What Makes A Video “Viral”?

"Viral video" is one of those buzz words that gets thrown around a lot but nobody is really sure what it means. I mean, what exactly constitutes a viral video? In this post we’ll deal with a number of factors that relate to whether or not a video is viral, including viewership, buzz, parody and longevity.

“Viral video” is one of those buzz words that gets thrown around a lot but nobody is really sure what it means.  I mean, what exactly constitutes a viral video?  How many views does it need to be considered “viral”?  How quickly does it have to rise in viewership?  In this post we’ll deal with a number of factors that relate to whether or not a video is viral, including viewership, buzz, parody and longevity.


Let’s deal with the question of views first.  In a recent blog post, YouTube weblebrity Kevin Nalty, aka Nalts, asks the question “How many views do you need to be viral?”  He says, “A few years ago, a video could be considered “viral” if it hit a million views.”  But Nalts is updating that definition.  He says, “A video, I submit, is “viral” if it gets more than 5 million views in a 3-7 day period.”  As an example, he offers up President Obama’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner comedy routine, which has now been viewed over 7.2 million times since it was uploaded on April 30.  Another recent “viral” hit would be ‘Ultimate Dog Tease’, a hilarious talking dog video that has been viewed over 10 million times since May 1.

Of course, reserving the title of “viral” for videos that have 5 million plus views may seem a little bit strict to some.  After all, I’m sure that most brands and YouTubers would be more than ecstatic with 1 million views, and even with a “mere” 500,000.  But I like Nalts’ new stringent definition.  After all, in the grand scheme of things, one million really isn’t very much.

The videos that pull in one million views and then level off aren’t the videos that are remembered.  It’s the videos that accrued 5 million, 6 million or 20 million within a couple of weeks that we remember—the video of Baby Emerson, scared of his mom’s nose, that has been viewed over 17.2 million times since March 2011; the original Double Rainbow video; and Charlie Schmidt’s Keyboard Cat.  These are the big sharks—the videos that draw in millions in a short time and just keep on growing—these are the videos that come to mind when we think of the term “viral video”.


Of course, views aren’t the only things that determine whether or not a video is “viral”.  There’s got to be a lot of buzz around the video aswell.  Viral videos are the talk of the town—garnering coverage on popular blogs, rising to the top of sites like Reddit, being Tweeted and posted to Facebook, and even covered on the evening news.

Nalts writes, “Part of what makes a video “viral” is not just the views but the degree of discussion online and offline (media).  Here we get into a “chicken and the egg” issue, since the video’s viral nature may prompt “coverage”, which inspires even more views.”

Many of the most popular viral videos started with a simple tweet and the buzz just spread from there.  For instance, the original Double Rainbow video went viral after Jimmy Kimmel tweeted about it and started a buzz in social media and beyond.  In no time the Double Rainbow guy, Paul Vasquez, was a viral hero and overnight viral sensation.

The great video below from Rocketboom’s Know Your Meme does a great job of explaining the buzz that grew around Double Rainbow in days.


There’s an old saying that imitation is the best form of flattery.  Imitation is also one of the best measures of whether or not a video has gone viral.  When people remix, re-cut, copy, auto-tune and re-create your video you know that it’s a hit.  Check out the following posts that roundup the best parodies of some of the most viral videos out there:

Top 10 Double Rainbow Parodies…OMG…So Intense

Top 10 Old Spice Parodies On YouTube

10 Christine O’Donnell Parodies: I’m Not a Witch, I’m You

Top 10 Bed Intruder Song Covers

10 YouTube Tributes To Unemployed Winner Charlie Sheen


Longevity is another great sign of a viral video.  What do I mean by longevity?  Basically, that the video is remembered for a long time to come.  Some videos fade out as time passes and we forget about them just as quickly as they went viral.  Others, on the other hand, stick with us.

It has been nearly a year since Jimmy Kimmel first tweeted about the Double Rainbow video and people are still making Double Rainbow jokes on a regular basis.  Charlie Sheen’s ridiculous Good Morning America interview is sure to have fans calling things “Winning” and joking about Tigers Blood for months, if not years, to come.  178 million views and 5 years after its upload, the infamous ‘Hahaha’ baby is still adorable, and the adorable ‘Surprised Kitty’ will never go out of style.  When a video stands the test of time it can truly be considered “viral”.

What factors do you think contribute to a video becoming viral?  Let us know in the comments below!

Megan O’Neill is the resident web video enthusiast here at Social Times.  Megan covers everything from the latest viral videos to online video news and tips, and has a passion for bizarre, original and revolutionary content and ideas.