Emerging Trends in Viral Video and the Implications for Advertising

As part of our work at GeniusRocket, a D.C. startup that crowdsources creative content, we researched some of the trends in viral video (as of July 2008) that confirmed certain assumptions and challenged several widely held beliefs.

After looking at the 1) Top 50 Viral Videos of the Year, 2) Top 50 YouTube Videos in a Typical Day, and 3) Top 50 Viral Ads of the Year, we can share some insights that are useful whether you are a Brand Manager or have ambitions to be the next Tay Zonday.

Top 50 Viral Videos of the Year: 5 Lessons
#1: The most viral content is usually corporate content.
#2: The most viral content is posted on hundreds of blogs.
#3: The most viral content is usually OVER 1 minute in length.
#4: The most viral content occurs in the following categories (by frequency): 1. Music 2. Ads 3. Politics 4. Comedy 5. Animals 6. Sexy 7. Tech 8. Strange
#5: The thumbnails of the most viral videos nearly always depict humans (particularly faces), not objects.

These results undermine some of the conventional wisdom about viral videos. First, it contradicts the stereotype that viral hits are the mysterious province of webcam diarists. Indeed, the most viral videos are dominated by the film and music industries, and a few savvy companies like Dove, Sony, Honda, and Cadbury. Second, viral videos are not that short. The fact that these videos typically exceed a minute in length validate the credo that “content is king.” Third, advertisements are among the most common genres in the viral video space.

These lessons pertain to the most viral of videos. However, it remains possible that focusing on the top 1000 viral videos instead of the top 50 would yield different results. For example, perhaps the ratio of UGC videos would increase, the average length of videos would decrease and the most popular genres would skew more toward parodies, pranks, tech, and news. One way to examine the long-tail of viral videos is to look at the Top 50 most viewed videos on YouTube in a given day.

Top 50 Most Viewed Videos on Youtube On A Typical Day: 5 Lessons Revisited
#1: Unlike the most viral content, the most viewed daily YouTube videos are just as likely to be UGC as corporate content.
#2: The median number of comments on the most viewed daily YouTube videos is about 1000 (ranging from 0 to over 20,000 comments).
#3: Like the most viral content, the most viewed daily YouTube videos are usually OVER 1 minute in length.
#4: Similar to the most viral content, the most viewed daily YouTube videos occurred in these categories (by frequency): 1. Music 2. Cool 3. Funny 4. Ads 5. Sexy 6. Sports 7. Other
#5: Like the most viral content, the most viewed daily YouTube videos usually use thumbnails of humans.

Top 50 Viral Ads of the Year: 5 Final Lessons
#1: While corporate content dominates advertising, it often takes its cues from UGC.
#2: More than half of the top viral ads were one minute or more in duration, representing a shift away from the 30- second spot for online advertising.
#3: The most viral ads occurred in the following sub-genres (by frequency): 1. Cool 2. Funny/Parody (one ad was unintentionally funny). 3. Celebrity 4. Politics 5. Other
#4: Unlike other viral content, the most viral ads feature thumbnails of objects (rather than people) about 30% of the time.
#5: The most viral ads feature disconnected content almost as often as heavily-branded content.

Despite the fact that advertising is, not surprisingly, dominated by companies, it often takes its cues from UGC. For example, one Schweppes ad is reminiscent of older slow-motion viral videos and a Smirnoff Ice ad is similar to a tradition of user-generated rap video spoofs.

Interestingly, at least a dozen of the top 50 viral ads reference Apple, as a parody (e.g. Conan iPhone commercial), a prop to generate interest (e.g. Will It Blend), or of course, as a commercial made for Apple. Indeed, Apple has the added distinction on this list of being the only company to have a user-generated on-message viral ad (created by Nick Haley, and re-shot with Apple).

Several companies, particularly Sony, are clearly taking advantage of the potential for video ads to exceed the constraints of the traditional 30-second spot. These companies are not only creating long-form content, but some are also creating this content exclusively for online advertising. Most importantly, companies are creating a significant amount of “disconnected” content – content that is inherently interesting even without the eventual (and often subtle) injection of branding.

This validates a viral strategy of creating compelling content, with less regard for time constraints or brand-centric messaging than traditional advertising dictates.

For more figures, watch the slideshow.

Michael Mossoba is a community manager for GeniusRocket, a DC-based startup that crowdsources creative content to a community of thousands of artists from over 80 countries. Founded in 2007, GeniusRocket has delivered cutting-edge content and social media strategy to a wide variety of clients from non-profits and startups to Fortune 500 companies like Heinz and Pepsi.