Are there five characteristics of viral success?

14th July


Written by Eden Clayton


Are there five characteristics of viral success?

Just imagine if there was a sure-fire way of making sure your advert went viral? Just imagine how easy it would be if a set combination of characteristics and a step-by-step strategy guaranteed your firm success on the scale of Evian’s “Baby & Me” campaign. Lots of online blogs provide advice on how to achieve viral success; however, can it really be that simple? For an advert to go truly viral there are so many unfixed, external variables which companies have no control over so therefore it would appear quite difficult to pinpoint a winning combination. Instead, a better approach might be to analyse the characteristics of an advert which give you the highest chance of success. One article I read recently on suggested that the five key characteristics were: Universal Appeal; Short and Simple; Emotional Content; Actionable; Identifiable. This interested me. Whilst it’s easy to think of viral videos which fit separately into each different category, I preferred to take a look at the adverts which covered all bases. One great example is Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign which arguably ticks all five boxes, and which received almost 62 million views on Youtube in the first 9 months after being uploaded. However, like all phenomena’s in modern day marketing, the theory behind it is anchored in pre-existing literature, and so this article will try and analyse the logic behind Hongkiat’s 5 characteristics.

Universal Appeal

This one’s a no brainer really, maximise your potential audience as much as possible and therefore the chances are that the number of views your video receives will reflect this. That’s why it’s often best to avoid “Glocalization” when trying to go viral, try and make a video so that it can stretch across different markets and ensure that the message is fairly clear cut so as to avoid radically varied interpretation. Dove’s campaign worked because it appealed to women’s insecurity about their appearance, something which is disturbingly widespread in Western Society in particular, whereas the Kony 2012 campaign worked because it appealed to key feeling of justice and conscience that most humans feel. 

Short and Simple

This point is effectively two characteristics, however both points relate to attention and understanding. Whilst it is fairly obvious that a shorter message is best in terms of getting the point across, particularly in television advertising, this is not always the case when it comes to encouraging consumer to view and share videos online. A handy article by Unruly Media discusses how the Top Ten most shared videos of all time had an average length of 4 minutes 11 seconds, whereas the top 50 had an average of 2 minutes 54 seconds. It is worth noting that both of these figures exclude Kony 2012 as it is seen to be an anomaly, a one off event where the public were actually willing to view and share a film which was about half an hour long. Therefore (Kony aside) it seems important to keep the length to under 5 minutes, but at the same time long enough to actually express a message and make it interesting.

Clarity and simplicity is also a key issue, in order to be shared across borders your message as to be clear and comprehendible. An example of a campaign which lacks clarity is the “Like a Swede” campaign, which was produced by Swedish Trade Unions to promote their way of life compared to Americans but the message and goal is hard to understand for the average consumer.

Emotional Content

Emotional or emotive content is one of the strongest characteristics when constructing relationships between a brand and its consumers. It can build the consumer’s ego, making them feel more intelligent, confident or any other type of self-esteem related emotion which you wish to convey to order to get past its more practical usage and take on the role of a long term friend. Harley Davidson provides some of the best examples of this, encouraging a predominantly middle-age market to feel like Outlaws rebelling against the system and bureaucracy which controls the majority of them five days a week. Many such adverts have gone on to have viral success as their message has been shared.

One academic paper by Heath et al showed that consumers in both the USA and the UK displayed a favouritism for advertisements which displayed emotional creative content, the kind which is demonstrated particularly well by the like of Dove’s Real Beauty. It also refers to evidence that emotional messages are received and processed before regular pieces of information in the brain meaning that they are much more likely to have an immediate impact on the consumer. 


What do we mean when we say “Actionable”? In this case the author is referring to the characteristics of a Call to Action within a campaign, whether it be a charitable donation for a not-for-profit movement, a change in behaviour or something simpler, such as visiting a website. A paper by Parsons & Lepkowska-White showed that lots of print advertisements attempt to direct the consumer towards a website, however the presentation is usually unappealing. In the case of charities attempting to solicit donations, another paper by Small and Verrochi found that images displaying sad expressions were most likely to encourage action from consumers, which is also another example of the power of emotional content, and are therefore more likely to be successful. Social behavioural advertisements aimed at tackling binge drinking and substance abuse are excellent examples which often tend to display cause, effect and potential support in concise but striking messages.

In terms of online advertisements specifically, one study found that those with a direct call to action would increase purchase intention by 1.1% whereas those that didn’t only increased the figure by 0.8%. Time-based messages were generally found to be the most effective calls to action across five key brand measures such as awareness.

Identifiable & Relatable

In practise the key to ensuring that consumers identify with a message is to understand your audience. This is becoming increasingly easy in the modern with social media allowing two-way interaction between the firm and their market, which also allows for firms to monitor responses to different actions. If an advert is to become a viral success, then what marketers have to understand is that when Social Media users share links and videos they are using it to portray a branch of their own character to their friends and therefore it is just as much a case of the “Extended Self” concept as buying a Harley Davidson or wearing Jack Wills. An individual’s facebook page has become much more than a website, it is the process of constructing an image of oneself which is portrayed to a wider audience. In the same way that people carefully choose profile and cover photos they consider the videos and articles they share. Amusing advertisements reflect how they want their sense of humour to be seen, whereas as one of the characteristics leading to the viral success of Kony 2012 was arguably that individuals wanted to be seen as altruist or caring, particularly when it seemed the popular thing to do at the time, and the so the film was shared again and again.


To summarise there is no fixed recipe to guarantee your video viral success, however there is certainly an academic anchor in these five characteristics and therefore perhaps there is some truth in. Whilst it is understandably difficult to incorporate all five aspects there are certainly combinations of perhaps three or four points which can be used relatively easily, and hopefully with some degree of success. If possible, try to make your advertisement striking, memorable, enticing and touching simultaneously.


Academic Journals

Ahuvia, A. C. (2005). Beyond the extended self: Loved objects and consumers’ identity narratives. Journal of consumer research, 32(1), 171-184.

Belk (2013) “Extended self in the digital world” Journal of Consumer Research. 40 (3) p.477-500.

Casswell, S., & Thamarangsi, T. (2009). “Reducing harm from alcohol: call to action.” The Lancet, 373(9682), 2247-2257.

Giannini (2012) “Deep understanding of your audience can make Twitter fly” Media Industry Newsletter 65 (19)

Goodman (2011) “Choosing the right call to action to get your desired response” New Media Age. P.9.

Heath et al (2006) “Brand Relationships: Strengthened by Emotion, Weakened by Attention” Journal of Advertising Research. Sourced at (10th February 2014)

Lin-Healy, F., & Small, D. A. (2012). Cheapened altruism: Discounting personally affected prosocial actors. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 117(2), 269-274.

Parsons, A. L., & Lepkowska-White, E. (2010). Web Site References in Print Advertising: An Analysis of Calls to Action. Journal of Internet Commerce, 9(3-4), 151-163.

Small, D. A., & Verrochi, N. M. (2009). The face of need: Facial emotion expression on charity advertisements. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(6), 777-787.

Zhao, S., Grasmuck, S., & Martin, J. (2008). Identity construction on Facebook: Digital empowerment in anchored relationships. Computers in human behavior, 24(5), 1816-1836.

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