If you’re a social media marketer, chances are you’ve been asked, “but how do we go viral?” at least once. Most marketers undoubtedly want the audience growth and attention that comes from achieving a social media viral video. In fact, it’s the dream of many social media managers.
But they also know that there’s no one formula to attracting viral success. And keep in mind: going viral is a bonus—not a strategy, and certainly not a reliable solution for slow channels. Video virality is short-lived, and so is the benefit that comes from it.
That said, understanding some of the common elements of viral videos can make your content more discoverable and engaging, increasing your chances of going viral.
In this guide, we collect expert tips from Sprout’s video and social teams so you can learn the theory behind ‘going viral’, how to make a viral video and what to do when it happens. Let’s dive in.
What makes a social media viral video?
Let’s start with the basics. What do we mean when we say social media viral video?
It’s called “going viral” when a piece of content really takes off on social media and reaches a large audience very quickly by receiving an unusual amount of shares and exposure. Whether it’s a tweet or an Instagram Reel, many different types of content can go viral.
How many views does a video need to be considered viral?
There’s no one number of views that signals a video has become viral. And what “viral” means has changed over time.
For example, in 2015 one million views was considered viral, according to Animoto. But now, with increased social media usage, one million is on the low end. And when it comes to TikTok specifically, Digital Marketing Institute defines 250,000 views as mildly viral, one million as medium viral and 5 million views within 3-7 days as officially TikTok-viral.
The psychology of what makes a video viral on social media
The answer to what makes a video viral in the first place is a bit like the holy grail for marketers. And yet, the answer comes down to simple psychology.
A lot of it comes back to emotion and social connection. According to research about why people share content online, the top three motivations to share came down to bringing entertaining content and value to people, to help define ourselves and to grow relationships.
Think about it: what makes you watch a video and share it? Did it make you smile or laugh, like the “It’s Corn” viral trend? Were you inspired? Did a video outrage or surprise you?
A step-by-step guide on how to make a viral video on social
Videos can go viral on a variety of different platforms. But what goes into creating a viral video in the first place? And how can you ensure the largest audience possible sees your video content?
Sprout’s video team is well-versed in creating video content that reaches large audiences. Here are some of our expert tips that you can put towards your own video production and optimization.
1. Pinpoint your goals
Knowing you want something to go viral isn’t enough for a solid social media marketing strategy. You also need to know why you want your video to go viral.
Are you looking for brand awareness? Hoping to grow your online following? Or do you want to generate conversions?
Each purpose will require your team to create different videos for audience members at different stages of the funnel. Know your goals before you begin production.
2. Know your audience
If you don’t know anything about the people you’re targeting, your video will fall flat every time. To create a piece of content that will perform well with your target audience and beyond, you need to know what will resonate with them and make them want to share your video.
One way to understand your target audience is to create social media personas and an empathy map. These will give you insight into what will grab your audience’s attention and what they look for online.
3. Start with a brief
Plan everything out thoroughly and create a creative strategy brief and a storyboard. This will shed light on your actual goals, key messages, tone, length, distribution channel and more.
A good brief helps align messaging and a video’s overall purpose from the content team all the way to the video production team. This way all of your content will be cohesive and have the same overall vision, strengthening your brand. Here are a few sections your brief might include:
- Working title: This will help guide the overall concept.
- Description: What do you want your video to be about? What is its purpose?
- Key items to include: Are there specific points you need to hit in your video?
- Related content: What related content do you have that you can reference, or include?
- Competing content: Who are you competing with?
- Platforms: What platforms will this be shared on? What versions do you need for various platforms?
- Video format: Will this video be filmed vertically? Horizontally?
- Keywords: Especially important for platforms like YouTube that have an SEO-driven search element.
- Important hashtags/mentions to include: Important for trends and partnerships.
- Calls to action: Are you asking your audience to do something?
4. Start strong
Every good viral video grabs attention immediately. The best way to do this is by using the word “you” within the first five seconds of your video—research shows if your video uses language like “you” or “your” in the first few seconds, you get a higher retention rate.
Other ways to start your video for maximum results include:
- Create a plot twist or be unpredictable
- Create a “hook” at the beginning: ask a question, introduce a list etc.
- Make your content #relatable
- Engage your viewers’ emotions
- Incorporate attention-grabbing audio/music clips
- Forget about being promotional
5. Tell a story
Content is all about storytelling. As viral videos skew shorter, you want to tell a compelling story in a short amount of time, by choosing a universal context for your creative concept. For example, the context of “Monday Mood” is universal and doesn’t need much time to explain.
Play to tropes your audience knows so you can jump right in without much backstory. This is a great way to create relatable content your audience will enjoy and will want to share with friends and family. It’s also a great starting point to upend expectations and to grab attention.
How to increase video discoverability
Now that we’ve covered our team’s tips for creating viral videos, let’s talk about a few ways to increase video discoverability in general.
1. Create short, concise videos
Even if your video does have a gripping introduction that pulls a viewer in, you also have to keep their attention.
A social media viral video doesn’t necessarily have to be short—even TikTok increased their time limit per video to 10 minutes. But keeping yours short and sweet can help boost your viral reach in a few ways. A short video makes it more likely that a viewer will watch the whole video—something that some platforms like TikTok reward. Plus 60% of consumers think short-form video is the most engaging type of in-feed content.
Take advantage of the format that viewers are most likely to watch, enjoy and share.
2. Add captions
Adding captions to your videos doesn’t only increase video accessibility, it also improves the user experience by allowing people to watch your videos even without having to turn the sound on.
Given that people often scroll through social media when they can’t have sound on, adding captions will help to reach more viewers who may watch and share your video.
3. Stay on top of trends
Keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s trending on social is one of your best shots at going viral. This is especially true for platforms like TikTok, where many trends are born. Plus, jumping on a trend while it’s starting to rise is a great way to be a trendsetter yourself.
Look for songs, trending hashtags, sounds and visuals that are on the up-and-up in your Reels feed, Twitter trending topics or TikTok For You page.
No matter what trend you jump on, the key is to put your own spin on it in the content you create. Check out how we adapted the “It’s corn” trend into a video that our audience could relate to:
4. Write powerful copy
From your video title and description on YouTube to captions on TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, writing powerful, optimized copy is key.
Your copy helps explain what your video is about, piques curiosity and can help your content appear higher in search results. This doesn’t mean ALL CAPS, clickbait-y video titles that you often see on YouTube and in Facebook captions—it means spending some time writing quality copy that will increase views.
Especially when it comes to YouTube, video optimization is incredibly important to help maximize the potential reach of your video in search.
5. Use hashtags
Using popular hashtags in your TikTok caption or YouTube video description can help an even wider audience find your video as they search for similar content. Be sure to only include hashtags that are relevant to your video, not just randomly chosen hashtags that are trending and popular on the platform.
6. Promote your video
Don’t simply publish your content and then wait with bated breath for it to be picked up.
Your own promotional strategy is step number one in starting to reach the audience that your intended viral video is meant to reach. Think about how you plan to market and publicize the platform(s) you initially published the video on.
One way to do this is by sharing your published video on other platforms. This can be as simple as linking to your video in a Facebook post or Tweet, for example. Or creating an Instagram Story featuring a video you posted on YouTube, Twitter or TikTok with a link to the video. This also helps you fill out your content calendar.
You can also share your content across channels by repurposing teasers of it on other platforms to encourage viewers to watch the entire thing. For example, if you initially share your video on YouTube (like we did), then you can cut down your video content into shorter previews to share on other channels, while encouraging viewers to head to YouTube to watch the entire video.
Post and reshare on platforms that your audience will be on to maximize chances that they see your video and share it with their own networks. Use data to find out which of your platforms have the most active and engaged audience. Using a tool like Sprout Social’s reporting and analytics makes it easy to see data from all of your platforms side-by-side.
7. Be consistent
Social media success doesn’t come from one post alone. Creating content that makes waves and building your audience is a long game.
Posting consistently is key when it comes to building your audience and creating successful videos. Experiment with different trends and content formats. And don’t be afraid to reuse content for different trends—one of the many tips you can get by rewatching our TikTok Bootcamp webinar with Auntie Anne’s Social Media Manager, Bari Rosenstein.
On the one hand, this helps you pinpoint the type of content your audience likes. On the other, every video you post gets engagement that tells social platforms more about you and your content. Racking up this engagement on Instagram, for example, is a crucial signal to the platform that people enjoy your content, and it should be promoted organically.
Don’t get discouraged if your first video only gets a few views. You’re not going to go viral on your first attempt. Post consistently, build an audience, find out what they like and keep posting.
8. Join the conversation
It’s called “social” media for a reason—get your name out there by engaging with the communities you want to reach.
Brand conversations—that is, brands commenting on each others’ videos and engaging with each other—can create viral moments themselves in TikTok comments, for example.
Engage in the comments section of other brands’ content and create a relationship with them. Sometimes, coordinating this conversation with the social media manager of that brand can create extra social media magic.
Just remember—regardless of your brand persona, be respectful and mindful of what you say. You don’t want a fun joke or comment to lead to your brand getting canceled.
How to manage the madness of a social media viral video
So you went viral…now what? Racking up millions of views and potentially thousands of new followers is exciting.
But going viral can also mean thousands of messages in your inbox. Meaning important messages are more likely to get lost in the shuffle…unless you have a plan.
Here are a few tips for managing the madness of achieving viral status:
Stay on top of your inbox
It’s all too easy for hundreds or thousands of messages to build up in your inbox in the first few days or first week of a viral moment. Staying on top of incoming messages regularly is key to avoid being overwhelmed.
This can mean increasing how often you check your social inboxes. If you typically check three times a day, try checking your inbox once an hour to keep messages from piling up.
Also, consider extending your monitoring hours. You may usually monitor nine-to-five, but viral videos are on a 24/7 schedule. If a potential crisis bubbles up amid your viral moment, allowing it to snowball for 12 hours isn’t good for anyone.
Having one, centralized place to check incoming messages from all of your social media accounts is crucial during a viral moment to ensure nothing is missed and to streamline your work.
If you don’t have a monitoring tool, this is your sign to get one. In Sprout’s Smart Inbox, you can see and respond to messages across platforms, save top-priority messages, identify volume spikes, assign messages to teammates and more.
Divide up the work
It’s one thing to say you should check your inbox more frequently.
It’s another to actually carve out the time to do so.
During a spike in messages, it helps to divide up the work—especially if you’re extending your monitoring hours past when they typically run.
Here are a few tips:
- Communicate with your customer care teams: If you have another team or other teammates monitoring social for you, or assisting, let them know that there’s a volume spike and communicate the need for more frequent checking.
- Create pre-written response templates: Create pre-written, customizable, ready-to-use templates for common questions, and to standardize brand responses. This is not just helpful during periods of higher workloads, but every day.
- Monitor in shifts after hours: If you’re extending your monitoring into post-work hours, divide up the work to prevent burning yourself or your team out.
If you’re realizing that you don’t have anyone else who can step in and monitor, now’s the time to start training backups to protect yourself from burnout.
Identify top-priority messages and accounts
You don’t want to miss a question from a customer. And you definitely don’t want to miss a comment that could spiral into a crisis.
Monitoring regularly is the first step to ensuring no important messages go unanswered. However, if you wake up to 10,000 messages in your inbox, that’s easier said than done. Using social listening can help you easily identify the overall sentiment of your incoming messages, and quickly find both positive and negative comments.
In Sprout’s Smart Inbox, you can do light listening by filtering messages with specific keywords and from specific accounts—especially important if you have specific influencers, or trolls, to watch out for.
Level up by using Sprout’s Social Listening tool to track how people feel about your brand and viral content, to find accounts talking about you with large followings and identify common words people use when talking about you.
Create a communication chain
Your social media crisis plan is a key tool to leverage during a viral moment—even if your viral post is met with soaring positive sentiment and comments.
Having a set chain of communication is a crucial way to make sure you can act fast. If a potential crisis is bubbling up, getting in front of it early can curb it.
Similarly, if something immensely positive happens—like a major influencer or celebrity engaging with your content—having a go-to team member at the ready ensures you can act fast.
Time is everything on social. Having a set team that you can have on-call while your content is viral saves you a runaround.
Continue the hype
Once the madness has calmed, find ways to extend your success and continue riding the viral wave.
When I was the social media manager at Shedd Aquarium, I managed the viral “penguin field trips” campaign.
The adventure continues! 🐧🐧
This morning, Edward and Annie explored Shedd’s rotunda. They are a bonded pair of rockhopper penguins, which means they are together for nesting season. Springtime is nesting season for penguins at Shedd, and this year is no different! (1/3) 👇 pic.twitter.com/VdxN3oQAfe
— Shedd Aquarium (@shedd_aquarium) March 16, 2020
After the initial viral posts, we kept the campaign going by using the trend we started in fresh ways. We took the penguins on field trips to meet new animals.
Time for a polar field trip! 🐧🐳❄️ Penguins Tilly and near-yearling Carmen came face to face with beluga Kayavak. Not all penguins live in super cold regions. Magellanic penguins like Tilly and Carmen are temperate-weather birds. pic.twitter.com/oDZUL1NIG1
— Shedd Aquarium (@shedd_aquarium) March 29, 2020
We also experimented with taking different animals on field trips to new habitats, like this snake adventure that went slightly viral on TikTok.
We interrupt your #SharkWeek content for a #WorldSnakeDay field trip! Animal care specialists noticed this emerald tree boa's interest in looking at animals in different habitats, and started incorporating these excursions into his enrichment routine—just like the penguins! pic.twitter.com/g84QwvsMaL
— Shedd Aquarium (@shedd_aquarium) July 16, 2021
Eventually, we took it a step even further by bringing the penguins to locations all over the city to explore.
What a day at the museum. Stay tuned for the next penguin adventure!🐧🐧 pic.twitter.com/EKhVgFcneq
— Shedd Aquarium (@shedd_aquarium) July 9, 2020
By using the type of content we knew resonated and building off of it, we were able to create several viral moments within one campaign. Get creative, and find ways to expand on the content that brought you success.
Why social media viral videos aren’t the only thing to aspire to
Achieving a viral post is every brand’s dream. And it does come with an influx of more views and fans.
But rest easy if you haven’t scored a viral moment (yet). Instead of focusing on how to go viral on TikTok as your main goal, focus on building a sustainable social media strategy and fostering your digital community. This is the best way to maximize your long-term growth and build strong channels that make an impact.
If your strategy is a sundae, going viral is a sweet cherry on top: not the core of the dish.
Start creating your own viral video today
The only way to have a chance at achieving a social media viral video, is to start posting.
To massively increase your reach, start creating your own potentially viral video content using these expert tips and guidelines. Incorporating videos into your overall video marketing strategy is a key way to increase reach, brand awareness, conversions and possibly even strike viral gold.
Always Up-to-Date Guide to Social Media Video SpecsPublished on November 21, 2023 Reading time 15 minutes
8 ways to leverage short-form video (and how to get buy-in)Published on March 20, 2023 Reading time 11 minutes
How to recruit more talent for your social video contentPublished on March 8, 2023 Reading time 11 minutes