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The 3 Secret Ingredients of Viral Video

Every once in a while, a video shoots across the internet like a brilliant comet and sweeps us social dweebs along in its wake as we “Like,” tweet, and share ourselves into a frenzy. I have been amused and often moved to tears by what I see through these digital windows – moments of joy, tenderness, mischief and mayhem. After a late-night binge on some of my favorites, I also became fascinated with what made these particular videos stand out in my mind (and heart!).

In case you haven’t had the pleasure of doing nothing for an hour – 4 minutes and 7 seconds at a time – here are a few examples of the types of videos I’m talking about:

JK Wedding Dance
This is the wedding processional that made headlines and sent the happy couple on a whirlwind tour of the talk show circuit.

Sound of Music, Antwerp Station
Though this was, in fact, a publicity stunt for a reality TV show; this particular “flash mob” dance struck a chord with millions of viewers and spawned a slew of knock-offs. Makes me cry every time.

Backstreet Office
This one’s just plain adorable.

Hallejulah Hugs Italy
Sweet and thought-provoking at the same time – and with a soundtrack that brings a lump to your throat.

Okay, now you’ve spent twenty minutes watching videos that have nothing to do with work … or, do they?

Here’s the thing. Viral is viral. Brands (especially start-ups) are always trying to find that Next Big Thing, the Brilliant Idea that will jettison them into the limelight, if only for those brief but powerful fifteen minutes of fame. Instead of focusing on doing the same kinds of things other companies are doing, why not go direct to the source and take a closer look at the naturally occurring viral videos that capture our collective imagination, causing us to interrupt each other’s days with messages like, “You have to see this – best video ever!”

After watching these (and, ahem, a few more) videos, here’s my list of the 3 secret ingredients of the really great viral video:

STORY: There are “funny videos” that make the rounds and have a fairly short lifespan, and then there are the videos like the ones above that keep burning long after their initial flash. An important part of their longer-term appeal is the element of story. Though the stories told may be incomplete, they are there. Without anyone having to explain anything, we get a sense of the “before and after” that surround the moment captured on video. There’s the story of a happy couple launching themselves joyously into their new life, the story of strangers coming together spontaneously to share a moment, the story of what happens when you leave a bunch of interns alone for too long with video-enabled laptops and a classic 90’s boy band ballad, the story of humanity – our separation, loneliness, connection, acceptance – of letting the barriers down.

Human beings need stories. Stories are how we interpret our world – for ourselves and for others. Stories create common language which helps us find common ground. In the context of marketing, stories help increase comprehension, connection, retention, and they are also a great deal more persuasive than non-narrative content. Every good story, whether fiction or non-fiction, has a structure or “arc” that include set-up, build-up, and release. Watch the videos again and you’ll see what I mean.

HUMANITY: You’ll notice that each of the four examples above stars “ordinary people.” There aren’t any spokespeople, no one is in costume, no one looks perfect, no one is reading from a script. The imperfections of the “stars” are part of the charm. We can relate to these people. They are just like us. They could be us. There’s nothing rehearsed about these “performances.” Even in the Sound of Music piece (which was obviously rehearsed … a lot), the illusion of spontaneity is utterly complete. It’s like when everyone bursts into song and dance in Central Park. (Happens to me all the time.)

Story and humanity combine to create an arrow that shoots straight through the heart. Overtly or subtly, we are reminded of what’s most important – the stuff of Real Life. For a moment, we see more clearly, feel connected, and understood. Things make sense. We feel good about being part of the human race.

Maybe I’m cheating a little on the “3 secrets,” but I think these two really go hand-in-hand. Each of my video picks is virtually bursting at the seams with joy and delight. Watch the faces – the happy couple, the dancers and the bystanders in Antwerp Station, the smiles of the huggers and hug-ees. Even in the pseudo-serious “Backstreet office” video, there is a warm camaraderie that you know will have those workers cracking up when the cameras stop rolling. That joy spills over out of the screen and creates delight in the viewer. Tell me you weren’t smiling ear-to-ear watching these clips. You can’t help it – it’s like instant grin!

Alex Leo wrote (in 2009) about the Sound of Music video for Huffington Post, and he said, “We’re in a global economic crisis, America’s fighting two wars, there’s genocide in Darfur, AIDs running rampant, and a pretty good shot that we could all be killed by bird flu in a year or two. We need this video.” He’s right. What this video and others like it deliver that the simply “funny” videos don’t is a sense of hope. A “funny” video – a cynical joke, pratfall, or satire – might make people laugh for a minute; but a video that captures a sense of joy, delight, and hope … well, that’s one that will keep people coming back again and again.

So, what does all this have to do with creating viral videos for your business?
There isn’t really any secret formula for creating a viral video. The recipe involves a great idea, perfect timing, and a fair amount of luck. However, if you “get” these three elements – Story, Humanity, Joy & Delight – and if you can find a way to blend them into your video, you stand a pretty good chance of creating something that goes beyond the reach of business and into the realm of Real Life. And that, my friends, is where the really good stuff happens.


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  1. Jamie,

    It’s good to read from you again. As always, regardless of the topic you write on you find a way to make it utterly engaging and relevant.
    I, too have watched the occasional viral video (most memorable is possibly the “Numa Numa!” lip-syncher), but I have sworn off them as of late, as they do have a way of eating up time in a Cookie Monster-fashion.
    Nevertheless, I feel that you have hit upon some very good essential elements of an effective viral video (campaign). Well put together!
    Cheers and thanks!


    • Jamie

      Hello, friend! :)
      Thank you for coming by & for your kind words. Love your “cookie monster” description (so true!) and – of course – I had to go check out “Numa Numa” … OMG.
      Glad you liked the elements I pulled out. As a writer who studies story structure, these things jumped out at me as I watched the videos. There is an underlying skeleton to many of these “phenomena.” We dress the skeleton up differently, but it’s still the same foundation for all the best stories.

      See you around the internet!

  2. Hi Jamie,

    I am new to your site/blog but really like what I’ve seen so far. Starting with your honest and real person bio and followed of course by your insightful posts. I appreciate your down to earth, conversational style. Your enthusiasm and passion for what you do really shines through on your words and connects with people (it did with me in a heartbeat). I think that another powerful common thread among the best viral videos is the use of well chosen music that really connects with the viewers’ emotional core and in some way reminds people at an emotional (not intelectual level) of that unique feeling of “being alive”. I can think back to “Where the hell is matt” that thing almost made me cry when I first watched it. :)

    I am glad to connect with you and look forward to coming back to your blog. It would be cool if you added a short video of yourself (talking about what you do) on your site. I have often found that people who are very real connect awesomely with their viewers on video, just a thought.

    Send you a big hug,


    • Jamie Lee

      Thank you so much for your sincere compliments and your additional insights. I’m so glad you connected with my work here (that’s the whole point, isn’t it?) and look forward to more from your blog – I love what I’ve seen so far! :)

      I agree completely about having the right soundtrack … in fact, I think it’s critical and can’t believe I overlooked that for my list! SO, thanks for adding that into the mix. Music can have a profound impact by itself and when combined with visuals and a strong message … well, look out world! (I loved the Where is Matt series … and am not ashamed to admit that I DID cry!)

      RE: a video on this site – YES! It’s in the plans. Any equipment suggestions? I was leaning towards the Kodak Zi8, but I think there are some new options on the market since I last looked … love your input!

      TKS again & see you around the web!

  3. Jon

    Story, Humanity, Joy & Delight. Something clicky about that, I think. Thanks for this break down and very cool viral videos examples all-in-one place.

    It’s so true we enjoy story. That love we all have for a juicy, heart felt story or a comeback tale is ingrained deep within us. We’re wired to be receptive to a compelling story.

    The dance video is great; people expressing who they truly are and owning it.

    Thanks, Jamie!

    • Jamie Lee

      Thank YOU for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. There IS something “clicky” about the list when you string it all together like that – nice! :)

      Love of story is absolutely part of what makes us human. Whether the story is in a book, a movie, on a newscast, or part of a corporate marketing campaign, it connects with us in a much deeper, more authentic way than cold, hard facts. Stories not only strike an inner chord, they also have staying power – lingering in our hearts and minds much longer than any “report” might.

      TKS again for contributing. Glad to have you here!

  4. Howdy Jaime, I have to comment great job on the videos. You where right I just spent the last twenty minutes watching them getting absolutley nothing done. Great job on the synopsis of what makes them engaging. If we could all develop businesses like those videos….

    • Jamie

      So glad you enjoyed the videos, Justin. You may have lost those 20 minutes of work time, but hopefully the creative energy behind those pieces will inspire you on another level.

      It’s true – if we could bottle that essence of virality for our businesses, the sky would be the limit!

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