Why Some Videos Go Viral, According to the Internet’s Video Queen


A pioneer of social video content, Sarah Wood cofounded marketing technology company Unruly in 2005, just months after YouTube launched. She had a hunch that online video would become an important part of the advertising and media landscape. To say her hunch was right is an understatement:

Today Facebook drives over 8 billion video views per day, a rate that surpasses even YouTube, and experts predict that online video may account for 80 percent of global Internet traffic by 2019. Unruly has been there to ride the wave, growing from a three-person office in an abandoned London brewery to a company in 14 countries with over 200 employees who deliver groundbreaking social video campaigns for brands such as T-Mobile, Evian, and Dove.

But with all the content out there, how do you create videos that get noticed? Sarah says the first rule of thumb is to focus on emotions. “One of the key factors in creating highly shareable content is eliciting the strongest possible emotional responses from your audience,” she says. Professional video creators can sometimes get wrapped up in craft or technical details and lose sight of their story. Even an amateurish-looking video can have a tremendous impact if there’s a strong emotional story.

Sarah’s metric for powerful, emotional storytelling is if it elicits some type of physical reaction from the viewer: “Tears, laughter, goosebumps, and gasps are all good,” she says.

An affecting emotional story will carry resonance with viewers that extends beyond the few minutes they spend watching it. “Online videos are a powerful social currency,” Sarah says. People increasingly use online videos as conversation starters and forms of personal expression, and they choose to share the videos that reflect well on them by representing values they consider important. Dove Real Beauty Sketchesis a powerful example of a campaign that evoked strong emotional reactions—its positive message of self-empowerment inspired millions of people around the world to share the video along with their personal testimonials about body-image issues.

“Videos that elicit strong emotions from an audience are twice as likely to be shared,” Sarah says.

Video creators should also be mindful of which content platform suits their stories best. Online video doesn’t just mean the web anymore, and apps like Vine, Snapchat, and Periscope all have their own unique audiences and cultures. On a platform like Vine, the best brands and creators are “not just using it as a six-second YouTube,” Sarah says. Creators like Zach King, Pinot, and Jethro Ames take advantage of the platform’s time restraints to create quirky videos that rely on stunts and mind-bending visual elements to tell a story quickly. Meanwhile Snapchat plays host to home-grown video that provides brief glimpses into real life and Periscope allows video to be broadcast in real-time, putting the focus on personality and story instead of post-production editing.

As the market gets more crowded, it’s important for brands and creators alike to not only create compelling content, but to nail distribution. “One of the biggest mistakes creators make when they are launching a video online is this idea that if it’s good content it will somehow rise to the surface; it will go viral. There’s so much content in our social feeds these days, viewers are suffering from ‘content shock.’ Work with your audience and creative community so that as many people as possible feel invested in the success of your content.”

In such a rapidly shifting industry, it’s also important to stay on top of shifting trends. Sarah sees a huge opportunity in virtual reality and 360-degree video, in which users take control of their own view of the story. She says we’ll soon see 360-degree videos, such as Google’s Spotlight Stories, “taking hold and affording opportunities for more immersive, user-controlled storytelling.” Considering Sarah’s strong record forecasting Internet trends, this is a prediction you can take to the bank.

For more Sarah Wood wisdom, watch 9 viral video myths:

The Future of StoryTelling (FoST) explores how storytelling is evolving in the digital age. http://www.fost.org