Stranger Things: The Viral Video Phenomena

The History of Viral Video
Here’s everything you need to know about the whats, whys, and hows of viral video marketing

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Going viral is undoubtedly the Holy Grail of modern marketing. Marketers and brands from around the globe constantly hunt for the perfect formula, and the fact that nobody reading this needs an explanation of what the term “going viral” means shows why. Viral video marketing is a bonafide phenomenon of the 21st century.

Here’s everything you need to know about the whats, whys, and hows of viral video marketing. Whether you’re looking to create the next big thing or simply wish to further your understanding of the concept, this advice should provide some clarity.

The History Of Viral Video Marketing

For many people, the term viral video only entered their vocabulary after the explosion of social media as well as the success of YouTube. However, the concept can be dated back a little further than Valentine’s Day 2004. 

In truth, viral videos have been an integral feature of online interactions from the late 1990s. Before then, bandwidth speeds and other limitations meant that uploading and watching videos were difficult. However, the very late 20th century and infancy of the 21st century produced a number of viral videos. While many of them (such as ‘Badger, Badger, Badger’ and ‘Star Wars Kid’) had no marketing links behind them, it soon opened the eyes of digital marketing teams to the online opportunities.

Star Wars Kid

While video marketing was nothing new, dating back to the birth of commercial television, the idea of using online videos to grow brand awareness was very much a concept that gained huge traction once YouTube launched. Nike’s Ronaldinho advert became the first to reach 1 million views, and many other companies tried to follow suit while Google bought the video sharing platform largely on the back of the viral video marketing possibilities. Their $1.65 billion investment is now worth over $90 billion, so it wasn’t a bad move at all.

Nike’s Ronaldinho advert became the first to reach 1 million views

As well as professionally made viral videos, brands realized that amateur viral content could be hugely profitable too. One of the most memorable early examples came courtesy of a Doritos SuperBowl XLI competition in which fans sent in their videos with the winners having their ad showed on TV in the most valuable timeslot of the year.

MySpace, Bebo, and early social media platforms allowed or videos to be shared, but the interactions between brands and consumers reached a whole new level once the modern social media platforms of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat hit the market. This, combined with content curation sites that focus on distributing the latest viral videos to their audience, now enable the best videos to rack up millions of views in a matter of hours.

Well over a billion views

Why Are Viral Videos So Popular?

The rapid growth of viral videos and viral marketing is far from being a stroke of luck. The popularity is a reflection of changing human habits. There are number of key elements to consider, including but not limited to:

#1 People retain video info

The average person retains 95% of the info seen on video compared to just 10% of what they read. This shows that the impact of viral videos is far greater than other forms of marketing, which shows why marketing teams prioritize this media.

#2 People prefer watching videos on their smartphones

Over 60% of modern users prefer watching online content than TV. Moreover, our need for on-demand content and the fact that our phones provide it even on the go makes a huge difference. We also have the control to close an ad campaign that we don’t love.

#3 People enjoy the interaction

Videos go viral because people send them to friends and family. Social media, group messaging, and other digital communications make this easier than ever before. The fact that users can interact with brands and other fans is vital too.

#4 People are used to amateur footage

Video production has become incredibly more accessible while films like The Blair Witch Project introduced audiences to watching videos that might not be as technically sound as the latest multi-billion dollar film (or multi-million ad campaign).

#5 People are constantly online

Around 3.5 billion people are active on social media while the average person is on those platforms for over 2 hours per day. That’s a lot of time to watch videos. Algorithms ensure that viral videos are shown more frequently too.

#6 People love the range of content

TV adverts cost a lot of money, which is why brands tend to take far fewer risks and say far less about themselves and far more about the products. The flexibility of online viral videos, regarding content and duration, makes for greater quality.

What Do We Like Watching?

One of the big questions facing all modern marketers, then, is “what type of content goes viral?”. This is a difficult question to answer, and it’s true that a little luck goes a long way – especially for brands trying to build their online reputation. 

Nonetheless, one of the main reasons that people love viral video content is that it feels less explicit in its promotion of products. However, this isn’t the only key feature. Finding the right type of content is crucial. Here are the key ingredients in the recipe for success.


As already touched upon just above, the sense of realism is vital for viral. This is why amateur videos often perform exceptionally well. Brands that actually focus on telling their stories and connecting with customers rather than screaming “buy this product” achieve far greater things on the digital marketplace. That’s not to say traditional video ads can’t be successful online; they just won’t have the share factor.

The growth of social influencers feeds into this idea too.


Take a quick look at your favourite social media platform or video sharing site, and you’ll notice that it’s awash with animal videos. Some, like this Google Android Ad, will be used as marketing campaigns while others won’t. Either way, we’ve all spent hours looking through funny home animal clips. Likewise, professionally shot videos that tell a story about an animal can grab our attention with stunning outcomes.

That’s 30 million views!

Everyone loves an animal clip.


Perhaps one of the worst mistakes that any marketer makes revolves around being too generic. Knowing your audience is the key to resonating with them. With almost 8 billion people on the planet, you don’t need to appeal to everyone. Using the shared interests of the target market can be one of the best ways to accomplish the marketing goals. After all, viral videos for marketing are different from other viral videos because their end goal is to generate conversions.

When it feels as though the video has been made for them, audiences will respond better.


We browse social media to hopefully feel good about ourselves, and laughter is the best medicine. Prank videos often go viral but genuine humor that shows the brand personality is the best route for brands. The Dollar Shave Club campaign was a particularly successful example, but there are plenty of other companies that use the digital arena to show their personality through video. They can then leave their more explicit promotions to TV or printed media.

Most people will share a clip that’ll make their friends laugh too.


Video is a powerful media tool that can pull at our heartstrings and leave a lasting impact, perhaps like no other solution. This GoPro campaign highlights this to perfection while also underlining the fact that amateur footage can still gain a lot of hits and popularity. The relatively recent Gillette campaign that touched upon gender equality was perhaps a bigger success than any other video they’ve released.

If a clip makes the user sit back and think “wow”, it’ll translate to huge brand awareness. And shares.

Does Real Versus Staged Matter?

While videos should be authentic in their message, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be real. Naturally, a lot of humorous videos are staged. Not only are they still memorable, but they also produce an extra conversation. The Kobe Bryant jumping over an Aston Martin Nike campaign is one of the more famous ones, but virtually all stunt videos and prank videos are open to scrutiny.

The truth is that there’s nothing more incredible than the truth and reality, especially when looking to inspirational stories. Moreover, they stand out particularly well in the overly edited modern digital age. Which is best between real or staged? Honestly, there are arguments for both sides of the argument.


Viral videos are, by definition, popular with the masses. For brands, then, finding the next viral campaign can be the key to reaching new audiences and building stronger connections with the existing clients. Better still, once you have established a name for creating great viral content, viewers will actively wait in anticipation. 

There is no one set right or wrong way to handle viral video, and many of the most successful campaigns are those that try something new. However, appreciating how and why audiences respond to viral campaigns can only help. You now have an understanding of the digital history; now is the time to create a brighter (if slightly strange) future!

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