YouTube Virality, Is It Something You Can Make?

9 min read by tom 19 Oct 2015

Gone Viral

“Viral is one of the most overused buzzwords in the history of the web”
Kevin Allocca, YouTube Head of Culture and Trends


It’s somewhat indicative of how we consume media on a daily basis that YouTube is now the second largest search engine in the world, behind only it’s parent company Google. Every minute 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, and we can’t get enough of it. It’s no wonder then, that businesses are consistently using the platform as a way to reach their audience.

One of most common terms bandied about by YouTube users and audiences is that of ‘Viral’, and brands are in a constant quest to find the holy grail of viral content. But YouTube is it’s own world, with deep seated secrets that businesses have been desperately trying to decipher for some time now, so virality continues to prove an elusive goal. But is there a fix all solution to the problem of virality?

What Actually Is a Viral Video?

Let’s start in the obvious place. What is it that defines a viral video? The literal definition of the term viral (in the relevant context) is as follows.

viral (adjective)
2. (of an image, video, piece of information, etc.) circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another.


A fairly clear definition of the intent behind viral videos, absolutely. However, what is less clear is the quantitative nature of the words ‘rapidly’ and ‘widely’. Both terms are by their nature subjective, and where something as large as YouTube is concerned that leaves considerable room for interpretation.

In the world of video streaming, some videos naturally spread further than others, and this is very reliant on the interest of the audience. As an example, the video gaming industry is a hive of activity and gaming content equates for what is no doubt a large proportion of the content on YouTube. Illustrative of this fact is the following of YouTube’s most popular channel, PewDiePie, a somewhat chaotic and random gaming channel, run by YouTube celebrity, gamer and internet sensation, Felix Kjellberg who now boasts over 39million subscribers to his channel. As such, virality in the gaming industry can equate to millions and millions of views across the world, such as the reveal trailer for Star Wars Battlefront (20,951,602 views at the time of writing).

Conversely, there is an entire community of knitting enthusiasts on YouTube, who make up a far smaller portion of the user on YouTube. As such, the views that they would consider a successful return on uploading the video are far less, such as GillysCraftWorld’s video ‘Knitting Rib for Beginners’, which is currently at 339,132 views (a mere fraction of those boasted by Star Wars Battlefront).

The question is, is GillyCraftWorld’s video any less viral than the Star Wars Battlefront trailer?

All forms of content are subjective, so it really comes back to a question of intent. Whilst 20million views for a knitting video would be a nice statistic for the uploader, they are essentially meaningless if the viewers are not engaged with the product. As with all marketing techniques and platforms you must consider your goals and what success looks like for you. Establish at an early stage what viral looks like both for your industry and for your brand, otherwise virality will remain an elusive goal.

Some of the Finest (And Strangest) Viral Videos

But can you make virality? The question still has not been answered.

The truth is, in your hunt for the foolproof recipe, you may well be left in somewhat of a confused state. YouTube is its own wacky world, and is the best personification of what a strange species the internet generation really is. As such predicting what content might go viral is a somewhat of a pointless endeavour. YouTube content’s subject matter is both copious and varied.

In YouTube’s illustrious 10-year lifespan, cute videos have always been popular, and few have become as famous as ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’.

Of course, this young man wasn’t the only Charlie to be made famous by YouTube. The psychedelic ‘Charlie the Unicorn’ series perfectly illustrates just how strange the world of video streaming can get.

But YouTube’s ever growing audience base loves a little bit of strange. In 2012, little-known South Korean artist, Psy released the now internationally adored ‘Gangnam Style’, the pop star later being crowned the “Viral Star of 2012” and the “King of YouTube”. Gangnam Style was never going to be recognised as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever created, but its sheer wackiness was enough to see it become the first video to reach 2billion views, and lead to one of the most enduring dance crazes of the year.

Sometimes, these bizarre trends just caught our imagination. In 2013, the world was swept into the ‘Harlem Shake’ craze. Films crews, businesses and sports teams all got involved. See the 2012 and 2013 NBA Champion, Miami Heat’s take on the ‘Harlem Shake’.

Sometimes we were ‘Rick Rolled’…

And sometimes we were simply left in awe. On the 14th October 2012, Felix Baumgartner broke the record for the highest ever sky-dive on record, in the process becoming the first human to break the sound barrier outside of a vehicle. YouTube viewers watched in amazement as Baumgartner jumped from a helium balloon in the stratosphere.

What many people are not aware of is that Felix Baumgartner’s record has since been broken. However, without Red Bull’s viral outreach campaign, the event went mostly unnoticed by the general public.

If YouTube’s illustrious 10 year history proves anything, it is that you simply can’t make virality. You can however, identify the wants and needs of your target audiences and produce content to satisfy those needs. This gives you the best opportunity to get the desired results from your content, and on that rare occasion, achieve ‘virality’.

YouTube Production Best Practices

If we’re talking videos to the extend of the above, the recipe for virality is a step too far, but a recipe for YouTube best production practices is less of a challenge. All channels and audiences have their own specific expectations of the content that they consume, but from a generalised point of view, these golden rules can aid in the content production process.

1. Length

It’s a somewhat disappointing but important rule, that YouTube audiences typically have a short attention span and a video that stretches for longer than two minutes is an immediate turn off for viewers who have not actively searched for the content in question. Brands should typically aim to share their message within a timescale of a minute and a half to two minutes, with the ultimate goal being the retention of viewers for the entirety of the video’s duration.

2. Immediate Engagement

YouTube viewers will typically make up their minds as to how interesting content is within 20 seconds of the video’s beginning, thus this time is vital. Brands should be looking to make a bold statement in that time, something that will captivate their viewers for the rest of that video’s duration. Achieve this, and brands will retain their viewers beyond the initial viewing.

3. Call to Action

If brands can maintain a viewer for the entirety of a video, then their next action should be to turn that singular view into a regular viewer or customer. YouTube will do nothing to help channels maintain an audience, surrounding videos with adverts and links to other content and channels, so brands should include a call to action at the conclusion of a video, whether this be for users to subscribe or links to other videos that they have created. If the initial video captivates a viewer, they will be more likely to maintain an interest in a brand’s channel.

The moral of this story, is that brands should not get bogged down in the pursuit of virality, but instead focus on creating quality content that their audience wants to watching. If you can do that, the views will take care of themselves…although it always helps to budget for some advertising.

To discuss your social strategy, including YouTube marketing, get in touch with the StrategiQ team today.

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