Study Reveals What Makes Videos Go Viral

Mar 19, 2019

Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” is one of the most viewed video ads ever (50 million in a year) because it was virally shared. The question that has baffled advertisers and analysts is, what drives the sharing of digital content?

USC Marshall professors, Gerard J. Tellis and Deborah MacInnis, with colleagues Seshadri Tirunillai and Wayne Zhang, conducted a comprehensive analysis on what types of ads are shared most on YouTube plus popular media platforms like Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The paper is forthcoming in the peer-reviewed academic outlet, Journal of Marketing (Tellis, Gerard J, Debbie MacInnis, Seshadri Tirunillai and Wayne Zhang, “Drivers of Virality of Online Content: The Case of YouTube Videos,” Journal of Marketing, forthcoming).

Studying more than 60 characteristics of ads, the authors found that the most highly shared ads are emotional, generating specific positive emotions like inspiration, warmth, excitement, and amusement. Just as important, these emotionally-evocative ads were story-like. They had a plot and interesting, attention-getting characters like celebrities, babies and animals. Importantly, the plot including surprising elements.

In contrast, prominent brand names hurt sharing. The probable reason is that prominent brand names disrupt the evolving storyline while making the message appear commercial.

Highly shared ads were also just over a minute in length; long enough to tell the story, without being so long as to strain viewers’ attention. Counterintuitively, information in ads hurt sharing, probably because such ads are dry and uninteresting.

Does this mean that marketers shouldn’t make ads that are information (vs. emotional)? Generally, yes. However, the researchers found some exceptions. Informational ads are shared more when products are new and when the product has a high price tag. The researchers speculate that informational ads are shared in these unique circumstances because they convey facts that reduce purchase risks. Informational ads also induced more sharing on professional platforms like LinkedIn vs. on more entertainment-based platforms like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, where emotions work best.

Ironically, the researchers found that those characteristics of ads that are most shared are least likely to be used by advertisers. Advertisers still use information more than emotion, display the brand name too prominently, create ads that are too long or too short, and use costly celebrities more than authentic characters such as babies and animals. Thus, the research has important implications for advertisers.

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