How the psychology of storytelling can make your brand videos go viral

In this month’s Marketing Science Cheat Sheet for brands we explore how brands can use story development in video content to drive views and shares, therefore increasing the chances of the content going viral.

The Insight

Consumers are more likely to share and watch videos that show full story development, therefore making the content more likely to go viral.

Full story development refers to videos that include characters, setting, events, conflict, tension and resolution. A viral video is also defined as content that spreads rapidly through online sharing, which can reach millions of views.

Achieving viral status has long been an ambition for brands. Viral marketing relies on social media to attract an audience, with the content organically spreading through online sharing at a rapid pace.

The Science

Findings from “Drama Goes Viral: Effects of Story Development on Shares and Views of Online Advertising Videos” by Quensenberry et al (2019) highlight that in order to increase the chances of a video going viral, the content needs to include a full story development. Videos that achieved this were found to have more shares and views therefore increasing the changes of the content going viral.

This is important for brands as in 2018 advertisers spent more than £10 million on branded digital and media video advertisements, which is reportedly a 53% increase from 2016. Therefore, brands that are able to create viral content and use the power of organic word-of-mouth will be able to save money whilst increasing brand awareness.


Shippensburg University collaborated with Messiah College in Pennsylvania to investigate which factors influence an online video’s likelihood to be shared and viewed.

This research was published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing, an international forum for research and debate in both online and offline topics related to the analysis, targeting and service of individual customers.

The study used a five-point drama scale based on Freytag’s Pyramid to measure the presence of the elements that make a story (characters, setting, events, conflict, tension, resolution) and the order that these happened in, to determine story development for 155 viral video advertisements.

In this model, ‘Exposition’ sets the stage by introducing character and setting. Events within the story create tension & conflict that lead to the story’s ‘Climax’ through ‘Raising Action’. Once the ‘Climax’ has occurred, the story fully develops with a resolution (Falling Action) that leads to ‘Denouement’ (characters return to normalcy releasing the audience’s tension).

For the purpose of the analysis, in order for a video to be classified as a full story development, it had to tick all five points on the scale.

The findings suggest that telling a more developed story is likely to increase the changes of the content going viral, due to increased views and shares.

Interestingly findings also highlighted that whilst the videos duration and the brands size did not significantly influence the shares, there was found to be some effect on the number of views of the video.

An example of a brands advertisement that was unable to deliver all five points is Volkswagen. The brand’s video campaign for the new Atlas did not deliver either tension or conflict and so was unsuccessful in engaging audiences.

Who can benefit

By achieving viral status, brands are able to increase awareness and tap into audiences outside of their usual target audience. Viral campaigns also often spread organically, and therefore brands will be able to reap the rewards of the advertisements success without having to spend a large amount of the media budget.

These findings will benefit a wide range of brand types, such as disruptor brands like Beyond Meat that are launching into a competitive industry so need to raise awareness quickly, innovation brands such as Halo Top ice cream, which use word-of-mouth to overcome lower marketing budgets, but will also affect other industries including technology, travel, entertainment and automotive.

Opportunities to Create Brand Magic

In order to potentially increase the chances of an advertising campaign going viral on social media, brands should use full story development to support word-of-mouth and boost views & shares online.

One brand that was able to successfully achieve viral status by using full story development was Iceland. The supermarkets’ Christmas advertisement told the story of how an orang-utan ended up living in a little girls bedroom due to deforestation. The story concluded with the orang-utan finding a new home and Iceland pledging to remove Palm Oil from the brands own range.


Turning the phrase ‘like a girl’ on its head, Always video campaign looked at how young boys and girls acted when asked ‘throw like a girl, run like a girl’. The advertisement builds tension as the audience realises that the young boys portrayals are rather negative before coming to the resolution of young girls ignoring the connotations and doing things their way. Currently this advertisement has been viewed over 67,000,000 on YouTube.


Heineken was able to address big political and world issues at a time with it’s campaign Worlds Apart. The video showed two strangers, with wildly opposing views, meeting and discovering what they have in common. The tension builds as it’s revealed what each others personal views are, with the video concluding with whether they decided to stay and enjoy a bottle of Heineken. The video achieved over 1 3million views in its first month.

About StoryScience

StoryScience is the UK’s first scientific strategic creative agency. Moving away from the traditional opinion-led approach, StoryScience’s guiding purpose is to pioneer scientific creative and deliver brand magic that audiences want and the results clients need. We deliver creative and strategic marketing solutions underpinned by a scientific creative thinking. In short, we use science to create brand magic.


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