The likelihood of a video on the internet becoming viral seems to be startlingly unpredictable. Nonetheless, there are certain trends that seem to be evident across many of the videos that make it virally. We've been conducting research into which qualities a viral film should have in order to maximise it's chances of being a viral success and our results are detailed in this post.

We started by looking at the most popular videos on YouTube as defined by YouTube's own ranking system, based on video views. Our research is based on YouTube ranking as of 16-17/7/2013.

The first thing that we noticed was the prevalence of music videos. Of the top 30 most viewed videos on YouTube, 29 of them are music videos (16/7/2013). The video with the most hits is familiar to many people - Gangnam Style by Psy with 1,746,473,928 views to date. Whilst we're not anti music videos, we're more interested in the visual and intellectual content that makes a video popular and for this reason we've excluded music videos from our research.

Once you remove the music category, YouTube have 14 official categories of video remaining:

  1. Cars & Vehicles

  2. Comedy 

  3. Education 
  4. Entertainment 
  5. Film & Animation 
  6. Gaming 
  7. Howto & Style 
  8. News & Politics 
  9. Non-profits & Activism 
  10. People & Blogs 
  11. Pets & Animals 
  12. Science & Technology 
  13. Sport 
  14. Travel & Events

We took the top 350 videos on YouTube that are not music videos and ordered them by views. When we'd done that we stripped out all but the top 100 and placed them into the YouTube categories.

When organised by the number of videos featuring in the top 100 list, the categories look like this:

YouTube video content breakdown.

YouTube video content breakdown.

It's probably not a surprise that the top two categories that YouTube define are 'Entertainment' followed by 'Comedy'. Both categories are universally appealing and also unhelpfully broad.

With all the music videos removed from the top 100 YouTube videos of all time the list becomes more interesting. The most viewed video on YouTube of all time is one which many people are familiar with - 'Charlie Bit My Finger - Again' with 531,821,006 views.

Are you familiar with the 3rd most popular video on YouTube of all time - 'Thigh Massage Video'? For people who might be a bit scared to follow the link, the video is a purely educational video, and not of exceptional quality either. We're not sure why this video has so many hits - at it's peak in mid 2011 the video was being watched over 600,000 times a day. If you can shed any light on this, get in touch and let us know.

Given that the categories of video as defined by YouTube are very broad, and given that we are more interested in the emotional and intellectual drivers for video popularity, we've created our own categories. We've focussed less on the specific physical content and more on the qualities of the video, the reasons someone might like or dislike it. Unlike the YouTube categories we've also allowed videos to fall into more than one category.

Here are our categories:

  • Amazing / Incredible - 'That is truly fantastic!' 
  • Cute 
  • Educational 
  • Famous Talent - Features famous people with lots of followers 
  • Funny 
  • Inspiring - 'Changes my thinking (and probably makes me want to cry)' 
  • Moving - 'Makes me want to cry' 
  • Rude / Outrageous - Gritted teeth / cringing / 'How could they do that!' 
  • Sexy - Overtly titillating or sexual content 
  • Topical / Referential - refers to current events or plays on a meme 
  • Weird / Bizarre - 'I can't believe that's possible - how could that happen?'

We took the top 30 most viewed films of all time from YouTube and studied them to determine which of the categories we'd identified each video fell into. Each video could fall into as many categories as was appropriate.

Next we took a random selection of 30 videos from YouTube and performed the same analysis, determining which categories they fell into.
Here are the results:

Here are the results for the random 30 YouTube videos presented on their own and ordered by most to least common qualities that the videos had: 

Conclusions

If you want to have viral success, making something that is funny and weird and includes famous people is a great place to start. If you can't get all of that then go for funny as it's far and away the most common quality that the most viewed videos on YouTube demonstrate.

The 'average' video on YouTube is categorised as 'educational' - most often a tutorial video. If you make a video that falls into this category it is going to have a lot of competition in the viral stakes and may struggle to get noticed. Educational qualities don't feature highly in the most successful viral videos.

If you want to see the data we collected, including all 350 top non-music video YouTube videos, you can find our data here.