Neuroscience Behind Why Videos Are Shared

Why do certain videos get shared and go viral, and others don’t? I’ve asked that question dozens of times after having the experience of a video I was involved with went viral last November.

Having gone through the experience of the results of a viral video, I’m sharing that case study on the All About Direct Marketing Virtual Conference this Thursday, May 4. It’s free, and you can register here. The presentation will focus on the neuroscience of why we share videos and content and 10 ingredients for success.

As I’ve dissected the topic of viral video and content, the first thing I’d tell you is that you must understand the why and how your content will reflect on the individual sharing it.

Neuroscience and other research studies suggest that for a video to go viral, there are several deep-seated ingredients that must come together.

A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania neuroscience research lab team recorded brain activity from participants about how they reacted to New York Times health articles. Brain activity suggests that people have a two-part process to decide what to share on social media, and it all points to how shared articles or videos shape their identity:

•    Social relationships: how sharing an article or video will reflect on you
•    Developing self-image: will friends be interested in the article or video?

In other words, people share things that they believe will improve their relationships, make them appear smart or, in one way or another, look favorable.

The deep dive, on a simple sharing impulse, is that your brain looks for information to share with others. It’s how we’re wired. Additional reasons for shares:

  1. To express who we really are
  2. To convey a sense of our ideal self and aspirations
  3. To nurture relationships

In a New York Times study titled “The Psychology of Sharing: Why Do People Share Online?” six sharing personality types where described: 

  1. Altruists: Motivated to bring valuable content to those they care about
  2. Careerists: Focused on developing a strong network of personal and professional contacts.
  3. Hipsters: They like to start a conversation, debate or controversy. They are always looking to connect with like-minded people.
  4. Boomerangs: Motivated primarily by reactions; they like to start a debate and generate comments.
  5. Connectors: For them, they share mutual experiences and including others.
  6. Selectives: Shares information they feel will be of value to a specific person.

This same study found that 68 percent share to define themselves. Eighty-four percent share to support causes or brands that they care about.

In other words, you are what you share. You share to express who you are, deep inside.

Last November, I had the unexpected good fortune of being involved with a video that went viral and was viewed 8.5 million times. The video live stream was of the Vocal Majority chorus singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a tribute upon learning of his passing. Cohen was a great singer, songwriter, musician, poet, novelist and painter with fans worldwide. The decision to sing on a live stream wasn’t preplanned, but rather, made in the moment during a VM rehearsal. You can read my column about that experience here.

The viral effect for this video was magnified because it was shared by 188,000 people. With an average of 338 friends per Facebook user, the sharing of this video put it in front of potentially 63 million people. 

While creating viral content—articles or videos—is often good luck and good timing, the fact is that when you understand why people share content, you can better position yourself for that good fortune.


Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.