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Why Viral Videos Go Viral

Tue, Mar 05, 2013

If you’ve been on the internet in the last ten or so days, you’ve heard of the Harlem Shake – and just how many Harlem Shake videos there are.


There have been 30.5 million views for the original Harlem Shake video since it’s been uploaded on February 2. I couldn’t help but wonder – what made people want to watch this 30 million times? How did it get so popular? If this video got so popular, what are the driving forces behind other viral sensations – Psy, Rebecca Black, Jenna Marbles, and more?

After some researching, it turns out that I’m not the only one who’s curious about what exactly makes a viral video go viral (there’s even a TED talk on it). There are several driving forces behind what makes a video viral, and when combined, they make videos that end up with hundreds of millions of views. (I’m looking at you, Kony.)

1)      The videos are humanizing, personable, or relatable.

If you’ve ever watched a Daily Grace video, you’ll see how relatable she is as a person. She’s authentic and engaging in her communication with the audience, even if she’s awkward and her presentation of material isn’t flawless. She’s comfortable being in front of a camera, and encourages her viewers to provide feedback – and she talks about her viewers and their responses in her videos. If you can relate to her – or even laugh at her – then she’s doing her job. It’s evident in the numbers, too; Grace Helbig’s videos have at least 150,000 views and her channel has a total of 106,096,982 views.

2)      The videos are unexpected and memorable.

These videos aren’t necessarily memorable because of the “shock factor” – they’re unexpected or memorable in their own way. Take Rebecca Black, for example. Her video was memorable because it was just so bad. A music video about the day of the week? An unknown rapper cameo? She’s only thirteen? Memorable and hysterical, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” phenomenon generated hundreds of spin-off videos about other days of the week.

Another example: this poor girl who uploaded a hair tutorial video. Plot twist/spoiler alert: her hair burns off.

  Unexpected by all – including her – this video’s been viewed 19.7 million times, and I’m sure part of it is because of her face at 1:10. It’s every teenage girl’s worst nightmare, but in making a video viral, it works; her video was shared because it was either hysterical or horrifying.

3)      The videos encourage communication or build community.

Let’s face it: anyone can do the Harlem Shake. I say this confidently because I’ve seen a LOT of the response videos, and it’s a whole bunch of people thrashing. What’s awesome about this is that it’s encouraging us all to participate and be creative. University of Georgia Men’s Diving and Swim team did the Harlem Shake – underwater. Buzzfeed did it in their office – one employee’s wearing a horse mask. Red Bull did it jumping out of an airplane. Thousands of people have done the Harlem Shake, and I’m sure thousands more will. I can’t dance if my life depended on it, and it’s clear that many people can’t, but if they posted a response video, then they’re all part of the Harlem Shake community.


4)      The videos have the backing of tastemakers.

I have 227 followers on Twitter, which means that my communicatory reach is far less than Conan O’Brien with his army of 7,909,442 followers. If he tweets that something’s hysterical and needs to be watched, I’m sure it will spread like wildfire. If 7,909,442 people trust Conan to be funny, and he vouches that “this video had me crying”, then we’ll probably watch it. We’ll also probably share it, too, saying “I saw this video Conan posted!” Conan’s funny (and I am not) and can influence what people think is funny; by being a comedic tastemaker, he can contribute to videos going viral.

So the next time you share a video that has 10 million views, see if it has any of the above factors. Just…don’t do the Harlem Shake.

Categories: marketing, promotional, trending






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