Why videos work on social media

Since video streaming was introduced to the internet, it’s quickly become a staple of social media. In 2015 the number of videos viewed daily on Facebook doubled from 4 billion to 8 billion, and the live video platform Periscope averaged 40 years worth of video viewed daily! What is it about video that makes it so engaging?


Why Videos?

There are a lot of reasons why video numbers are so huge – including some dodgy accounting methods – but we think two of the biggest real reasons are emotion and spectacle.

Video can be emotional in ways that no other medium can because it is simultaneously visual, aural and temporal (time-based). In a time-based medium, things can happen. Things cannot happen in a photograph, so its emotional impact (even if strong) is final; it cannot change and it cannot surprise nor evolve. So at a very basic level, it is suspense and change that enables video to be uniquely emotional and compelling.

Taking this further, it is the strength of emotions captured by videos which drives their success. This was explored by Valentina Palladino from Ars Technica while trying to understand the incredible popularity of “react” videos on YouTube (videos in which people film their own reactions to scary, funny or disgusting things). Palladino asked neuroscientists why she and hundreds of millions of other people find watching react videos so addictive. The scientists responded by speculating that “mirror neurons” (found in monkeys and believed to exist in humans) cause viewers to experience the same emotions that they see people on screen experiencing. Forced empathy, in other words: we can’t help but share people’s emotions vicariously. And since people enjoy feeling emotions, they will watch anything that contains strong emotions, even if they contain not much else (i.e., “react” videos).

Another very different strong suit of video is spectacle. Videos with no emotion can still be wildly popular if they contain spectacle: something amazing, rare or strange. This idea is explored by the “Diet Coke and Mentos” guys Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe in their book “The Viral Video Manifesto”. Voltz and Grobe believe (and hundreds of millions of views seem to confirm) that viral videos are popular for the same reason that people enjoy good buskers, or circus freakshows: “wow” value. Viral videos are not driven by stories, Voltz and Grobe argue, but by strangeness and impressiveness. This is why web videos were so confusing to marketers in the early days of the internet: smart people had spent decades perfecting the art of telling stories in 30 second ads, but viewers instead flocked by the millions to watch guys dancing on treadmills. Why? Because even if the video camera was crappy and the story non existent, people loved the spectacle.


What Videos Work Where

Different videos suit different platforms. Depending on where a video is posted often determines what style, runtime, and depth the video will have.

Facebook videos average a 44 second runtime and follow an engagement-tracking algorithm different to most social platforms. It tracks engagement not just based off likes, comments, and shares, but by how long people decide to keep the video on their screens when scrolling through your newsfeed. They also have a reward-type format where the more engagement your content gains, the more promotion it gets.

Facebook seems to be where short form videos like Vines, Snapchat videos, and generally anything meme-ish thrive. YouTube, on the other hand, averages a 3 minute runtime per video, so this is where longer content belongs.


If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is surely worth a thousand pictures thanks to the unique power of emotion and spectacle. 

Now that you’ve got the facts, and you know where you’re posting your video, time to start working on your script, right? Nope. First you should write a brief. Maybe our free Video Brief template can help?