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What Makes a YouTube Video Go Viral?

James Parsons • Updated on July 13, 2023
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Just what makes a YouTube video go viral? The traditional answer has been that you can’t “make” a video go viral. Certainly, in the rarefied air in the stratosphere of the most successful YouTube videos, a certain number of videos go viral just because of plain old “dumb luck“. The very notion of a YouTube video “going viral” is a fairly recent phenomenon. However, today the phrase has certainly entered our daily lexicon. Thus far, there is been a certain randomness in the pattern of which YouTube videos truly go viral. As YouTube videos are increasingly shared, however, more people want to understand the steps necessary to create a viral video.

Research and Emotional Contagion

Some researchers have even been attracted to this field, and therefore studies are now being conducted into the process of what makes a video go viral. Key is the presence of an emotional trigger. Preliminary findings certainly suggest that the emotional response doesn’t necessarily have to be positive or negative, it just has to be strong. As a result, some hilarious videos go viral, while some disgusting videos do too. One video, “Charlie Bit My Finger” went viral because people simply found it hilarious. On the other hand, a video, “Don’t Tase Me Bro,” went viral because of the extreme anger it generated.

One recent study examined the sharing tendencies of a specific group of YouTube viewers: university students. When it came to videos that generate anger, such videos appear to be more likely to be shared when they come from a fellow student. However, the sharing is most likely to occur if the student is from another university. Perhaps, the sharing student feels that the subject matter is already “common knowledge” if it emanates from his/her own school. The research did identify specific subset of video sharers that get angry within this university subgroup and then proceed to share within their own community-at-large.

Researchers have even isolated a specific psychological process called “emotional contagion” that drives sharing. Just as diseases can spread like wildfire, so too can emotions. What the sharing of YouTube videos does in these viral situations is to convey to others that the “socially appropriate response” is to take the very same action as others that view the video. When each subsequent viewer is triggered to do the very same thing, the act of sharing the video spreads out in all directions. Just like a real “virus,” the proliferation of the sharing can reach stunning proportions. Witness one of the ultimate expressions of these phenomena, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video.

Shared Video Ads Offer Insight

A list of the most shared video ads of 2013 is replete with major brand names, suggesting that the companies behind these big brands have identified various formulas for success. This suggests, among other things, that there are certain tricks or skills employed to maximize the opportunity to “go viral.” The list of the top 10 most shared ads, based on data compiled between January 1 and November 18, 2013, features nine “household” names among the top 10: Dove, Geico, Evian, Kmart, Budweiser, Pepsi Max, MGM, Ram Trucks and Volvo. The Internet marketing firm Unruly Media compiled the list.

Its Not Just About Being Funny


Although Americans typically want videos to be funny, humor is just one trigger that drives success. Marketers have identified about two dozen emotions that may trigger a decision to share a video. Among these important triggers are: exhilaration, happiness, warmth, pride, nostalgia, surprise, knowledge, confusion, arousal, shock, fear, contempt, and discussed and even pain. The favorites from place to place are somewhat culture specific. For instance, in Brazil, exhilaration is often a successful trigger in making YouTube videos go viral.

Reasons to Share

Of course, a video must do more than just emotionally stimulate the viewer. One or more strong reasons to share must be established. In fact, it is ideal to have several motivations to share a given video. In fact, Internet marketers suggest that at least one significant psychological trigger along with a variety of social motivations are required to make a video go truly viral.

So, what are these social motivations to share the video? One is simply that it is perceived that the video promotes some social good; it’s a good cause and the viewer simply wants to help. Shared passions often result in one friend sharing a video with other friends that have the same area of interest. The motivation is to want to one’s friends to have the same emotional moment that you were just head. Some videos are shared merely to get a reaction. In the world of viral videos, it’s often just that simple.

Success Creates Careers

The very phenomenon of YouTube videos going viral has essentially opened the back door to those wanting to enter the entertainment business or the information industry. The “viral potential” in a YouTube video can certainly be elusive to identify. However, the rewards can be so stunning that it’s hard not want not to want to learn the formula for success. Witness New Zealand singing sensation Lorde’s recent viral success with both the song and the video entitled “Royals.”

Others, like Devin Graham, a.k.a. Devon Super Tramp, have turned the consistent creation of viral videos into a full-time career. The element that his successful videos seem to have in common, time and again, is a clear and dramatic emotional trigger. Graham’s videos include adrenaline-pumping stunts, and viewers often find the act of sharing them to be almost irresistible.

A Violinist’s Amazing Success

The prospect of making videos that go viral is giving people a new opportunity to do what they love and turn it into a career. Take the example of Lindsey Sterling. Sterling believed that, as a violinist, she could be the lead performer in a band. This less-than-conventional idea was quickly rejected by traditional sectors of the entertainment industry. Her subsequent story is a dramatic one. It begins with her trying to get attention through traditional means. She submitted videos to talent agencies and television shows. She even drove to Las Vegas to see agents, and she was on America’s Got Talent.. She also played for free, time and again, in an effort to be “found.”


Then, she created a YouTube channel, “Lindseystomp“, and success was finally hers. Collectively, her YouTube videos have now generated in excess of a quarter-of-a-billion views. That’s a billion with a “b.” And now, with the all recognition that’s been generated, her initial dream is coming true. She has actually gone on tour with a band as the lead musician — as a violinist. And, she and her group are sold out for show after show.

Triggers and Sharing Motivations

For real success in the pursuit of viral videos, the experts suggest a full embrace of the need for an emotional trigger from the very beginning. That is, greater success accrues to those that identify the emotion that they want to trigger. To a degree, this means it’s important to “know your audience.” Yes, identifying your prospective audience(s) is as important as ever.

The trigger will stimulate the emotional contagion of which we spoke earlier. However, real success requires giving viewers as many strong reasons to share as possible. Some videos strike such a dramatic chord that they get shared without multiple social motivations. One pursuing viral video success from the start would be wise, however, to give viewers as many social motivations as possible to share that YouTube video.


  1. Paramjeet Singh


    Thank you for taking the time to write this blog post. Are there any companies that I can try that does this for me?

  2. Jenni Mastrapa


    Gangman style!

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