by Stephanie Buck
“Going viral” is a distinct phenomenon particular to today’s Internet culture. But if you think about it, viral movements have been around forever. How else do you explain those horrifying motivational posters from a decade ago, or Britney Spears, or Furbies? Ick.
An incredibly powerful sub-category of viral content on the web is video. And everyone from Aziz Ansari to Apple to Allen’s Apricot Farm is trying to produce the next viral hit. Why? It’s all about eyeballs. And yours have probably seen a viral video in the past month, past day or even the past few hours.
The guys at creative agency Seedwell specialize in imagining, producing and distributing viral video. Partners Peter Furia, Beau Lewis and David Fine represent the heads of strategy, business and production, respectively.
But don’t you dare call Seedwell an advertising agency; this team values creativity over commercials. Its goal is to communicate brand messages via viral means, which means turning traditional advertising on its pretty little head.
The lads at Seedwell also produce for a separate YouTube channel, called Pantless Knights, which features mini-docu-series and music videos about pop culture and digital humor. Their newest channel, American Hipster, profiles the trendiest people in the country and gets behind the mustaches and vintage scarves.
Mashable spoke to Seedwell to discover just what constitutes a viral video. What is today’s viral audience looking for? Is there a formula for going viral? Read on to learn how this team builds views, targets tastemakers and caters to the modern web audience.
Q&A With the Partners at Seedwell
Is there something all viral videos have in common?
Lewis: This conversation begins with a speed bump, the lack of a universal definition for what constitutes a “viral video” (kind of like “hipster” — more on that later). Perhaps we can use this opportunity to propose one?
We’ve heard “viral video” used to represent: a threshold of views, a rate of growth, a threshold of sharing, and occasionally an aesthetic. What if we thought about “viral criteria” the same way our teachers did: relative to the class?
In most classes, 95% is an “A.” By that metric, getting 10,000 views on YouTube earns a video as viral “A.” This is a bit of a surprise to many who think about “viral” as being in the millions, but it should make you feel better about the video of your cat that hasn’t gotten 1 million views yet (the 99.8th percentile).
There is also precedent for defining a “viral video” relative to the class in Unruly Media’s viral video chart, which ranks the top videos in terms of sharing. To make the top 100 list, you have to rack up about 8,500 shares in 24 hours. This is closer to the 99.9th repeated percentile than the 95th (and there is a big snowball at the top), so let’s do napkin math and relax that to about 1,000 shares.
For the sake of pushing the conversation forward, let’s assume the definition of a “viral video” is an impressive performance of views, sharing and growth curve relative to the top 5% of the class (10,000+ views, 1,000+ shares in 24 hours). Let’s also ignore the videos that simply paid for their views. Most “viral videos” that achieve along these lines do have some things in common: theme, structure and tastemakers.
- Theme: Most “viral videos” fit into one of three thematic categories: 1) parody of something popular and timely, 2) cute as hell, and 3) did that just happen? (It usually didn’t.)
- Structure: There’s a compelling case for a progression that starts by surprising the viewer, avoids interjecting much advertising, and takes the viewer on an emotional roller coaster. Viewers’ screen time may be going up, but attention span appears to be going down, which means that the video needs to repeatedly earn the viewer throughout its duration.
- Tastemakers: Almost all viral videos get their legs after being discovered by tastemakers and digital influencers. These are celebrities with built-in audiences the size of cable channels. Kevin Alloca gives a good TED talk on the subject, and the Kony 2012 video was perhaps the best example of engineering it to date.
How would you define today’s “viral audience?” Or is it a general audience because viral is so universally appealing?
Furia: We don’t believe there is a “viral” audience. Certainly, younger tech-savvy people have a greater propensity for sharing content online, but videos can go viral within the general population, as well as within any number of niche audiences.
The key is making a video that elicits a strong enough emotion or reaction from a group of people that they feel compelled to share it with others. In some cases, that might be something universally appealing, like a laughing baby. In others, that might be a music video about an Apple product that touches on things only Apple users understand. In the latter case, the potential sharing population is smaller than that of the laughing baby, but it’s also a community that is so passionate about the subject matter, that they’ll share the video far and wide.
What are people clicking on most these days?
Furia: There are a handful of triggers that motivate people to click on videos these days. The biggest ones are probably video thumbnail, video title, relevancy and curation.
A provocative thumbnail and/or title will drive lots of clicks, especially if they seem relevant to viewers. It’s not always the case, but you’ll often notice way more views for “lower quality” videos that pertain to a major news event, pop culture trend or hot topic than for “higher quality” videos that are more timeless. Videos that capitalize on these “tentpole events” (like national holidays or major news events) can capture the public eye. The home run, though, is when you can create a video that is both high quality and relevant — this video stands out from the rest, and is something we always strive for.
Curation is also hugely important. People are much more likely to click a video that gets shared with them by a friend or a blogger whose opinion they trust. In many cases, the biggest YouTube celebrities, Twitter celebrities and bloggers have the power to make a video viral simply by posting it to their massive audiences. These people are the tastemakers of the digital world.
There is also a mob mentality around already popular videos — the thinking goes, “Wow, if 100,000 people have watched this in the last two days, it must be relevant and worth watching.”
Oh yeah, and it will always be the case that sex sells. A thumbnail with a close-up on a sexy body part — whether it’s a pair of boobs or a guy’s sculpted abs — will always get clicks.
Lewis: It’s also worth noting that there’s an interesting trend in the world of YouTube where clicks are becoming less important. The model is moving more towards channels, subscriptions, playlists and a “lean back” experience. Assuming the trend continues, this means platforms will favor fewer different video clicks in favor of a longer watching time-per-click.
What are people sharing most these days? Is there a difference between a video that’s clickable and shareable?
Furia: There are two very separate decision points for a viewer: the moment of choosing whether to click on a video, and then the moment where they decide whether to share it.
Most people will just watch a video and then click away or close it. If they decide to share a video, it usually is because they either a) altruistically want to share the enjoyment of that video with others, or b) selfishly want to be seen sharing or critiquing that video. The former is usually accompanied by an enthusiastic statement, like “OMG, this is awesome!” While the latter is usually accompanied by an understated or critical post, like “Is this what the internet has come to?”
It’s amazing how many people will post videos that they dislike. This often reinforces the phrase “any press is good press.”
You emphatically state that Seedwell is “not an ad agency.” Why is that?
Lewis: The reason we get up in the morning is to create videos that make people smile, not to sell chips or body wash (both of which we do use). We’re extremely paranoid that the moment we forget that will be the moment we make videos nobody wants to watch or share. That is when we lose relevance — both to viewers and (ironically) to advertisers.
So, we think of ourselves as a “creative studio” rather than an “ad agency.” Ad agencies have historically paid for distribution with creative as an add-on. We believe in paying for creative and earning the distribution.
As much as we enjoy watching Mad Men, the world has changed. It’s frowned on to drink old fashioned’s before 10 a.m., and there is no such thing as a guaranteed audience. People only watch what they want to watch, advertisements included.
It used to be enough to think about the message that your target consumer wanted. Now you have to earn their attention before you can even deliver a message. So, even if we’re building a business that relies on advertising, we better be thinking about creating content that engages the viewer first.
You launched the YouTube channel American Hipster recently, and we love it! Where did the idea come from?
Fine: I came up with the idea for a documentary series called American Hipster about 4.5 years ago with a close friend from college, Abby Weintraub. The idea was to explore the word “hipster,” and all the contention surrounding it, by profiling the people whose passions became the trends that have been co-opted by the “hipster,” whatever that word means.
The original idea was based on two assumptions: 1) that there are interesting people doing interesting things that, while widely considered to be “hipster,” lack the pretention and “F-you” attitude we all associate with hipsters, and 2) that people will watch a show called American Hipster because at their core, both words are highly charged and contentious.
Furia: Once we decided to develop a full YouTube channel around this American hipster theme, we renamed the documentary series American Hipster Presents (to emphasize the show’s focus on our interview subjects). And [we] developed the other two more tongue-in-cheek, pop culture-focused shows, Hipster Grandmas and Max Movie Reviews. At a high level, the channel is just a fun way to explore today’s youth culture.
Many people think the whole hipster thing is over, but the fact that the term is still so contentious makes us think there’s substance to explore. We also suspect there’s new humor to enjoy as hipsterism’s influence expands further into the mainstream and crosses generations.
Where do all your ideas come from?
Fine: Creative is what we do best. We’ve all known each other since we were 12, so we’re not precious about our ideas when we’re collaborating on creative. We admit readily when an idea is bad. Or great. Or just OK. There’s no love lost, or time for that matter.
That said, we spend a lot of time working through a creative process that involves whiteboards, blindfolds, walking meetings and sometimes tumblers and trust falls.
Furia: I think the best ideas are born from moments when our subconscious thoughts can breathe (i.e. when we’re not trying too hard to think), like in the shower or during a commute, but we’ve found that the best concepts are developed through collaboration. I think we have a special collaborative chemistry there; every single good concept has come about because one of us had a kernel of an idea and then others iterated on it.
What kind of people participate in your videos (both actors and behind the scenes)? How do you determine whether those characters/creative minds will appeal to a viral audience?
Lewis: Our videos began with just us and our friends, both in front of and behind the camera. We like that tradition and continue it. Making viral videos requires taking a lot of creative risks, which is something that you are better at doing in the company of people you trust.
As we’ve grown and realized the limitations of our on-screen talent (there are only so many dance moves we know), it has required us making more friends. That is a good thing, too. Many of our new friends are technically very skilled or highly magnetic in front of a camera.
Do you simply create the video and hope it goes viral? Or do you take steps to ensure its “virality?” Share some tips!
Furia: There is absolutely an element of uncertainty in the world of viral video. You can never know for sure whether something will catch fire and spread.
That said, there are a number of steps you can take to improve your chances of going viral. Here are our tips.
- Start with a catchy concept.The content is the single most important element to a video being shared virally. Your content should be fresh or relevant, or both. The online video world rewards the new, the unexpected and the relevant. It’s a world where content goes stale in a matter of days and trends become old news quickly. If you’re tackling a topic that’s no longer new, you’d better be offering a fresh or creative perspective on it.Alternatively, you can go for the quirky or sensational. People will share a video showing a physical or mental feat that’s objectively impressive (like a toddler soccer phenom or StarCraft II keystroke freak), or something that’s just hilarious, weird or unexpected (like the Nyan Cat or Randall’s animal voiceover).Additionally, it can be helpful to identify your core audience and make sure you’re speaking their language. Something that’s too general can get lost in the noise, while something that’s very specific can ignite the passions of a niche community who sees your video as uniquely personal, and who will be thrilled to share it with other like-minded people.
- Optimize the content for online audiences.While there are a handful of exceptions, most videos that go viral are shorter in length and convey what the video is about in the first 15-30 seconds. As people become increasingly busy, and as more and more content competes for their attention, they’re developing shorter attention spans and less patience. They want to know right away that a) they’ll be glad they watched the video when it’s done, and b) it’s not going to burn up too many minutes of their busy day.Making the content easily searchable and identifiable, via its video thumbnail and its title, description and keywords is also very helpful.Additionally, people are less likely to share a video with overbearing packaging, branding or calls-to-action. Minutes-long opening credits or overt advertising can often be a turn-off for viewers.
- Get your content in the hands of relevant press outlets and tastemakers.The world of online video has become increasingly saturated, and it’s harder than ever to break through the noise, even if you have a catchy concept and a video that’s optimized for online audiences.Getting your video shared by digital influencers with large and engaged audiences is essential. While some bloggers and web celebrities get annoyed by “cold emails” and self-promoting, many more of them are interested in being among the first people to post a hot video, especially if it speaks to their specific interests.Identify the tastemakers with large audiences for whom your content is relevant, and share the link with them, along with some context for why they should check it out. They’ll always read your emails or tweets, but they’ll often only reply if they’re interested in posting it.The type of outlet is also important. We’ve found that posts by traditional media outlets (like newspapers or magazines and their corresponding websites) with massive audiences can actually have a smaller impact on video views than posts by dedicated blogs and YouTube or Twitter celebrities with smaller audiences. This is because the latter often use more sharing-friendly publishing platforms, and their audiences are more tech-savvy and familiar with online video sharing.In other words, a write-up in Mashable with a video embedded, or a tweet from Ashton Kutcher with a video link can be an order of magnitude better for virality than a write-up in The New York Times.Lastly, you can pay for promotion. There are now a number of platforms on which you can advertise a video, such as YouTube Promoted Videos or Facebook Ads, and those tools can help drive the same initial momentum that a press feature would.