There really is a formula for creating a viral hit

Mix strong topical relevance with content that provokes a visceral response from viewers and you're well on your way to creating a video that has what it takes to go viral, writes the chief creative officer at Treehouse.

It takes Cannes Lion applicants on average 3.2 years of continuous entering to come away with an award – but we recently won a Lion in our first year of entering for "Little Casanova", a hidden camera catfish style video that we created for the digital identification app, Yoti.

The film aimed to highlight how easy it is to fake your identity online while promoting Yoti’s ability to prevent identity fraud. It followed the cheeky but charming 12-year-old Lewis, who posed as 29-year-old Miguel on dating apps to trick women into meeting him.

Viewers watch events unfold as three unsuspecting real women show up for a date and quickly realise Miguel is not who he says he is. The video has generated over 32 million views and 120,000 shares.

We’re always asked what the recipe is for a viral video. Often people will tell you there’s no way of predicting a viral hit, that there’s too many variables. But there is a formula, and it’s this formula that made Little Casanova such a success:

  • Firstly, evoke emotion, whether that be happiness, shock, sadness, excitement, anger or fear

  • Cause a physiological response like laughter, tears or goosebumps

  • Depict a topical cultural phenomenon or event

  • Spark debate

  • Tap into a common experience that resonates with people

  • Utilise subtle brand placement – don’t ram brand messages down people’s throats

We believe "Little Casanova" was successful because it stuck to these guidelines. It evoked joy through humour and via Lewis’ cheeky one-liners it made people laugh. Humour is a fantastic way to get people to share – If someone believes your video is funny, they will often share it with their friends as a representation of their own sense of humour.

It depicted the topical cultural phenomenon of "catfishing", sparked debate around how the scenario would have played out if the roles were reversed and Lewis was played by a young girl meeting older men.

It also tapped into the common experience of internet dating and, lastly, Yoti and its capabilities were mentioned only in the end credits but it tied back to the brand’s core message, which is that with Yoti, you’ll never suffer identity fraud.

Another example of the formula in action is the Dublin Bus film for Pride, "Proud Dads", created by Rothco. The premise: four dads ride the Dublin Bus surprising their children by picking them up for Dublin Pride.

People are going bonkers over this video and it has generated millions of views. It evokes a deep feeling of happiness and empathy, it creates happy tears through the reactions of those being surprised.

It sparks conversation around equal rights in the Republic of Ireland, it taps into a topical cultural event (Pride) and common desire to be accepted and Dublin Bus was merely the vehicle that facilitated the events making the brand’s promotion subtle but clear.

"The indoor generation" for Velux, created by &Co, is another example. This video has generated over 50 million views and hundreds of thousands of shares. The premise: a little girl with asthma narrates a video that depicts the negative lifestyle and health implications of spending too much time indoors without natural light or fresh air.

It creates goosebumps as the young girl hauntingly tells us that the way we live our lives is making us and our families sick. It evokes fear as viewers watch the relatable scenes that mirror our own lives. But in the end it evokes hope that you can turn this scenario around.

The cultural phenomenon is the advancement of technology and our reliance on it (mobile phones, computer games, TVs, happy lamps and sun beds) and taps into the common experience of ailments we may have suffered or excessive amounts of time we may have spent glued to the sofa.

It sparked debate around whether it’s healthier to be outside or indoors and only depicted the benefits of Velux windows and natural light at the very end.

Of course, it’s possible to have all the right ingredients but falter with key parts of the execution: the edit, casting, script, length, structure etc.

One example that springs to mind is Liverpool FC’s prank video of their star player Mo Salah surprising school age Liverpool fans by unexpectedly bursting through a paper wall.

It aimed to evoke happiness and laughter via the children’s reactions, depicted Mo Salah (a hugely popular cultural figure), tapped into a common love of football, sparked conversation around whether he is the best player in the Premier League and didn’t ram brand messages down viewers' throats.

But the edit was too long and left most of the best bits until the end, which doesn’t succeed on social as you need to hook people in from the start. Crucially, there was very limited thought or direction put into what Salah would do once he burst through the wall resulting in him looking a bit stranded and uncomfortable at times.

While the video had all the right ingredients and got a few million views due to the fame of the player and the intrigue that the concept created, it could have performed far better with the right execution. 

Henry Hitchcox is chief creative officer at Treehouse, the creative and production agency of Jungle Creations.

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