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As marketers, we share a common goal: Convince people to engage with our brands. Truth be told, it can take a lot of work to make this happen. That’s why I’m always struck by YouTube’s Ads Leaderboard, an annual list of the most-watched video ads of the year. In a world of unlimited content, millions of people actually choose to watch these ads, so it’s useful to consider what makes them so successful.

While no single formula exists for a viral video ad, we can make observations about what works to inspire our own media strategies. Here are three proven approaches to try, pulled from the latest Ads Leaderboard.

Anchor your campaign in YouTube watch trends

For its “Harry Potter” 20th anniversary special, HBO Max wanted to reach two distinct audiences: die-hard “Harry Potter” fans eager to be reintroduced to the magic of the series and a new generation of younger viewers who hadn’t yet embraced the franchise.

To appeal to both groups, HBO Max leaned into a powerful trend: people like watching content that makes them feel nostalgic. With that trend in mind, the brand designed a video ad to give viewers a heartwarming, retrospective experience full of “Harry Potter” memories. Beyond showcasing the cast’s memorable moments, the ad pulled in fans and authentically celebrated their journey too.

HBO Max and WarnerMedia bring together the stars and creatives to relive the magic of “Harry Potter” in celebration of its 20th anniversary.

HBO Max used YouTube to power the campaign. As JP Mallo, VP of marketing for HBO Max Originals, explains, “YouTube is often our initial indicator when we release early marketing assets for how our audience is engaging, what sentiments we’re seeing, and what — if anything — they’re responding to in terms of content themes.”

YouTube proved to be an ideal home for HBO Max’s ads, since people of all ages gravitate to the platform for nostalgic content. According to a 2022 Ipsos survey, 80% of Gen Z reported watching YouTube to feel nostalgic;1 by running a nostalgia-based campaign on YouTube, HBO Max could appeal to “Harry Potter” enthusiasts, while also grabbing the attention of a younger generation.

The campaign launched mid-November with bumper ads, plus non-skippable and skippable in-stream ads to drive awareness and consideration. Then, in the days leading up to the New Year’s Day premiere, HBO Max used YouTube Select to feature the ads alongside premium content. Finally, they concluded the campaign by leveraging YouTube Masthead before and after the New Year’s Day premiere, placing the video on YouTube’s home feed to drive mass awareness. In the end, the approach drove 12.7% awareness lift — remarkable for a brand with high awareness already — and reached 49 million unique users.

Build creative to match viewers’ screens

WE, Egypt’s primary telecommunications company, needed an ad campaign that could cut through the holiday noise during the busy Ramadan season. To achieve this, it strategized videos that would help viewers understand evolving trends of Ramadan.

Since WE’s message had to appeal to viewers across multiple generations, the team determined that “the campaign should include a diverse mix of ads,” says Eslam Nassar, the brand’s head of digital marketing. “That’s why we turned to YouTube to tell a compelling, creative story across ad formats and screens.”

WE planned and executed a full-funnel video strategy that leveraged a unique blend of short- and long-form ads. For viewers in the awareness phase, the team launched 6-second bumper ads to tease the campaign and deliver a quick call to action.

Then, to further engage middle- and lower-funnel audiences, WE created a full-length, in-stream video. This ad was designed to be watched across devices, from connected TV to mobile. To ensure that this long-form ad could fully immerse people in the brand’s unique approach to storytelling, the team relied on YouTube’s four guiding principles for effective video ads on the platform, the ABCDs — shorthand for attention, branding, connection and direction.

To quickly gain the attention of and connect with viewers, the video began with a catchy musical track. WE made sure the distinctive purple color of its logo dominated the video’s visuals to reinforce company branding. To further connect with multigenerational viewers, the video compared and contrasted Ramadan traditions throughout the ages. Finally, the video directed people to take action by signing up for WE’s services so they could stay in touch with family.

Mobile provider of Telecom Egypt, WE’s high-concept music video celebrates Ramadan and engages customers of all generations.

This multiformat strategy proved successful. Within the first 24 hours, the long-form video exceeded 1 million views. What’s more, its completion rate surpassed the brand’s 2021 Ramadan video by 204% as well as the market average for completion rate by 47%. Ultimately, the campaign reached 79% of Egypt’s YouTube population.

WE’s digital advertising manager, Ahmed Nageb, concludes, “YouTube is one of most important platforms to help us execute our digital strategies effectively. Because of its vast audience, which can be targeted through various ad formats and devices, we were able to achieve maximum reach, while hitting our campaign objectives.”

Leave eager viewers wanting more

Last year, BMW launched its first ever fully electric BMW iX sports activity vehicle in the United States. To promote this milestone during the Super Bowl, BMW created a 60-second hero video ad that showed Zeus, the mythical Greek god of sky and thunder, retiring to Palm Springs and rediscovering his spark when gifted a BMW iX by his wife, Hera.

The hero video for BMW’s all-star Super Bowl campaign features the retired king and queen of Mount Olympus and the all-electric iX M60.

To extend the ad’s reach during this tentpole moment, BMW made YouTube a core part of its Super Bowl strategy. “YouTube is a great amplifier of content, which not only increased the audience size exponentially but extended the longevity of the spot,” explains Albrecht Pagenstert, head of brand marketing at BMW. “What ran once during the Super Bowl lives online and has received millions of additional views.”

BMW’s strategy hinged on reaching a wide variety of passionate Super Bowl fans through YouTube AdBlitz, the premier hub for fans to watch Super Bowl ads with playlists for the most comedic, dramatic, action-packed, and inspirational spots. Through AdBlitz, BMW could target specific Super Bowl-related video inventory, such as NFL Highlights watched by sports lovers, and Big Game Music Lineups watched by audiophiles.

Once the campaign peaked viewers’ interest during YouTube AdBlitz, BMW then strategized to satisfy their hunger for more content. It released behind-the-scenes videos, including interviews with the hero ad’s star-studded cast and director.

Audiences couldn’t get enough of BMW’s campaign. In fact, many YouTube commenters enthusiastically asked for the hero video to be turned into a full movie. In the end, the video drove 17 million unique views and 970,000 clicks. In addition to being recognized on YouTube’s Ads Leaderboard in the U.S., BMW earned the No. 7 spot in USA Today’s Ad Meter.

HBO Max, WE, and BMW struck gold with video ads that entertained and engaged key audiences. By aligning their ads with popular YouTube trends, building bespoke creative for different platforms, and following the ABCDs of video effectiveness, these brands showed how to successfully combine immersive storytelling with the power of YouTube.