Why did the Save the Children Syria video go viral?

Only four days after Save the Children launched the "Most Shocking Second a Day Video" it had reached 21 million views.
Why did the Save the Children Syria video go viral?

This blog investigates why this video became one of the most watched charity videos of all time and what we can learn from their approach.

Role of Emotion

I think the single biggest reason people shared the video was because it packed such a strong emotional punch. Academic research by Dr. Karen Nelson-Field has shown that “On average, videos that elicit high-arousal emotions gain twice as much sharing as those that elicit low-arousal emotion.”

Don’t Panic London, the creative agency Save the Children worked with, have said it's crucial to:

"Bake extreme emotional triggers into your treatment. Make it inherently funny, sad or WTF. Test you have achieved this using algorithms and test marketing."

Part of why it was so powerful for many in the West was because it established an emotional connection with a character and setting we can easily identify with. So when bad things started to happen we are more emotionally involved.

It’s a sad reality that many people have emotional barriers to engaging with those who appear different but recognising this Save the Children have found a way to highlight the Syrian conflict in a way that huge numbers of people are touched by. Amnesty International have also successfully used a similar device.

While the video intends to positions itself in opposition to phenomena like “Missing White Woman Syndrome”, it's open for debate whether the video will lead to genuine emotional connection with the plight of real Syrian children rather than just fictional British children.

What’s in a name?

Upworthy have used A/B testing to show just how important it is to have a video name that will entice people to watch it. They found that a better name can lead to over 32 times the number of clicks.

The title "Most Shocking Second a Day Video" taps into a popular meme and will interest anyone who has seen a "second a day" video. Importantly it also leaves people curious as to why the video is so shocking. Upworthy calls this a curiosity gap and says that the perfect titles strike a balance between:

"Too vague and I don't want to click.Too specific, I don’t need to click.”

The title also doesn’t reveal that it’s a charity video or that it’s about the Syrian conflict which could have limited the audience to those already engaged. Upworthy have avoided using terms like “feminist” in titles in the past for the same reason.

The Launch

When a video goes big you always wonder if they just invested huge amounts in paid promotion. That wasn’t the case here and Save the Children instead had a mix of some paid promotion, seeding and an internationally coordinated launch through their social media channels.

Don’t Panic London have said that the secret is to:

“Use a targeted suite of paid promo combined with a solid seeding plan to kick start your campaign.

Understand what digital influencers are sharing online; what will ‘Generation C’ like?”

By understanding what online influencers will share and creating content in line with that, you don’t need a massive paid promotion budget if you can effectively seed your content to the right places. Easier said than done though.

Views = Success?

There’s no doubt that the video was a success in terms of views but whether this translate that into action is a different question. As the video was targeted at an international audience they couldn’t include a text to donate link. Instead they’ve used YouTube annotations to redirect people to different websites based on their location.

The main ask in the UK is for people to share an image on Facebook or Twitter as part of “Faces for Syria” campaign. Given many people will have just shared the video on their social networks, Save the Children UK may be missing the opportunity to engage the audience in a deeper way. Either through donating, taking an action to tackle the problem more directly or actually learning about the real life equivalents of the girl in the video. Though each region had different landing pages and so other countries may have approached this differently.

I’d say regardless of this, it's been a huge success as it came at a time when many organisations have been frantically trying to raise awareness of the conflict in Syria.

Linda McBain, Digital Marketing Manager at Save the Children, has said:

"We wanted the video to put a fresh light on the conflict and reach a new audience who may not fully understand what is happening and give them a new perspective on the reality of the lives of millions of Syrian children and their families affected by the fighting. For me, the true value of the video will be measured over the longer term – keeping awareness high and increasing engagement with our follow up Syria campaigns."

Whether the phenomenal short term success translates to longer term engagement will be a really interesting test of the effectiveness of these types of videos. I for one am hoping it does.


This blog expands on an ECF email thread. Thanks to everyone who inputted on this as this blog owes a large debt to that discussion. Particular thanks to Linda McBain.

If you have any questions for the author get in touch at richard.roaf@alter-eco.co.uk or @RRoaf

by Richard Roaf published Mar 12, 2014,