Home » What is a Viral Video?

What is a Viral Video?

Retina Burn Blog sees hundreds of viral videos every month in our efforts to seek out the best and most creative efforts on the web. However, while the term viral video can, in our opinion, be simply defined as a video that has attracted a huge amount of attention and extended its reach through personal sharing, the term has become so entangled in our online culture that many people use it interchangeably and without a real understanding of what it means, further spreading confusion. This post shall attempt to help you understand, what is a viral video.




At Retina Burn Blog, we feel there are two distinct stages to the lifecycle of a viral video, and rather than muddying the waters further, let’s stick to the simple virus analogy that gave the phenomena its name. While there are commonly six stages to a virus lifecycle, we’ll be sticking to two in order to boil down this explanation of viral videos. Appropriating the penetration stage from the virus, this can comparable to the golden rule of viral video. The video must penetrate the apathetic state of the viewer, trigger an emotional response and elicit a reaction.

With the massive deluge of video content that is being uploaded all the time (72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube alone every minute*) the viewing habits of audiences have changed from the engaged lean-back consumption of one or two products,  to shallow, lean-forward grazing of mass content. Unoriginality is rife online, and much of the popular content is driven by targeting the lowest-common denominator and is generally uninspiring. Furthermore, much of the video content online is watched out of curiosity, viewers are drawn in by a thumbnail, a hyperlink or a play button, rather than with preconceived expectations or deliberate intent and so may be poorly targeted and abandoned within the first 15 seconds.

A viral video however is one that overcomes a number of initial obstacles. It hooks the viewer in the first 15 seconds and retains their interest until the end. At the close of the video, it will have successfully elicited some sort of emotional response from the viewer, rousing them from their indifferent position to one of action. The exact nature of this emotion can be wildly varied, however in our opinion there are three motivators more powerful than the rest, anger, awe and humour. If your video can evoke any of those three emotions from the viewer then you have a much higher chance of creating a viral video.

what is a viral video - Nick Vujicic
Anger is of course a powerful stimulus, and combined with the often empowering nature of the world-wide web, a video that prompts anger will also prompt a sense of righteousness and desire to be part of the machinery of social change. This may be something simple as the careless FedEx driver who threw a monitor over the fence [video] and was the (rightful) target of widespread outrage at his behaviour. As you can see from the link provided, this wasn’t the original viral video but shows how online empowerment creates results, and further encourages viral activism. The big viral video that was spread by harnessing our collective anger was of course Kony 2012 [video], the campaign video from Invisible Children. Kony 2012 topped the viral charts for weeks upon its release and created a surge of online activism and awareness across all social media platforms. Interestingly enough, it became viral again after allegations that the charity were frauduelent and this time the anger of the internet was turned against its creators, just to show, it works both ways!

Awe is often attributed to videos that showcase personal triumph and a celebration of incredible skill and talent. This covers a wide range of video content, from short films that exemplify amazing filmmaking aptitude to inspirational stories of human achievement such as Nick Vujicic’s incredible story against adversity [video]. While the web can be a cruel and heartless place, it is also a place where talent and ‘those that are better than you’ are selflessly and joyfully celebrated. It’s a wide world out there and for many, video is a direct window to sights and sounds they’ll never have the chance to see, and this sense of awe inspires them to share it with their friends.

They say laughter is universal, I don’t know who they are, but in the world of viral video nothing can be closer to the truth. A genuinely funny video is one of the most infectious viral videos of all, if it elicits laughter or joy from the viewer then they are compelled to pass it along, to create a shared experience between friends and be seen as the facilitator of comedy, where their personal sense of humour may be lacking. Humour has driven viral videos from the earliest and darkest days with examples such as Numa Numa [video], Charlie bit my finger…again! [video] and more recently Dollar Shave Club [video] and Gangnam Style [video].



So, if a video manages to induce some sort of potent emotional response, then it has achieved the first stage of going viral. In Social Transmission, Emotion, and the Virality of Online Content, Jonah Berger & Katherine L. Milkman state that

Arousal is key to motivation and accordingly, we argue that it should provide the fire to drive social transmission** 

Social transmission then is the act of sharing or spreading, or to continue the virus analogy  – replication, of the video via a number of avencues creating a wider audience and appreciation beyond yourself and your viewing. Whether it’s word of mouth, or digitally across blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, the simple act of sharing enables new viewers to discover the content and more often than not, undergoe the same emotional response as you, share it and perpetuate the cycle.

There is no absolute viewing figure that determines whether a video has gone viral or not, and so it may be reasonable to argue that once the video exceeds beyond the reasonable bounds of its intended audience, then it has gone truly viral. A video for a small niche business in a quiet town may ‘achieve’ a viral video if their production is seen by 20,000 people for instance, as long as it has been shared organically by people who have no affiliation with the business or the production. It has used digital strategies to reach new audiences by creating content worth sharing and just because it hasn’t been picked up by Mashable, expelling it into the millions, it can still be argued it has created a viral video. Conversely, can a huge brand such as Coca Cola or Nissan claim to have created a viral video with a reach of 200,000 views? I would argue not.

Where there is conflict however, is where the term has been appropriated by the corporate sector as a buzzword and a belief that a viral video is merely a construct, easily replicated. Working in the video marketing industry, I’ve had many a corporate client asking for us to ‘make a viral video’ – a complete misnomer, as a video can only become viral one it hits the web. In response to these requests I usually assure the client we can attempt to create a video with viral potential, one that is original and unique within their industry and of course with the aim of arousing an emotional response. Anyone who can guarantee a viral hit is either web warlock, or use a number of shortcuts which we’ll address below.


Why your video won’t go viral

Part of the trouble in achieving a viral video, is being discovered. As we’ve already shown, the sheer amount of video content that is uploaded minute-by-minute makes standing out almost impossible for regular content creators. The majority of YouTube traffic is created by the minority of content. However, In response to the demand for ‘viral videos’, companies have sprung up that offer time-saving shortcuts for those willing to pay. Large brands can essentially buy ready made audiences that are susceptible to sharing content. These might be social media influencers, established and popular bloggers or just targeted advertising. These platforms are offered financial incentives to promote and spread the content for the brand with the hope of reaching a wide enough penetration to start creating organic views and shares. There are truly some corporate ‘viral’ videos out there that do not meet the above standards,  and have simply bought their viral status. This is unlikely to provide a return on the seeding investment if it cannot evoke a reaction strong enough to create organic fans and advocates.


In conclusion, we hope this short guide to What is a viral video will be found useful and it will remain updated over time. If you’re a fan of tracking viral videos then please continue to visit Retina Burn, and join us on Twitter or Facebook for instant notification of new awesome online videos.





%d bloggers like this: