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Gerard J. Tellis, PhD, Deborah J. MacInnis, PhD, Seshadri Tirunillai, PhD, and Yanwei Zhang, PhD

A Super Bowl Bud ad of a puppy’s charming romance with a Clydesdale pony went viral, racking up more than 60 million views on YouTube. This was an organic ad that the advertiser freely uploaded on YouTube, without forced audience viewing. Such YouTube views get far more viewer engagement than TV ads because they are voluntary, not forced exposure. As such, virality is the new ad currency. We have found that the key driver of virality is sharing of videos. That bring up the next question: what drives sharing?

screenshot of YouTube pageTo answer this question, we conducted two independent studies with YouTube video ads that tested 11 emotions and over 60 ad characteristics. The two independent studies produced consistent results. We found that information-focused content had a negative impact on sharing except when products were new or high in price. On the other hand, emotion-focused content was an important driver of ad sharing. Those video ads that induced positive emotions, like inspiration, excitement and amusement or induced feelings of warmth were highly effective at enhancing sharing. To arouse emotions, ads used elements like drama, surprising plot, and appealing characters (e.g., celebrities, babies, animals) to foster positive emotions. Ads that had strong commercial content, such as those that were showed the brand name early or frequently in the ad, induced less sharing.

Understanding Your Audience

Why do (or don’t) viewers share the type of content described above? We hypothesized that the reasons are tied to previously studied motivations for sharing content.  Often, consumers share content for self-serving motivations—that is, because they want to help themselves.  For example, consumers might want to look good in the eyes of others by sharing content that is informative or emotionally evocative or because they want others to reciprocate by sharing content that they enjoy or find valuable. Beyond self-serving motivations, individuals also share content to feel included in a group. By being part of a group with whom content is shared, individuals can socialize with others and learn from them. Finally, they can share content because they want to help others—i.e., for altruistic reasons.

How to Make a Viral Video: The Three Types of Content  

To be more specific about our findings, we observed that ads with heavy amounts of informational content typically have voice-overs or narrators who argue in favor of or share facts about a product. We expect that most viewers find this content dry and boring, so they are not likely to share it. However, when an individual is considering a large purchase, such as a new home, informational content can positively impact sharing. Information-focused content also results in increased sharing when a product is new or unfamiliar to consumers. Consumers might share such content because they want their friends to know that they are “in the know” about the product, and they also want to protect their friends from making an uninformed purchase.

If an ad arouses discrete positive emotions like warmth, love, pride, and joy, it has a greater chance of going viral. Sharing such content is consistent with the motivations for self-enhancement and social engagement. The best way to produce these emotions in viewers is to use dramatic elements in the ad rather than a third-party narrator; for example, use vivid and relatable characters engage in a captivating plot. The key elements of a good drama are characters and a plot that reaches a climax and ends in a pleasant surprise. Characters who are appealing, have similar traits and concerns as the audience, and are endearing can evoke positive emotions because viewers can see themselves in the drama. A plot engages viewers of the ad, in a way that informational content cannot provide. Babies, animals, and cartoons are appealing characters because they are intrinsically appealing to people. Celebrities elicit positive emotions and are likable, but the price tag for the ad will be much higher. Whereas celebrities are attention-getting characters, the use of babies and animals may be more authentic and cost-efficient for advertisers.We did not find that negative emotions like shame, sadness, and anger resulted in significantly greater sharing. One reason is that such negative emotions were uncommon in the sample of ads that comprised the studies.  

The old mantra in advertising was to maximize brand name. Whereas the advertiser wants consumers to remember their brand name, making the brand highly prominent in the ad reduced sharing. Brand prominence can limit the effects of dramatization in the ad by disrupting the flow of the story and the relatability of the characters, negating the positive effects of those elements on sharing. Additionally, viewers might not share ads that prominently feature the brand name because they worry that those with whom they share content believe the sharer is spamming the shared other with an ad message. This inference goes against a self-serving motivation. Our study found that the best place to reference the brand is a short moment at the very end of the ad.

Our study found that the optimal length for a YouTube ad is between 1.2 and 1.7 minutes. This is expected because this is the amount of time needed to make a meaningful connection with the audience through storytelling, but not so much time that attention wanes.

Final Thoughts

stylized photo of hands framing a youtube frameGenerating a viral video is the new currency on the web. Our research indicates that virality is driven primarily by shares of videos. Bu what drives sharing? Our research reveals that sharing is not a matter of luck or art. It can be ascertained by scientific research. In particular, ads that arouse positive emotions through drama with limited brand prominence and informational content have the greatest potential for virality. However, information can be helpful if the ad is for a product that is new and/or expensive, but too much factual narration may decrease sharing. Effective drama has a captivating plot, likable, authentic characters such as babies or cute animals instead of expensive celebrities. Plot consists of a series of interwoven events that reach a climax and ends with a surprising solution.

Real estate brokers need to implement these tactics when uploading video ads on YouTube that are shared across social media like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Purchasing a home is a high-risk situation. This means that viewers will want informational content in the ad, but not at the expense of emotional content. Consider information about the current state of the housing market or the parts of the home-buying process with which new homebuyers may not be familiar. Tell the story of a relatable character interacting with your agents to find their dream home. Portray your agents giving a family some peace of mind and a happily-ever-after. There is no need for Hollywood—instead, give the family puppy a cameo. Place your brand briefly and at the very end while you can still hear mom singing a lullaby to a happy baby in his/her new nursery. Give information for the high-risk purchase. Communicate positive feelings of warmth, pride, and joy. Use cute characters with minimal brand prominence. Then sit back and watch your ad go viral.

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Recommended Reading

Gerard, Tellis J., Deborah J. MacInnis, Seshadri Tirunillai, and Yanwei Zhang (2019), “What Drives Virality (Sharing) of Online Digital Content? The Critical Role of Information Emotion, and Brand Prominence,” Journal of Marketing, 83(4), 1-20.

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About the Authors

Gerard J. Tellis, PhD
Director of the Institute for Outlier Research in Business and Professor of Marketing, University of Southern California
Dr. Gerard Tellis (PhD – University of Michigan) teaches marketing, management, and organization. He holds the Neely Chair of American Enterprise, is Director of the Institute for Outlier Research, and is the Director of the Center for Global Innovation at the USC Marshall School of Business. He has published seven books and over 200 papers. He is the president-elect of ISMS and has served an Associate Editor of Marketing Science and the Journal of Marketing Research. Dr. Tellis is also a Research Fellow at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, UK and a Distinguished Professor of Marketing Research at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Deborah J. MacInnis, PhD
Charles L. and Romana I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Marketing, University of Southern California
Dr. Deborah MacInnis’ (PhD – University of Pittsburgh) research interests include the role of emotions in consumer behavior and branding. She has been awarded the Journal of Marketing’s Alpha Kappa Psi and Maynard Awards for papers that make the greatest contribution to marketing thought. She has served as the Co-Editor and Associate Editor for the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Dr. MacInnis has also served as the Vice Dean of Research and Strategy and the Vice Dean of Undergraduate Programs at USC Marshall School of Business. She has published research in the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing: Special Issue on Eminent Scholars in Marketing, Journal of Consumer Psychology,and Journal of Brand Management.

Seshadri Tirunillai, PhD
Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Houston
Dr. Seshadri Tirunillai (PhD – University of Southern California) teaches Digital Marketing Analytics and Internet Marketing. His research interests include user generated content, advertising, marketing strategy, sales, and machine learning. Seshadri has served on the editorial boards for the Journal of Marketing Research, Marketing Science,and the International Journal of Marketing. He received the O’Dell award (2019) for the Journal of Marketing Research article that has made the most significant, long-term contribution to marketing theory, methodology, and/or practice. In 2015, he received the Lehmann Award for best paper based on a dissertation in the Journal of Marketing. Dr. Tirunillai has published research in Marketing Science, Journal of Marketing Research,and Journal of Interactive Marketing.

Yanwei Zhang, PhD
Staff Data Scientist, Tech Lead Manager, Uber Technologies Inc.
Dr. Yanwei Zhang (PhD – University of Southern California) manages the safety data science team at Uber. He practices machine learning and data science to tackle safety problems in ridesharing, and his research spans marketing, statistics, machine learning and actuarial science. In 2015, Dr. Zhang was awarded the ANZMAC Layton Dissertation Award. He has published research in Journal of Marketing, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, and Journal of Risk and Insurance.

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