The basic elements of highly successful online videos are really just fundamental principles of human interaction, and you can apply to nearly any form of communication (especially marketing).
While there's no way to guarantee that anything will "go viral," studying and applying those basic elements can significantly increase the impact, engagement, and sharing of the marketing pieces you're already putting together. Marketing is expensive, so you might as well make it count for as much as you can.
There are six primary factors that go into making viral videos (and your marketing efforts) highly successful: Emotion, Surprise, Intensity, Relevance, Validation, and Style.
Emotion: In a world obsessed with productivity, obligations, and metrics, people really long for opportunities to reconnect with their humanity. Romance, anger, disgust, joy, nostalgia, ambition, and all the other emotions stir our blood, remind us who we are, and motivate us to connect at a deeper level.
Surprise: Our brains are wired to pay close attention to anything that violates our expectations, so you can make your message stand out (and be remembered) but doing something in a surprisingly different way, whether it's an unusual image, a bold statement, or an unexpected outcome.
Intensity: Because so many forces are vying for our time at any given moment, it's important to grab the audience's attention right away, and to keep that attention through brevity and density. Whatever you have to say, chop it in half, and then chop it in half again. Make every word count, and leave them wanting more. (If you feel like you've said everything you want to say, your message is probably far too long.)
Relevance: Reframe your message in a way that's directly relevant to your target audience. Think about their perspective, rather than focusing solely on the message your organization wants to put out there. (For example, we do a lot of branding work at Forty, but we found that the majority of business owners have very little idea what "branding" actually means, so we started eliminating that word from our marketing materials because they weren't seeing it as relevant. We still do the same work, we just talk about it using more relevant terms to our target audience.)
Validation: You have to have a significant amount of common ground with your target audience in order to effectively spread your message. People share things that validate their own worldview, and that represent their beliefs and opinions. (Look at your Facebook news feed and you'll see lots of this.) Likewise, they tend to automatically reject messages that contradict their worldview. You typically can't make people care about something they don't already care about, but you might be able to help them see how you fit into their existing worldview. Focus on people with compatible beliefs, and show them the ways in which your product or service can be a vehicle for extending and communicating those beliefs.
Style: When your message is presented in a distinctive sensory style (visual, verbal, auditory, etc.), it's easier for people to remember it when thinking about related subjects later. The way something is delivered becomes one of its key identifying characteristics that helps us recall it later (just as we might remember people because of the way they speak or dress).
To illustrate these points, here are a few highly successful videos. Take a moment and see if you can identify the six elements in each of them.
To find ways to significantly improve your current marketing efforts, consider one particular marketing piece at a time, and see how it stacks up against these six criteria. In less than a minute you'll probably have identified several key areas for improvement.
While you shouldn't expect that your marketing pieces will suddenly be shared by millions of people overnight, you can see how introducing these elements into your company's marketing could significantly punch up its effectiveness, and get you significantly better results than you could get without them. (You don't need a huge budget, you just need to know what works.)