just is what it is has a natural appeal.


YouTube marketing is about one thing:  you get attention by getting attention.  And although you’ll likely get some attention just by showing up, marketing videos don’t go viral without a push.  You have to create a strategy to get more views initially, pushing your video up in the rankings off the bat.  You have to create a strategy to start the Facebook and Twitter sharing.

And remember, making a video go viral is a lot like getting a jet off the ground.  It takes a lot of energy and effort to get it started.  But once you hit a critical mass of attention, the systems of popularity will take over, and the work will get much lighter.

The bottom line is that marketing via YouTube is an effective way to message, and it has the potential to create an outsized number of impressions for the investment you’ll put into it.  But don’t go into a meeting with your boss or client pretending that just any video you post on YouTube is going to go viral.  Realize how much planning and work is involved, and be prepared to do it.

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