What makes people, many of whom are staring at computer screens all day long, engage with a video to such a degree that they choose to evangelize about it to all their connections? What makes a video go viral?

I recently attended a Facebook for Good event in NYC, which intended to help nonprofits develop viral videos that spread socially conscious messages. Ben Huh, CEO of Cheezburger, Inc., was one of the speakers, and proved to be the most informative of the bunch. His user-generated content site is best known for leveraging the immense social power of the adorability of cats. Huh said, essentially, that anyone who says they know how to make viral videos (with a 100% success rate), is lying. And he’s correct. If anyone had a foolproof method to win over crowds and capture eyeballs, that person would be the CEO of the most powerful media entity ever known. While no one yet has the perfect recipe for virality, there are certain key ingredients that come from knowledge of human psychology. There are studies that relate psychology and biology with social contagion and video virality.

So instead of starting with the big (and impossible) question of what makes a video viral, I’d begin with the five elements that are key to fostering video virality. I’ll provide 5 recent examples of compelling, viral content as well.

1. Human Connection
Does your video provoke a strong emotional response? Eliciting such a response creates the urge to share. First Kiss, a campaign by Wren Clothing, is a perfect example of compelling storytelling about human connection leading to shareability. The video consists of 20 strangers kissing, and has had two million views the morning after it was posted. As of now, it has more than 70 million views altogether (since March 10th!). Sales, by the way, are up nearly 14,000 percent.

2. Cuteness
Ben Huh knows just how important cuteness can be for video virality. People love their cats, and we as humans have bred them for centuries, so teaming cute photos of them with witty and/or silly captions makes for surefire, compelling content. But it’s not just cats that perform well online. We’ve seen it with dogs rolling on beds, a colony of waddling penguins, adorable babies…we love them all. Humans are hard-wired to gawk at cuteness.

3. Newsiness
Seemingly anything President Obama does is newsworthy, and because he’s President at a time when social media is prevalent and partisanship is high, even his political opponents will engage and share content concerning him. Emotions like anger, disgust, and outrage can also spark virality. Recently, the President appeared on an episode of Funny of Die’s Between Two Ferns. It’s come to represent a significant cultural moment, in that the White House marketed its Affordable Care Act, towards millennials (who are critically important to the plan’s success), through humor online and not through more traditional means, like a campus visit or via a Sunday morning talking head show on cable. What was the result of this innovative use of political marketing? Last Tuesday, White House senior communications director Tara McGuiness announced that Funny or Die was the top source of referrals to

Which leads us to …

4. Humor
Humor is probably the biggest driver of video virality. “Humor also helps people deal with pain and physical adversity,” wrote Peter McGraw and Joel Warner in Psychology Today. “Laughter – especially a hearty laugh – has been shown to benefit your circulation, lungs and muscles (especially those around the belly area).” It’s no surprise then, that the pop cultural landscape is riddled with viral comedy. If no one has the exact recipe for making viral videos 100 percent of the time, Jimmy Fallon comes pretty close. Most recently, actor Kevin Bacon appeared on Fallon’s Tonight Show with a entrance harking back of his days. Just one week after its debut, the video has over 7 million views.

5. The Unexpected/Non-Linear
Finally, let us look at what I like to call “The Unexpected.” Ben Huh said another interesting thing at that Facebook for Good event. “Diversity of content is essential. People want the unexpected,” he said.

In a great recent example, the KTLA news team reacted to an ongoing earthquake. In just a week, it had over 13.7 million views. I’ve seen it several times, and I suspect a lot of other people have as well. Unexpected videos are compelling because they are unplanned, the reactions on the screen are raw and human. Psychologically they are the most interesting videos – ones prone to more repeat viewing –because they are, in a sense, akin to reality television without the editing.

I also include strange, unexplained videos as a subset to “The Unexpected.” Strange things washing up on shores and things like missing Malaysian airplanes are also a part of this overall drama. They’re compelling in that they force the mind to concentrate upon a mystery, something that our brains, hard-wired to bring order to chaos, puzzle over. “Human beings are very strange and weird,” said Huh. “If you keep thinking linearly you will miss out.”


These are what I believe to be the five big elements of a viral video. Finally, it should be noted that combining two or more of these elements, of course, will increase the chances of virality. It remains to be seen if some clever marketer will be able to find a way to combine all five of these elements into the world champion of viral videos. I am optimistic.

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