Creative Components of Viral Video

by Aaron Rockett on December 29, 2013

You have just 10 seconds to capture your online viewer, which means you better save the best stuff for the first few seconds and grab hold of your audience. Statistics by Visible Measures (2010) illustrate just how fickle online viewers can be:

“People watching television tend to be sitting on comfy sofas with a dinner tray on their lap. Changing to another channel is an argument with the family and a reach for the remote control. In online video, your viewer’s mouse is already in their hand – and the statistics show that 20 percent of viewers (on average) drop off after just 10 seconds. That means that if your video gets one-million hits, 200,000 of them didn’t see past the first 10 seconds (Westbrook, 2012,  January 24).”

That is a stark illustration of the reality of Internet video which has fed into the countless recipes all trying to pinpoint the “important determinants” for a viral video. These recipes often include: two to three word title length, short run-time, laughter, element of surprise, element of irony, music quality, talent and the list goes on. However, identifying precise elements in the creative realm that is at the mercy of a fickle, subjective and disparate online audience can be summed up as, daunting. Still, television advertising and its short run-times and unpredictable audiences offer perspective.

Southgate, Westoby and Page (2010) found to a large extent that the same ‘rules’ of successful TV advertising can also be applied to viral video. Creative drivers of enjoyment, involvement and branding “positively predict online viral viewing volume,” with involvement and enjoyment the more important measures (Southgate et al.; 2010). Additionally, the ‘buzz’ around a video can be enhanced by whether it is “Laugh-out-loud funny, Edgy, Gripping or Sexy” (Southgate et al.; 2010). Creativity, whether it’s on broadcast TV or in the online medium, is still creativity.

Additionally, the use of celebrities is also a positive indicator for successful viral videos. While studies have found that the use of celebrities are no guarantee of advertising success on broadcast television (Millward Brown Knowledge Point 2007a), in the online medium where there is a glut of content the presence of celebrities are often important to break through the clutter. Southgate et al. (2010) found that celebrity popularity positively predicts online viral viewing volume, and the evidence is seen in celebrity music and sports videos being amongst the most viewed of all time on YouTube.

Non-profit groups are hiring YouTube stars to promote their causes. Smart Power, a non-profit marketing firm promoting clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency hired Amber Lee Ettinger, or known better as “Obama Girl.” Made famous by the YouTube video, “I Got a Crush on Obama,” Ettinger wrote and performed a music video for Smart Power, “Want Obama Girl? Save Your Energy!” The video currently has over 642,000 views. This is an example of a how a non-profit organization is utilizing the “star power” of an Internet celebrity.

Southgate et al. (2010) showed that more successful online videos within their data set contained very prominent music. Millward Brown had previously shown that enjoyable music can boost ad response, most likely because music adds considerably to the viewing experience (Millward Brown Knowledge Point 2008). Music is widely known to evoke emotions in viewers of television shows and movies, and this also goes for the Web.

Emotion may be one of the keys to viral video success. Further studies are tapping into the deeper constructs of effective online videos, showing the element of surprise in addition to other emotions leads to “going viral” (Dobele, Lindgreen, Beverland, Banhamme, van Wijk; 2007). A Millward Brown pre-test showed similar results from a detailed emotional response measure, and the initial analysis of the data suggests that surprise and excitement may be particularly strong drivers of viral success (Southgate et al.; 2010).


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