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Audio Version — 10:12

Going Viral, the New Black

Marketers and brand executives dream of taking their content viral, infecting viewers with their messages in hopes of gaining market share, brand recognition, and hours of free advertising.

Marketers learned that digital video and other digital content are an alternative to traditional media at tremendous savings after Evian Water posted their Babies Rollerblade video online. According to research conducted by the author of the book Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing, Karen Nelson-Field, the video became a viral sensation garnering millions of views in the United States and globally, 

The 2009 Evian Babies video opened the doors for marketers exposing the reality that viral video success is attainable, but with the right mix of content. 

What Does Going Viral Mean?

Nelson-Field points out, in her book, that millions of videos get produced and uploaded annually, yet not all videos or digital content go viral. There are more viral losers, so to speak, than viral winners.

Defining viral is not an easy task. There is no set number of content-shares or specific views determining if one content is more viral than another. Even videos that gain tens of thousands of views in their first few hours of uploading and then dwindle are still considered viral videos. Because going viral is an enigmatic concept, I offer a broad definition of viral:


“The frequent sharing of content, still image or video, that spreads rapidly through a population of unique individuals.”


One thing is for sure, Nelson-Field points out, going viral requires content to be engaging. In an earlier article, Creating Engaging Videos and Their Optimal Lengths, I touched on the topic of what makes videos engaging and how high-engagement correlates with increased chances of going viral. Content, specifically video content, that elicits high positive arousal-emotions outperforms all other emotions. Content that evokes exhilaration with positive high-arousal emotions exceeds videos with just high-arousal emotions, according to Nelson-Field. Additionally, her findings show that videos that are high-arousal, positive, and demonstrate personal triumph are likelier to deliver shared success.  

However, be aware of negative, high-arousal content. As discussed in my earlier article, content that incites negative emotions gets shared. Nelson-Fields’ research demonstrates high-arousal negative emotions go viral. However, the negative video’s impact is unknown to brands. Brands that decide to experiment with high-arousal negative content need to tread lightly as the negativity could harm their brand image. See the Research Highlights section below for some of Nelson-Field’s viral marketing research findings.

Content Categories That Increase Your Chances of Going Viral

While there is no magic formula for making your content go viral, we have learned that high-arousing positive emotions that evoke exhilaration have a high probability of going viral. Additionally, video content that demonstrates personal triumph has a higher chance of being shared over other creative content.

Since not all content becomes viral content and that most brands do not necessarily focus on delivering high-arousing positive content, other avenues can help take your content to the next level and increase the likelihood of getting shared. As Nelson-Fields points out from her viral marketing research, less contagious videos can be winners as well. The key here is to seed and support your content through multiple platforms and even online paid advertising.

The following categories can improve your chances of increasing content shares and possibly taking your meme, video, story, or image viral.



Content that speaks about the “facts” gets shared amongst like-minded people more often than content perceived to be factual. However, people ignore facts, hence the rise of the “fake news media” and “alternative facts” comments in the past several years regarding U.S. politics. 

Side Note

I placed the word “facts” in quotes because in this instance, “facts” may be subjective, specifically with today’s political climate against actual facts and in support of “alternative facts” amongst like-minded people in specific political circles.

If you plan on posting “facts” as a content piece in hopes of making it go viral, a recommendation is to know your audience first. Do they subscribe to actual, provable facts or “alternative facts?” Knowing the difference between your audience will increase the likelihood that your “factual” piece of content — image or video — will go viral.

The meme below demonstrates the polarity of the alternative facts meaning. George Washington’s original quote was, “I cannot tell a lie.”, however, to drive the point that alternative facts are not facts but untruths, the meme points out the incongruent message from Washington and spread across social media as a viral meme.

alternative facts meme going viral - image of George Washington


Content that strays from the norm and displays things that are typically incompatible, inconsistent, or in disagreement tends to go viral more often than congruent content. For example, the cat and mouse (rat) video below (from the article Creating Engaging Videos and Their Optimal Length.) demonstrates the incongruent behavior of a rat chasing the cat. The rat chasing the cat is counterintuitive to what we know about the predator/prey relationship between the two animals; thus, we are amazed, amused, and bewildered when we see the incongruity. As a result, we want to share the video content with others.

Copyright Viral Hog

The key with incongruous content for your brand is juxtaposing two incompatible or odd items that appear counterintuitive to people into your content video or visual piece. But be careful that the imagery does not negatively harm your brand image.


Humor is another category that requires careful audience analysis. What one person or culture finds humorous, another may think offensive. 

The current theory on humor is the incongruity-resolution theory. In short, the I-R theory infers that humor occurs when presented with incongruent or unexpected information, which then the incongruity becomes resolved through further details, hence the punchline in many jokes. 

When it comes to humorous content, it’s vital to know your audience. Take, for example, the VW commercial below. The young lady enters the car, “rips a fart,” and then her date introduces two other people already seated in the back that the offending girl did not initially see when entering the vehicle. The commercial was viewed and discussed by millions of viewers in the United States. However, if this type of content aired in many middle east countries, it would be deemed offensive content and possibly backfired for the brand.  


Content that is positive and demonstrates triumph over tragedy ranks high on the viral sharing list. People like to be inspired and like a feel-good story. In 2011, a news video of a homeless man, Ted Williams, went viral with millions of views and shares. Williams, at one point, was a radio announcer that became homeless due to alcohol and drugs. A news reporter videotaped Williams and learned that he had a “golden voice.” That video (below) went viral, and Williams became a national icon as he received numerous job offers for voice work. Here was a rag to riches story that moved millions of people.

Incorporating inspirational messages in your branded content could help boost your chances of going viral. The caveat, though, the content piece must be authentic and sincere. Inspiring content that appears fake or forced can leave your brand looking inauthentic, causing viewers to see your brand negatively.

Psychological Insights

A few years ago, research about the relationship between profanity and intelligence opened the gates for internet goers to share viral memes about the subject. The idea that something frowned upon in society had a positive spin to it was counterintuitive. 

For decades, society viewed people who cussed as uneducated or low-class. The study demonstrated the opposite based on the researcher’s findings. People, specifically those who regularly used cuss words to color their communication, began sharing the news via social media platforms. 

The content was incongruous to what people initially thought about the subject, but it filled a need for curiosity about human behavior. In other words, the psychological insights packed a double punch to help the content go viral; it was incongruous, and it provided insights into human behavior. 

Content that offers psychological insights or knowledge and studies about how people behave often tends to get shared amongst social media platforms, especially if they provide additional viral elements, like incongruity. 

viral meme image of profanity as intelligence


Marketers want to take their video and other content viral in the hopes of appealing to a broader audience at a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising. However, not all content goes viral. More videos fail to go viral than those that end up spreading across social media platforms with millions of views and shares. Yet, we still do not have a clear definition of what it means to go viral other than a rapid sharing of content across social channels with thousands or millions of unique people.

Improving your chances of going viral may rest within five categories: facts, incongruity, humor, inspiration, and psychological insights. Positive messages that inspire, specifically those content pieces that show triumph over tragedy, do best when it comes to viral content. 

Brands can improve their chances of going viral, not only by producing content that fits one or more of the five categories but by seeding their content across the internet. In other words, brands that promote their content through varying social media platforms and utilize paid ad placement have a better chance at taking their content viral.

Research Highlights

The following highlights are summarized from a few select chapters of the book, Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing, by Karen Nelson-Field.

Book ChapterResearch Highlight
CH. 3Content that draws a high-arousal positive emotional response is shared more.
CH. 3Generating arousal with video content is useful for both commercial and non-profit organizations to achieve sharing success.
CH. 3Videos that evoke feelings of exhilaration tend to be shared more than any other high-arousal positive emotion.
CH. 3If you choose the high-arousal negative space, proceed with caution. Little is known about its long-term consequences for the brand.
CH. 3Focus less on creative appeal and more on emotional appeal.
CH. 4 Using babies in your content outperform many other creative devices , but only when the video evokes high-arousal emotions.
CH. 4Of all possible creative devices, videos that display personal triumph appear most likely to deliver sharing success.
CH. 5High-arousal positive videos display more branding than the other groups, yet still share the most.
CH.5 The level of branding present has no effect on the degree to which a video will arouse viewers.
CH. 6More than 90% of viewers do not share.
CH. 6Less contagious videos can be viral winners too if they are well seeded and supported. It depends on your definition of success.
CH. 7Videos that elicit high-arousal emotions cut through the clutter and are remembered most.
CH. 7The most commonly recalled positive emotion is exhilaration.



Audio Version — 8:58

engaging videos article - illustration of man looking through telescopeThe Web – A Visual Medium and Engaging Videos

Humans are visual creatures. Our survival depends heavily on visual cues for fundamental behaviors like locating food, a partner, and shelter. We also rely on visual cues for complex actions like parental care and the forming of social hierarchies. 

In a 2004 research paper by Indiana University School of Law professor William C. Bradford, he notes that 5% of the population are experiential (tactile and role-play) learners, 30% of the people are verbal learners, with the remaining 65% of the population being visual learners. 

It is no wonder that MTV — the music television cable channel that first aired on August 1, 1981, grew in popularity, broadcasting “visual” interpretations of artists’ music. Record producers probably knew that by exposing music fans to music videos, they could reach a potential 95% of their audience.

Fast-forward to 1990, when the first WorldWideWeb browser developed for the NeXT Computer lead to the graphical internet that we know today. The web is a visual medium for the most part, and the birth of social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube have helped fuel the graphic revolution, specifically amongst the video medium.

There are over 500 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute. It is no wonder that YouTube is the second most searched website in the world after Google. Facebook users watch over 100 million hours of videos daily on the social media site. There are tens of thousands of other videos watched and uploaded to other social media sites and private and public web pages daily. With so much video distributed throughout the internet, it makes it challenging for marketers to cut through the noise and grab your already waning attention span. 

Whether a marketer should produce engaging videos or not is a pointless discussion. Of course, engaging videos must be part of your marketing strategy. The question is, how do you get viewers to engage with your video content, and how long should your video run?

What is Engagement?

The concept of online engagement is reasonably new, and pundits have not locked in consensus on the idea of what exactly constitutes engaging online content. According to research published in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled, Creating Online Videos That Engage Viewers, the authors — Dante M. Pirouz, Allison R. Johnson, Matthew Thomson, and Raymond Pirouz; professors of marketing at Western University of London, Ontario, Canada — offer a broad view of what constitutes engagement: 

“We…define engagement as behavior that includes sharing but also extends to other forms of measurable user involvement.”

The other forms of measurable user involvement — noted by the scholars — include commenting, favoriting, and liking. In other words, engagement is anytime a viewer interacts positively or negatively with your content or, in this case, your video.

In their research, Pirouz et al. dispel several myths about online videos. Their results show that neither professionals nor amateurs are better than one another in creating compelling content for accumulating views. So, you do not have to run out and hire a professional actor to represent your marketing video; anyone can do the job.

Additionally, the study finds that:

  • Branded videos are liked more but disliked more as well.
  • Adding cute babies and animals does not increase engagement either.
  • Attractive people do not increase engagement.
  • Sexually suggestive videos also do not increase viewer engagement. 
  • Satire, associated with hyperbole, increased views and comments, yet it induced anger. If you are looking to generate outrage, satire may be an option for you.

What Makes Engaging Content?

Hand sketch couple looking at smartphone - engaging videosIn their research, the team discovered that the number one element that increased positive engagement — views and likes — was the element of surprise. Interestingly, surprising yet frightening videos garnered more views and likes than videos with just an element of positive surprise. The team does point out that fear-inducing videos increase views but at the cost of generating negative attitudes toward the videos. The key is to produce videos that induce fear and surprise, not frightening videos like those found in horror movies, which decreased engagement the researchers found.

When looking at ways to invoke surprise, the researchers looked at hyperbole (exaggeration), incongruity, and novelty. They discovered that while hyperbole and surprise increased views and comments, it incited anger. That may work for political marketing campaigns, but not necessarily for brands looking to create a positive image.

The best approach for engaging videos, according to the researchers, is to pair the element of surprise with either something novel that viewers have not seen or show something counterintuitive or incongruent that also demonstrates surprise. For example, I conducted a non-scientific experiment on a Facebook group with over 27,0000 members. I posted varying videos to test the findings in the engagement study. The video that received over 200% more likes, comments, and shares was a video (shown below) of a cat attempting to chase a rat; in turn, the rat chased the cat down the street. The video displayed an element of surprise (the fact a cat would run from a rat), and it was equally out of place or incongruent to what we know about the relationship between a cat and rat or rodent. In other words, the video displayed visuals that are counterintuitive to how we see the world, and that alone created the elements of surprise, novelty, and incongruity.


Copyright Viral Hog


Does Video Length Impact Engagement?

The current assumption is that shorter video lengths improve viewership. That is, if your video time is short, then you will attract more viewers. The thinking coincides with recent studies that indicate people today have about an 8-second attention span, shorter than a goldfish. Add in the reality that 4,000 to 10,000 ads and messages bombard us daily; it makes sense to think that shorter is better when it comes to competing for attention. 

Despite all of the noise and clutter that competes for our daily attention, shorter video length does not necessarily impact viewer engagement. What impacts engagement is content. Set aside most social media platforms’ hard video length limits; you are bound by them regardless of content and viewer attention span. You should direct your focus toward the type of story you want to develop and communicate.

Researchers discovered that shorter videos are not necessarily the most engaging in research conducted by Google’s Unskippable Labs initiative (see video below). What engages viewers is compelling brand stories, specifically amongst the Gen Z and Millennial demographics who have an anti sentiment toward being sold. Unskippable Labs found that the longer the ad, the greater the brand awareness and consideration of the brand offerings. The caveat, though, with longer videos is to develop a compelling, emotional story. The unskippable Labs study shows that longer video cuts (30-seconds and 2-minutes plus) increase brand favorability. An increased interest in a brand with the longer video allows more time to develop an emotional connection between the brand and the viewer.

Shorter ads, like 15-seconds, showed ad recall; however, they did not change a consumer’s mind in regards to liking a specific brand.



What is the Optimal Video Length for Engaging Viewers?

While the Unskippable Labs study measured videos up to around the 2-minute mark, another study conducted by Wistia concluded that the optimal length for a video is between 2 to 3-minutes. Engagement exponentially drops off after the 3-minute mark.

For best the optimal video best practices, it is best to keep your marketing video under 3-minutes. For brands that want to tell a story, the 2-3 minute video range is optimal without introducing the brand until after the 1-minute mark. For brands looking to halo their brand name and build brand recall, shorter videos, like 15-second videos, do well. 


Video is a fast-growing medium for marketers. The challenge is knowing the right amount of time a marketing video requires before viewer engagement falls-off. Studies show that the optimal video length for engaging videos is 2 to 3-minutes for brands looking to increase brand favorability amongst their viewers. Anything longer than 3-minutes, then viewer engagement drastically drops. Brands looking to increase brand recall do better with shorter videos that are 15-seconds.