What’s your favorite viral ad? The Budweiser Clydesdales? The Voltzwagen kid who dreamed of being Darth Vader? Or maybe you’re a fan of the weirder viral videos, like Mountain Dew’s Puppy Monkey Baby.

Many marketers and business owners alike feel like viral videos aren’t something you can plan for or expect. And they’re not entirely wrong. Many of the brands that have gone viral in the past had no idea that their video would reach their level of success.

However, many of these viral videos have similar characteristics and traits that distinguish them from the millions of other videos that consumers tune out daily. If we take a look at these characteristics from a psychological point of view, we’ll discover a pattern that businesses can keep in mind when creating videos of their own.

Ready to get started? Let’s explore the characteristics of effective viral videos, as well as 3 ways you can apply behavioral design and psychology to increase the chance of your videos going viral.

The Potential ROI of Viral Ads

Viral ads aren’t just great publicity for your brand. They also have the potential to drive sales and make a significant impact on your bottom line.

Back in 2012, Dollar Shave Club spent $4500 on an ad that blew up the internet. They received 12,000 new orders within 48 hours of rolling out the video. The video is credited for saving the company and today has over 27 million views.

And who can forget the “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Old Spice commercials that never failed to put a smile on our faces? Well, before this campaign took the internet by storm, Old Spice had an image problem. Customers considered it to be the deodorant for older generations, and it was. Younger generations weren’t buying it.

The first video in the new Old Spice campaign clocked in over 20 million views in three days. That number now sits at over 57 million. When they launched the campaign, Procter & Gamble were aiming for a 15% increase in sales. By July 2010, they achieved a 125% increase, an all-time high for the brand. Old Spice became the top brand for men’s body wash.

Viral ads have the potential to save businesses who have been struggling to get customers through the door. While most viral ads have come from big-name brands with million dollar budgets, they are also a great potential for small businesses. 

A few examples include Dominique Ansel Bankery, whose cronut became an internet sensation back in 2016, and Chatbooks, a Utah-based subscription photo service that sold 1 million subscriptions after their 4-minute video blew up on YouTube.

Researchers have dissected viral ads over years in hopes of creating the perfect formula. Many viral ads share the same characteristics, including:

  • Effective storytelling
  • An appeal to emotions
  • A lesser focus on information and facts
  • Incorporating humor

But you can follow all of these to a T and still end up with an ad that doesn’t take off. Why? Because the best viral ads don’t just tell great stories and make us laugh or cry. They use behavioral science and psychology to connect with us on a deeper level, a level we often don’t even realize exists.

How Psychology Can Help You Make a Viral Ad

Often, we underestimate the power of psychology in our ability to make our content go viral. Many marketers assume that viral marketing is 100% up to luck: the right thing at the exact right time. 

However, while luck certainly plays a role in an ad’s success, every behavior has psychology behind it. Watching a video is no different.

While you may not be able to predict the success of your campaigns, you can use behavioral science and psychological tools to increase the likelihood of your videos going viral. These are the three steps you’ll need to follow.

1. Start with the Right Goal

First things first, in order for your ad to be successful, it needs to be tuned in to your customers’ aspirational goals. These are the real goals that drive their behavior. All successful viral videos work because they appeal to the deeper psychological reason people purchase a product or service.


For instance, a customer that buys lawn fertilizer may have the goal of a “nice-looking lawn,” but they’re actually driven by the higher-order goal of looking like a competent, put-together person. Videos that showcase this aspiration are more likely to go viral than a video focused only on the outward appearance of the lawn.

Let’s think back to the highly successful Old Spice campaign. Procter & Gamble discovered that 60% of their sales came from women purchasing the product for their partners. 

Smell is commonly associated with attractiveness, so P&G determined that these women bought Old Spice to help their partners feel and seem more attractive. The results speak for themselves!

Higher-order goals are connected to the 18 psychological mindstates that drive consumer behavior discussed in the book Marketing to Mindstates

  • Esteem - Seek products that make them feel approved of, praised, or admired by others
  • Nurturance - Need to feel or provide appreciation, love, and care
  • Security - Drawn to products or services that make them feel secure, safe, and protected from threats
  • Competence - Driven by the need to feel capable, qualified, prepared, and skilled 
  • Empowerment - Need to feel empowered, authorized, and more in control of their situation
  • Engagement - Seek products that help them feel captivated and fully absorbed in an experience 
  • Achievement - Purchase a product or service to feel successful, accomplished, and achieve closure by reaching a goal
  • Autonomy - Need to feel unique, independent, and free to embrace their own individuality
  • Belonging - Buy products or services to feel aligned, accepted, and a part of something bigger than themselves.

Tip: Purchase the Mindstate Marketing Masterclass to learn how to select visuals and messaging that appeal to the higher-order goals of these mindstates.

2. Choose the Right Visuals

It’s easy to overlook the importance of creative in videos, particularly in an age where a video shot on an iPhone has an almost equal chance of success as a video shot in a studio with a multi-million dollar budget.

However, visuals are often one of the most (if not the most) essential elements of a viral ad. Images are the first thing people notice when watching a video. If you’re familiar with the world of TV advertising, you’ve probably heard the statement that good TV ads have to catch their audience’s attention in the first five seconds. 

This applies to videos as a whole, and visuals are one of the easiest ways to grab your audiences’ attention.


If your customers desire to be a part of a bigger group, your brand could help customers feel more connected to one another. In this case, you may be thinking, “How do I communicate that I want to bring people together?”

Right off the bat, you should be thinking about showing people, not single individuals. And if you can connect them, you can have them touch or work in unison. Psychologically, that creates a sense of belonging and companionship. 

Tip: Choose visuals that appeal to your audience’s mindstate. For example, if your customers are in the optimistic engagement mindstate, show the positive, uplifting experiences they can have using your product or service.

3. Connect It All Together

Once you have identified the ideal visuals for your video and the higher-order you want to target, it’s time to put them together to create an engaging story that people will want to watch over and over again.

All stories need a beginning, middle, and end, but the best stories focus on transformation. Think about where your customers are now, where they want to be, and how your brand helps them get there. How can you show this transformation in a short video format?


For the messaging, simplicity is key. According to a study conducted by Microsoft, the human attention span has shrunk by almost 25% in recent years. Today, it’s only eight seconds long. 

You don’t have time to stuff your video full of long, complicated sentences. Instead, focus on short, high-power words geared toward your audience’s specific mindstate.

Apply Behavioral Design to Every Part of Your Marketing Process

Viral videos can be a powerful tool to propel your business’s growth. While you can’t always guarantee your videos will go viral, by focusing on your customers’ aspirational goals, selecting the right visuals, and connecting the story to your consumers’ mindstate, you can navigate short attention spans and more easily resonate with your audience on a subconscious level.

Your viral ad won’t achieve lasting results if your website content and other marketing collateral don’t contain the same psychological framing. So how can you execute Mindstate Marketing while running your business?

Purchase the Mindstate Marketing Masterclass, and watch 8+ hours of on-demand training videos on your terms. For $399.99, this digital course walks you through real-life examples of behavioral science in marketing.

Learn More

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Topics: Behavioral Design, Marketing, Content Strategy, Behavioral Science, Small Business