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The Hidden Secrets of Creating a Viral YouTube Ad

The Hidden Secrets of Creating a Viral YouTube Ad

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

creating viral ad

Listen to the authors present their findings (source: June 2019 JM Webinar)

YouTube is a media channel where millions of users create and share billions of videos without charge. Perhaps ironically, it has also become a key platform for advertisers. Brands value YouTube because of the opportunity to reach more than one billion unique users who watch more than one billion hours of video daily. YouTube provides a low-cost and flexible platform for sharing ads; provides user engagement tools such as likes, commenting, and sharing; and creates a path to wide viewership if an ad goes viral through sharing. Brands use YouTube to pretest ads before placing them in paid TV channels or can use paid TV to influence the sharing of ads uploaded to YouTube.

A new study in the Journal of Marketing analyzes the conditions that lead to ad virality, including the role of information versus emotion in video ad sharing, cues that evoke emotions, the role of branding in sharing, and optimal brand video length.


Our research team tested five theoretically derived hypotheses about what drives sharing of video ads across social media, using two independent field studies that analyzed 11 measures of emotion and over 60 ad characteristics. We studied 109 brands that were among the top 100 US advertisers in 2012 as well as additional brands that were historically active on YouTube.

Key findings include:

  • Of the ads we studied, 10% were not shared at all and more than 50% were shared less than 158 times.
  • Information appeals have a strong negative effect on sharing except when the advertised item involves product or purchase risk.
  • Ads that evoke positive emotions of inspiration, warmth, amusement, and excitement stimulate strong positive sharing. Despite this fact, only 7% of YouTube ads we studied evoked positive emotions.
  • Ads that use drama, plot, surprise, and characters (such as celebrities, babies, and animals) evoke emotions and induce sharing. Despite this fact, only 11% of ads we studied used strong drama and only 10% evoked surprise. In addition, 26% of ads featured celebrities but only 3% used babies and animals, even though the latter have proven more effective at driving shares.
  • Prominent brand placement impairs sharing: Lengthy, early, or intermittent placement of the brand name drives less sharing than late placement. Surprisingly, only 30% of the ads we studied used late placement.
  • The relationship between social shares and ad length is characterized by an asymmetric inverted U curve, with ads between 1.2 to 1.7 minutes being the most shared. However, among the ads we shared, only 25% were between 1.0 and 1.5 minutes. Fifty percent of the ads were shorter than a minute and about 25% were longer than 2.0 minutes.
  • Emotional ads are shared more on general platforms (Facebook, Google+ (which is shutting down in August 2019), and Twitter) than on LinkedIn. The reverse holds for informational ads.

Our findings provide marketing and media managers, advertisers, and copywriters with specific theory-based insights into how to design ads to influence sharing. To create viral ads, brands should arouse strong emotion, place brand mentions late and briefly, keep ads to a moderate length of 1.0 to 1.5 minutes, and use authentic characters. To arouse emotions, a brand should create an ad with a captivating plot, surprising ending, and authentic characters; they also should use babies and animals more than celebrities.

Read the full article.

Read the authors’ slides for sharing this material in your classroom

From: Gerard J. Tellis, Deborah J. MacInnis, Seshadri Tirunillai, and Yanwei (Wayne) Zhang, “What Drives Virality (Sharing) of Online Digital Content? The Critical Role of Information, Emotion, and Brand Prominence,” Journal of Marketing, 83 (July).

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Gerard J. Tellis is Professor, Director of the Center for Global Innovation, and Neely Chair of American Enterprise, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California.

Deborah J. MacInnis is Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Marketing, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, USA.

Seshadri Tirunillai is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Houston, USA.

Yanwei Zhang is Staff Data Scientist, Uber Technologies Inc.