5 WEIRD tricks the world’s MOST POPULAR YouTuber uses to GO INSANELY VIRAL

MrBeast makes bad content that people can’t stop watching. And—knowingly or not—he uses these five psychological strategies to do it.

11 Jan 2024
Written by
Chris Harrigan
How To
Reading time
10 min

Photo illustration: Emily Thiang

There are two types of people in the world: those who can recall the sight of MrBeast’s overly airbrushed face like the backs of their own hands, and those who have no idea who the divisive YouTube sensation is (let alone why a content-hungry editor might spend their weekend writing about him). If you fall into the latter camp, there’s a good chance that you are over the age of 30 and have thus been shielded from the more algorithmically generated corners of Gen Z internet. Good for you.

Alas, that privilege ends today.

Because while it is true that MrBeast makes the kind of content we’d usually caution against watching, it is also true that that content happens to be the most-watched in the history of YouTube, making it among the most-watched in the history of the planet. If someone can rack up over 10 million views on every single video they’ve ever posted, we think it’s probably worth spending a bit of time looking into what that person does and examining how they succeed so wildly at doing it, even if the vibes of the whole operation feel—to put things scientifically—kinda off.

A quick primer, then, for those who need one.

MrBeast is the online alias of Jimmy Donaldson, a 25-year-old North Carolinian who last year overtook Swedish gamer PewDiePie to become the biggest single YouTuber in the platform’s history. Like many Gen Z YouTubers, Donaldson started out making video game material, filming himself playing Minecraft and Call of Duty and uploading the footage with inane commentaries to his channel. But Donaldson’s focus—and fortunes—changed in 2017 when he created a video called “Giving A Random Homeless Man $10,000”—a ten-minute video in which Donaldson (you guessed it) gives a random person experiencing homelessness $10,000. That video proceeded to do serious numbers. Shortly after, Donaldson dropped the video game stuff and pivoted to making stunt-only content.

And not just any stunts. Nine times out of ten, Donaldson’s videos feature him giving away an increasingly insane amount of money. Sometimes he gives that money away to an unsuspecting individual. Sometimes he gives it away to a charity. And sometimes he gives it away to the winner of an elaborate Squid Game-like game show, where contestants compete for cash by performing feats of strength or, say, staying inside a supermarket for a really long time. (Occasionally he’ll record more bizarre stunts, like the time he filled his brother’s house with slime or when he paid an assassin to try to hill him, but it’s the giveaway videos that have made him popular.)

It seems like Donaldson makes content without much thought, but there's actually a lot of strategy behind his success.

As far as the actual content of these videos is concerned, it’s all—and I say this dispassionately—garbage; the kind of feel-good infotainment you forget about even while you consume it. Donaldson’s awkward screen presence doesn’t help matters—media critic Ryan Broderick put it best he when described Donaldson as an “algorithmically optimized charisma void that looks like someone who would wear pants that zip off into shorts”.

But beyond all the potential ad hominems we could lob at MrBeast (see, for instance, the rictus grin he insists on sporting in all of his thumbnails), there’s the underlying moral ickiness of the charity work he records himself performing. While the truly needy occasionally benefit from MrBeast’s philanthropy—who can forget the time he cured 1000 people of cataract blindness?—capturing that philanthropy on camera and processing it into slickly produced clickbait makes the whole enterprise feel kinda gross. Does it help that every MrBeast video is accompanied by an uncannily photoshopped thumbnail like the one below? No, it does not.

It's hard to overstate how extremely not into this whole vibe we are.

There are philosophical arguments to be had about the nature of philanthropy and whether it’s ever permissible to mine your charity work for audience growth if that growth then lets you do more charity work. (A quick scan of the comments section shows that Gen Z is broadly more comfortable with MrBeast’s brand of cynical generosity than older viewers are.) But what’s of particular interest to us here at The Story is how someone like Donaldson has managed to turn a fairly basic gimmick—giving money away and doing inane pranks—into the biggest entertainment enterprise in the history of the internet.

Clearly we have not been alone in our wondering. A few months ago, a Redditor named Positive-Bison5023 posted that they had watched eight hours of MrBeast content in an attempt to work out exactly how Donaldson makes his content so spreadable. It’s actually a pretty smart idea. Because while it seems like Donaldson makes content without much thought beyond 'would this make a 12-year-old laugh', there's actually a lot of strategy behind his success.

In fact, Donaldson has long been open about his process, which relies heavily on A/B testing and data analysis to work out what the YouTube algorithm likes. As he once told Bloomberg, for most of his adolescence “I woke up, I studied YouTube, I studied videos, I studied filmmaking, I went to bed and that was my life.” As time went on, he got more specific about what he would study; as he later told Joe Rogan, “we’d do things like take a thousand thumbnails and see if there’s a correlation to the brightness of the thumbnail to how many views it got. Videos that got over 10 million views, how often do they cut the camera angles? Things like that.”

What Positive-Bison5023 discovered in their eight-hour binge-watch was that, consciously or not, Donaldson plays plenty of psychological tricks to capture the attention of would-be viewers and game the algorithm. These strategies have obviously proved useful for MrBeast, but there’s no reason that many of them couldn’t be deployed by anyone looking to reach a wider audience. Whether you’re a content creator looking to gain a foothold in the algorithm, a marketer looking to capture attention on social media, or if you’re just generally looking for ways to improve your communication skills, understanding the tactics used by MrBeast can be helpful. To that end, we’ve summarised the five we thought would be most useful to content creators of all walks (you can read the full list of them here,). Just don’t, for the love of god, subscribe to his YouTube channel. Read on instead.

1. The Novelty Effect

You don’t need to watch eight hours of MrBeast content to see how often he deploys novelty to effect – in other words, how often he does something so far out of the ordinary that people who should know better still can’t help but click to find out more. Take, for example, his 2018 video “I Put 100 Million Orbeez In My Friend's Backyard” (viewer count at the time of writing: 196,724,725). What’s an Orbee? I have no idea. And even though I’ve made not watching MrBeast videos a core part of my identity, after reading that headline I feel compelled to see what 100 million of the things look like in some random guy’s backyard. I don’t feel great about it, but it’s true.

Why the allure? In short, our brains’ reward systems are hard-wired to look for something new or unusual. They love things they’ve never seen before, even when those things are inane. But novelty wears off over time. Which is why MrBeast’s video titles get more extreme each time he uploads a new one.

Thankfully, you don’t need to put 200 million Orbeez in your friend’s backyard to grab someone’s attention. Instead, look for little elements of novelty you can insert into your content—something specific that your audience won’t have seen before.

2. Costly Signalling

Evolutionary biologists have long puzzled over a paradox: according to evolutionary theory, the most efficient animals should be the most successful. Why, then, did male birds perform energetically costly songs to attract mates, or waste precious resources growing conspicuous tails? The answer they arrived at is called cost signalling—basically, if you can show off by expending a lot of energy or effort, you can signal to others that you must be healthy and strong and worth hanging around with.

Whenever MrBeast puts a lavish sum of money in his headlines—which he basically does all the time—he’s letting you know he invested a lot of time and money into his content, and that it’s probably worth your time (even if it remains, deep down, basically not worth anyone’s time). And while giving away millions of dollars is a very literal way of signalling your worth, you don’t need to be so literal.

Let’s say you create content for a website about cars. Instead of writing about how much money you spent to buy a certain sportscar, you could write an article about something difficult and laborious you did in the name of creating an experience to write about. For instance, you could write an article titled “I drove a Soviet-era Volga across the Nullarbor”. It’s extreme, but not too costly (and it’ll score you some bonus novelty points while you’re at it).

3. The Concreteness Effect

If you’ve scrolled through MrBeast’s video library, you’ll notice a recurring trend (beyond the irritating thumbnails)—the use of very precise numbers in his headlines. Take a glance at some of his most popular videos: “Going Through The Same Drive Thru 1,000 Times" and “$456,000 Squid Game In Real Life!” Sure, the use of numbers here is also an example of costly signalling, letting you know that significant amount of time and effort went into them. But by using specific numbers (“1,000” or “$456,000”) instead of vague approximations (“loads of times” or “a massive fortune”), MrBeast is able to tap into what’s known as the Concreteness Effect.

I’m not smart enough to understand the scientific definition of the Concreteness Effect, which uses words like ‘semiotics’ and ‘nominalism’, but according to Positive-Bison5023 it has to do with the fact that our brains prefer concrete information over more abstract concepts. By using precise numbers in your headline, you’re content will be more likely to stick in your audience’s minds.

Bonus tip: if you’re writing a listicle, try to include an odd number of items rather than an even number. This is because even numbers can feel too neat, giving the reader the feeling you just chose that number becaues it looked good. An odd number, on the other hand, feels more authentic. For example, instead of writing ‘10 psychological strategies to become a better writer’, choose the best five strategies and write to that.

4. High Contrast

This one’s a little more niche, but sometimes MrBeast will craft a headline that plays on an extreme difference between two options, pitting them against each other. A classic example of this is the video “$1 vs $1,000,000 Hotel Room!". Both hotel rooms are curious enough on their own—Is there even such a thing as a $1 hotel room? See, now we want to know—but the individual curiosity roused by both is compounded by the prospect of the comparison.

The stark contrast creates a captivating ‘curiosity gap’ that compels viewers to click and see for themselves. You obviously don’t need to stick to hotel rooms to create this effect; nor do you need to stick to the frankly absurd contrast in money. Instead, you could focus on comparing an entry-level item from any field—a free online marketing course, say, or a $50 pen—and contrast it with something at the higher end—a three-day Harvard intensive, or a $500 Mont Blanc. From there, it’s up to you to create something that isn’t empty clickbait, so those who do watch don’t leave feeling malnourished and dirty. But if the goal is to increase your click count, you could do worse than lure people in with a high-contrast curiosity gap.

5. The FOMO Factor

The fear of missing out is one of the most psychological drivers known to science—and it’s especially potent in Gen Z and Millenials. (Gen Xers seemed to have been brought up to resist trends and are thus less motivated by a sense of urgency. At least that’s my read. Citation needed.) Marketers have long understood this, and often build entire campaigns that use FOMO to drive action by clicking, subscribing or purchasing now, while stocks last.

MrBeast doesn’t really employ FOMO in his marketing—his video content can be consumed at any time, really—but he routinely makes it a big part of the content he actually creates. See, for instance, his series of “Last to Leave” videos, where contestants vie for big cash prizes merely by hanging around so they don’t miss out. These range from the relatively low steaks (“Last To Leave Chocolate Hot Tub Wins $10000”) to the more lavish (“Last to Leave $800,000 Island Keeps It".)

Because you’re not creating bizarre Wonka-esque challenges for random contestants, you can probably deploy FOMO more directly in your headlines, instilling that sense of urgency in your would-be reader with time-sensitive content. For example, you could write an article titled "Uncover the Secret Rooftop Bar with the Best Views Before the Locals Do", or “Try This Top Tip to Ace your English Exam—Before Schools Ban It”.

Okay, that’s enough clickbait advice for now. Please use the above tips for good, not ill. And if you ever find yourself in a position to offer your viewers millions of dollars in giveaways, just remember who set you up with the idea. (By which I mean us, not MrBeast. That guy’s got enough money.)

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