The Essential Component of Viral Videos

Hundreds of hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. As marketers, we often wonder why only a tiny percentage of those uploads go viral. We lament why it never seems to be one of ours.

There’s an easy answer: Most videos on YouTube are nothing special!

So how do you make your video less boring so people want to watch it, share it with their friends, and, even better (for search engine optimization), link to it and to the video producer’s website?

In short, make it remarkable — “worth remarking about,” to use Seth Godin’s definition.

If there’s nothing to remark about, then the video goes nowhere. No shares, no favorites, no likes, no links, and no “watch time,” which is a key metric for success, according to YouTube.

The shortest path to remarkability is a hook. Yet, instead, most viral marketers focus on gimmicks. It’s not the gimmicky videos that go viral. It’s the ones with a powerful hook. Gimmicks are just icing on the cake, and are usually not even necessary.

Hook vs. Gimmick

A hook is distinct from a gimmick, though many confuse the two.

A hook is an idea, argument, or story that will create a reaction in the audience — for example, a love story between a man and a robot that provokes people to think about what it means to be human. It’s an angle.

It’s also how you land a television appearance or convince a newspaper to cover your company. Without a hook, the producer and the journalist aren’t likely interested in your pitch.

There are different kinds of hooks: newsworthy hook, utility hook, controversy hook, humor hook, and emotional hook, to name a few. A hook grabs the attention of potential viewers. It draws them in. It gives them something to talk about. And their spreading of it is in their own self-interest.

A gimmick is a trick that attracts attention via novelty. But it’s not especially powerful or useful. Some of the most overused gimmicks for viral video wannabes are special effects — such as stop motion photography, time lapse, slow motion, and drone photography. These can add spice to an already remarkable video, but rarely does a gimmick by itself make a video go viral. That’s not to say it never happens. Gimmick videos do occasionally go viral, but generally the gimmick must be extreme or outlandish for this to happen, or include other elements of remarkability that contribute to its virality.

To illustrate, contrast two viral video campaigns: one that relies on a hook, “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman,” and one that relies on a gimmick, “Towers Collapsing in Slow Motion.” Both rely on time distortion: hours condensed into minutes. But only one takes the viewer on a powerful emotional journey.

’10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman’


“10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” shows a woman being harassed and catcalled for simply walking down the street. It is, unfortunately, a common experience. The appeal of this video, for women, is clear. Certainly it’s an emotional issue. But the video also gives women a powerful reason to share it: It’s proof that this type of behavior is shockingly routine. With the video, women can demonstrate what they experience every day.

Men could also have a strong reaction to the video that motivates sharing. They may be against this type of behavior, or they may feel that the video is misrepresentative of men, and respond defensively.

Despite this, the powerful premise sparked a massive debate in the mainstream media, inspiring many opinion pieces, and dozens of copycat and parody videos. As of this writing, the original video has received over 45 million views — for something that was made in a couple of days, likely for a few hundred dollars.

The concept itself isn’t doing all the work, admittedly. The editing enhances the premise: Due to the quick cuts, it only takes a few seconds to get the point. Then, once the basic premise is established, variations are introduced to keep viewers watching, such as a man who walks silently alongside the subject for several minutes.

For most viewers, the result is shocking and unsettling.

‘Towers Collapsing in Slow Motion’


To attract attention, “Towers Collapsing in Slow Motion” relies on a single gimmick: slow motion. It has received over 8 million views at the time of writing. While the gimmick of this video is interesting, we also see a number of other elements in play.

First, a charismatic host provides useful information about slow motion photography interjected with humor. Second, the video features quick editing to keep viewers engaged, along with eerie music that adds an emotional element. Third, what’s being blown up is surprising and remarkable: cooling towers from a nuclear power plant.

“Towers Collapsing” embellishes the slow motion gimmick with a hook that mesmerizes the viewer.

The Essential Component

When used effectively both gimmicks and hooks can increase the chances of your video going viral. However, it’s important to distinguish the two and their relative impact.

The hook is the leading actor. The gimmick plays only a supporting role.

On its own, a gimmick is unlikely to result in a viral hit, but when combined with a powerful hook, it can create magic.

Thus always start with the hook. It’s the essential component of viral videos. Without it, your video will likely languish, forever.

Stephan Spencer
Stephan Spencer
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