Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Harlem Shake, Gangam Style, The Man Your Man could smell like, Evolution of Dance… What made these videos go viral?

When chatting over the phone with my parents last week we got on to the topic of viral videos, and in particular the latest viral video, The Harlem Shake. My parents were quite concerned that I was watching viral videos because they honestly thought that doing so might leave me with a virus on my computer.

The following 30 minutes of our conversation was spent explaining to my parents (both are in their 70’s), that viral videos do not leave viruses on your computer, but rather they are considered ‘viral’ videos because the way that the video gains popularity mimics the spread of an influenza virus. One person watches a video and they share the video with a number of their friends who then forward on the video link via email, video sharing web sites or social media to their friends. In no time at all the video has been shared exponentially, and is officially considered ‘having gone viral’.

Once my parents had been reassured that I was not putting my computer at risk of disease, they asked a simple question that I didn’t have the answer to: “Mina, what makes a video go viral?”. Although most kids over the age of 6 have the answers to all of their parent’s questions, this one caught me by surprise.

If only us Marketers had the answer! I decided to do a little research to find out the answer to that question. After searching hours on my virus free computer I realised that the question ‘What makes videos viral?’ falls in the same bucket as ‘Where can I find out the winning numbers for next Saturday’s lottery?’.

There is no winning formula that has yet been discovered that will consistently result in viral videos. I did however find a number of common elements in viral videos:
  1. Humor 
  2. Strong Start: Enticing title, alluring description, and visually appealing video thumbnail enticing potential viewers to click through.
  3. An emotional response
  4. Sarcastic narcissism
  5. Community participation
  6. The element of surprise/originality
  7. Identification with the target audience
  8. Must be short, ideally less than 2 minutes in length 
The Harlem Shake is a perfect example of these 8 elements at play. PSY’s Gangnam style, Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, The Evolution of Dance, and Kony 2012 are all examples of highly successful viral videos where many if not all of these 8 elements were present.

Next time I chat with my parents I’ll at least have the above list of elements a video should have if it is aiming for ‘viral status’. What I won’t have however, is a logical explanation for what people are doing in the Harlem Shake.

Have you been part of creating a viral video? Any secrets you want to share?

Mina D’Souza
Current student in the Master of Marketing program at the University of Sydney Business School

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