Limbic Resonance – The Science Behind The Success of YouTubers

I’ve seen it time and time again with the campaigns I’ve worked on.

YouTubers crash websites with a single mention, drive tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of fans to visit a website, like a facebook page, submit content, or appear in droves to events at the simple mention of a specific time and place.

For years I struggled to articulate what was unique about video and why YouTubers can wield their audiences at scale. We produced results and made the brands happy, but left brand managers a bit confused on the mechanisms behind it.

What was so compelling about these ‘influencers’? Why do they have so many fans? What’s the appeal?

This confusion didn’t stop some of the brands from diving into YouTube. In fact, recently, with the widespread acceptance among the advertising communities particularly after Disney’s acquisition of Maker, there has been a significant increase in brands collaborating with influencers. Yet, many struggle with letting the YouTubers creating the very style of content that built them an audience in the first place. In this way they are making a step towards working with YouTubers, but at the same time not letting them do “their thing” which will ultimately bring the best returns to the brand.

This is because, while there is widespread belief that influencers and their audiences can produce results for brands, what has not been articulated is why these audiences are so much more powerful than other mediums – thus the brands are not really sure how to approach working with them. So, why is it that YouTubers are able to drive so much engagement, and why do you need to let them work within their existing formats and style which their audience knows and loves?

What is it about the relationship with fans or video or YouTube that makes it so effective?

Not all influencer marketing is equal. No offense to bloggers, they have influence, but only a handful can drive the type of engagement that someone speaking to viewers directly over video are able to (I’d argue that Tim Ferriss is one of them).

So, what is it?

In the back of my mind I always attributed it to some vague notion of the ‘human element’. There was the idea that you feel as if you get to ‘know’ the YouTuber you watch, they’re your friend because you have insight into their lives so you become emotionally invested in them. However, that never felt like a complete answer.

There are many bloggers that share their lives openly. Why are influencers on YouTube different from those on any other medium?

It turns out that there is a reason for it, and I have a blog commenter to thank. On a post I did about the psychology of digital marketing, Richard Medic made a comment about ‘Limbic Resonance’ playing a role in the success of digital video campaigns.

I’d never heard of the term before, but it put a name to something I couldn’t articulate.

As Richard aptly described in his own blog post on the topic of Limbic Resonance:

The limbic system is a part of the brain that drives our emotions. When we’re around other people–especially crowds–the limbic system releases neurochemicals that connect us at an emotional level. The capacity for empathy and non-verbal communication is called limbic resonance aka “emotional contagion”.

Essentially, when we see someone our brain releases chemicals that that drive an emotional connection. That’s limbic resonance.

So what are these chemicals? What is it about them that drives us to care?

The limbic system within the brain is comprised of the dopamine circuit which sparks feelings of empathy, as well as the norepinephrine circuit which drives the emotional states of fear, anxiety and anger.

Dopamine is often associated with love, motivation, sexual gratification, and addiction. I am no expert, but these seem like powerful drivers. It makes sense when I think about it in the context of my own behaviors as well.

I get hundreds of emails every day, and I can guess it’s the same with you. These days we get hammered with inbound requests from people – texts, tweets, snapchats, emails, phone calls. Can you really invest the energy to answer honestly and emotionally to each and every one of those?, I have a really hard time thinking of people when I’m looking at faceless text in emails. I’m just not emotionally invested. If I know someone in real life, I’m more likely to respond quickly and thoughtfully than I would a stranger.

YouTubers, and vloggers in particular, are able to build a relationship with their fans that feels as close and intimate as a deep friendship for the viewer.

Many YouTubers to spend 10-20 minutes speaking directly to the camera, bringing the viewer along throughout a days activity. The vloggers speak to the camera in their bedrooms, they’ll ask questions, they’ll introduce viewers to their friends and family. The content isn’t produced in the traditional sense – the footage is raw, no special effects, fancy edits or sound design – but that lends to the feeling of intimacy.

Compare this to a TV show or movie, where breaking down the fourth wall and acknowledging the viewer is rare and the content is heavily edited with lot’s of quick cuts, effects, and color correction. None of the elements of real life are carried over to TV – removing the opportunities for limbic resonance and the development of a deep emotional connection.

Vlogs on the other hand, are the closest thing to being there and create a sense of intimacy. This is the big thing about YouTube and the backbone of influencer’s growing success.

YouTube makes the feeling of knowing someone scaleable.

I don’t think its a huge leap of faith to assume that the majority of books you buy or movies you see come as the result of recommendations from your friends. We trust them and we listen to them. You’re also more inclined to help a friend. What kind of favors they could ask of you?

Now imagine the impact these creators have with a direct line of communication to thousands, if not millions of friends. These are people who not only care about their friend, but want to see them succeed.

What could someone with one million friends accomplish with a little bit of time and some money? Apparently a lot.

YouTubers have already tapped into their fans (friends) to create #1 best selling albums, NYTimes best sellers, and even box office hits that topple the biggest movie stars on the planet.

Vlogger Dan Howell who has over 3 million subscribers, describes the phenomenon, stating that “People like YouTube, it’s a personal connection… It’s like you have a friend.” This sense of friendship that fans develop can be a huge asset to brands.

So ask yourself, how are you producing your videos? Is it something that your audience can really care about? What is it about your product that can get a person excited? Is it a glorified TV spot with one-dimensional characters which lack depth and an opportunities for viewers to become invested.

Intimacy is what drives results.

Humanity trumps production and if you can scale the emotional investment in your brand, your profits will follow in lockstep.

What do you think? Do you see how a powerful emotional attachment could develop over YouTube? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

  • Adam Hoek

    interesting post, Brendan. Its funny how adding production value may be harmful when trying to connect with viewers.
    I would say, the majority of my content is well produced. which makes me wonder if its all really necessary. On 1 hand, I want to put my best foot forward, but on the other hand, I would like to really get to know my fans. My content however is music, so its still possible for them to get that emotional connection when viewing my content.
    Ah well, yet another aspect for me to think about as I continue along my path 😛

    • Brendan

      Thanks Adam.
      Yeah – It’s interesting. I think things can still look nice or sound good, but sometimes in advertising we get overzealous and strip away anything quirky or imperfect so that its so diluted its no longer something anyone can relate to. I think a lot of the imperfections show us something that’s a bit more human, and that’s ultimately what people tend to gravitate towards.

      • Adam Hoek

        Makes sense. I do like to not over produce, keep a human element. Thanks again for the article.

      • Erik Weber

        Exactly. This is why I’ve been so drawn to a certain style of podcast lately. Even without any video, if you can make it clear that you are speaking from your true, authentic self without any edits, you build this really strong sense of trust. Joe Rogan’s podcast comes to mind most readily here. Marc Maron’s WTF is another. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t hide behind anything. And, now that I think about it actually… Joe Rogan started out by doing his show LIVE on Ustream, and you can watch it all on YouTube!

        Anyways, great post. Thanks for sharing.

        • Brendan

          Thanks Erik!

    • Mark Heyert

      @adamhoek:disqus your self confidence is wonderful, I’m going to check out your music because it, but please don’t start “producing down” with the hopes of reaching a greater audience. Listeners like you for your sounds, keep making them.

      • Adam Hoek

        thank you Mark. Maybe adding a vlog every now and then would be beneficial, that way, I can still have both raw and produced content up and running 🙂

  • YaBoyLV

    I agree with the thought that people connect more with YouTube than any other online medium. I have found that when you are transparent and not marketing to people, you see a greater ROI. When I opened up about my biggest mistake on YouTube, my audience grew quicker than it ever has. Since then I have seen grow and even other YouTubers referencing my transparency. I think people just want the real.

    • Brendan


  • Richard Medic

    Nice post Brendan and thanks for the H/T. You’re talking predominately about on demand video, right? So here’s the thing.

    From my experience and (not much, yet) data, the limbic system resonates strongest when people gather around content at the same time, so creators and audiences can interact in realtime.

    Take Felix Baumgartner’s space jump in 2012, one of the first big happenings online. Several videos were released aftertime that have collectively generated 50m+ views on YT. But it was the 8m people who watched it on YT/Live, in realtime, that enjoyed the full blown emotional experience–the kind of experience that’s contagious and that influences and converts.

    I spent 90 minutes on YT/Live watching that balloon crawl up to the “edge of space”. It felt special, sharing the experience and interacting in the comments with millions of other people. The buzz, the sense of anticipation, the not knowing what would happen next. And yet, I’d never watch that same video on demand. Or at least not more than 5 minutes of it.

    On demand video does drive limbic resonance. But live video makes the emotional connections deeper, longer and uncut.

    The same principle applies to any live happening versus on demand content. Engagement and influence are stronger when you blog, tweet or podcast content live. The challenge lies in getting a time-strapped audience to your landing page as the happening starts.

    I’ll be blogging regularly about this stuff from next month, expect this comment to evolve into a post 🙂 Thanks again!

    • Brendan

      Hi Richard. Sure thing. Pumped you left the comment. I went down a rabbit hole with this stuff.

      Good point on live video. Totally agree with everything you’re saying. It’s bringing you even that much closer than on demand content. I think this is why live streaming has such high engagement on a per viewer basis.

      Pumped to see what you crank out next. Definitely make sure to email it to me!

  • Dane Golden

    Great post Brendan. I hadn’t heard of Limbic Resonance but it’s my new catchphrase now.

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