Creating Online Videos That Engage Viewers

Many companies seek to create online video content that will become popular with consumers. But what are the characteristics of videos that engage consumers?

Reading Time: 14 min 


Permissions and PDF

The Holy Grail of modern online marketing is video content that “goes viral,” meaning that it captures an enormous number of views and leads audiences to share, comment or click that they “like” a video. Advertisers, marketing consultants and filmmakers have all ventured theories about what kind of content makes for a hit. The trouble is that the advice varies widely and is even contradictory. Depending on the expert, success is thought more likely if a video is humorous, shocking, dramatic, topical, warm, arousing, angry, scary, socially beneficial, cute, violent, sexy, uplifting, intriguing, quirky, interesting, authoritative, tear-jerking, educational, controversial or baby- and animal-filled.

One of the reasons for the wide range of recommendations is that researchers have often looked at only popular videos. For example, one study that tracked the distribution of videos on Facebook focused only on those that were shared most often, which meant that the researchers did not compare the most popular clips with the content almost no one saw. Nor have marketing scholars reached conclusions about the characteristics of other kinds of popular shared content, despite the vast amount of data now available. One of the more successful papers on viral messages,1 which looked at forwarding behavior in viral email marketing campaigns, suggested that many emotions can play a role, including surprise, joy, sadness and fear. Another study looked at the sharing of New York Times articles and found that still other emotional responses, such as awe and anxiety, also predicted sharing.2

To see if we could clarify some of the contradictions, we decided to take a different approach. Rather than catalog a hodgepodge of content elements found in popular videos, we examined a mix of popular and unpopular videos, then systematically coded and empirically tested the effect of each element on some relatively objective and observational measures of viewer engagement.

First, we gathered a data set of 750 YouTube videos that varied across a wide range of topic categories (including automotive, comedy, gaming and politics) and a wide range of success in gaining viewership. (See “About the Research.



1. While the following paper only considers successful (branded) viral marketing campaigns, it is a serious, systematic effort to understand why sharing occurs; see A. Dobele, A. Lindgreen, M. Beverland, J. Vanhamme and R. van Wijk, “Why Pass on Viral Messages? Because They Connect Emotionally,” Business Horizons 50, no. 4 (July-August 2007): 291-304.

2. J. Berger and K.L. Milkman, “What Makes Online Content Viral?,” Journal of Marketing Research 49, no. 2 (April 2012): 192-205.

3. See, for example, G. Fennell, “Attention Engagement,” Current Issues & Research in Advertising 2, no. 1 (1979): 17-33; and L. Shen and E. Bigsby, “Behavioral Activation/Inhibition Systems and Emotions: A Test of Valence vs. Action Tendency Hypotheses,” Communication Monographs 77, no. 1 (March 2010): 1-26.

4. See P.J. Silvia, “Interest: The Curious Emotion,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17, no. 1 (February 2008): 57-60; and J.L. Sherry, “Flow and Media Enjoyment,” Communication Theory 14, no. 4 (November 2004): 328-347.

5. A.P. McGraw and C. Warren, “Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny,” Psychological Science 21, no. 8 (2010): 1141-1149.

6. Invisible Children, “Kony 2012,” March 5, 2012,

7. L. Cano Mora, “All or Nothing: A Semantic Analysis of Hyperbole,” Revista de Lingüística y Lenguas Aplicadas 4 (October 2010): 25-35.

8. Awesome, “Dancing Baby,” 2010,

9. For a good discussion, see B.J. Calder, E.C. Malthouse and U. Schaedel, “An Experimental Study of the Relationship Between Online Engagement and Advertising Effectiveness,” Journal of Interactive Marketing 23, no. 4 (November 2009): 321-331.

10. R.G. Heath, “Emotional Engagement: How Television Builds Big Brands at Low Attention,” Journal of Advertising Research 49, no. 1 (2009): 62-73.

11. Business scholar A.J. Mills argues that the willingness to consume is highly related to the willingness to distribute — meaning sharing and views are likely to be positively correlated; see A.J. Mills, “Virality in Social Media: The SPIN Framework,” Journal of Public Affairs 12, no. 2 (May 2012): 162-169.

12. CNN, “Grumpy Cat Goes From Meme to the Big Screen,” May 30, 2013,

13. K. Nelson-Field, “Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing” (Victoria, Australia: Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand, 2013).

14. D. Hurwitz, “Watch: YouTube’s Most Popular Videos of 2012,” Dec. 21, 2012,

15. J.L. Hayes and K.W. King, “The Social Exchange of Viral Ads: Referral and Coreferral of Ads Among College Students,” Journal of Interactive Advertising 14, no. 2 (2014): 98-109; and J. Huang, S. Su, L. Zhou and X. Liu, “Attitude Toward the Viral Ad: Expanding Traditional Advertising Models to Interactive Advertising,” Journal of Interactive Marketing 27, no. 1 (February 2013): 36-46.

16. R.E. Guadagno, D.M. Rempala, S. Murphy and B.M. Okdie, “What Makes a Video Go Viral? An Analysis of Emotional Contagion and Internet Memes,” Computers in Human Behavior 29, no. 6 (November 2013): 2312-2319.

17. E. Botha, “A Means to an End: Using Political Satire to Go Viral,” Public Relations Review 40, no. 2 (June 2014): 363-374; and D. Southgate, N. Westoby and G. Page, “Creative Determinants of Viral Video Viewing,” International Journal of Advertising 29, no. 3 (2010): 349-368.

18. Botha provides no definition of creativity while Southgate, Westoby and Page define creativity in terms of involving and enjoyable (branded) content without explaining what these terms mean and how they differ from, for example, outcome measures of engagement. For example, one might argue watching a video is a measure of involvement, not an indicator of creativity.

19. AprilsAnimals, “Tiny Hamster Eating a Tiny Pizza,” May 7, 2014,

20. P. Eckler and P. Bolls, “Spreading the Virus: Emotional Tone of Viral Advertising and Its Effect on Forwarding Intentions and Attitudes,” Journal of Interactive Advertising 11, no. 2 (spring 2011): 72-83; Guadagno et al., “What Makes a Video Go Viral?”; and K. Nelson-Field, E. Riebe and K. Newstead, “The Emotions that Drive Viral Videos,” Australasian Marketing Journal 21, no 4 (November 2013): 205-211.

21. The results do, however, suggest some interesting research questions. For example, Nelson-Field, Riebe and Newstead suggest that sad videos may be shared more, whereas our data suggests sad videos are watched less. Between the two, there is a logical disconnect that bears examination. For example, could it be that if people knowingly receive a link to a sad video, most prefer not to watch it in order to maintain their mood?

i. The number of views does not reflect differences in viewership composition or social transmission (in other words, sharing). For example, it does not distinguish whether one person has viewed a video many times or whether many people have viewed a video only once.

Reprint #:


More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.