Going viral

Today I attended a webinar by Studio Daily on the business of producing web video. It featured segments by Thor Raxlen and Darren Himebrook of GuerillaFX, who have done a lot of Nike work; Pat Carpenter of Creative Bubble, and Avi Savar, founder of Big Fuel.

Thor is a director and partner at Guerilla (in New York); Darren has just joined the company from a series of cool agency gigs including stops at Butler, Shine, Stern, & Partners in Sausalito, Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami. Darren has been given the interesting title Integrated D-P/Digital Strategist, a reflection of his experience working primarily with video cameras and other digital gizmos to create visuals that will mostly live on the web, but could see the light of day in other more traditional venues as well. Thor was quick to state in the discussion that at Guerilla they strive to create “Media Agnostic Storytelling”… which I thought was a pretty cool phrase that nicely restates my own core philosophy.

While I was hoping to hear that clever insight that would give us a secret formula for “going viral”, all the presenters ended up simply encouraging digital storytellers like me with the observation that no one seems to have the process figured out… although clearly some have more of a knack for it than others! Listening today reminded me of the recipe for tiger soup: first, catch a tiger: “Going viral begins with story.” Check. “Use the proven rules of filmmaking”. Check. “Overproduce, and press the limits of creativity…” Check on all the generalities. Check, too, on the specifics: get not only the main action, but the impact on people around (the happening dimension), and their reactions. Gather timelapse footage with a 35mm still camera like the Canon Mark III whenever possible; (I do this all the time and use the Nikon D300). Shoot with the best quality possible, to allow it to be dumbed down for the web. But what will go viral? No real insights here.

One of the questions revealed that most projects the GFX presenters were discussing had budgets of $50k to $150k … that probably elicited a chuckle from most of the listeners, as it did for me. While Nike can afford to throw that kind of dough at digital campaigns — using special cameras, following Olympians around the world to get truly amazing footage, (see the Nike spots on GFX’s reel page), the Fords and Ford Modeling Agencies and Fordham’s of the world are trying to get their message out with 1/2 to 1/10th of those numbers. So when the GFX guys talked about cutting corners by shaving off some crew members, etc., a lot of us have already cut the AD and the Production Designer and are working lean and mean. Most production crews in this business, I suspect, are down to 3 or 4 guys, and “cutting corners” here would take us down to 2 guys [or a guy and his girlfriend 🙂 ] . I didn’t  begrudge the advice, though… just felt good that I’ve already learned how to stretch a creative dollar to the max.

I hadn’t been aware of the Phantom 250fps to 1000 fps video cameras that can be rented from Abel CineTek and others. But I have my own secret weapon for low budget situations: the Sony HDR-SR100 which has a “slow smooth shutter” mode in which the camera runs for 4 seconds at 120 fps and then saves it out at 30fps — giving 12 seconds of silky smooth slomo. Here’s an example:

Another method of stretching a budget mentioned by the GFX guys is timelapse work. The movies you can get from choosing the right angle and then compressing what happens  can be downright mesmerizing. Here’s an example of a dramatic weather pattern that I shot about a month ago. This is the kind of compelling, arresting footage that I could easily see going viral:

A few more nuggets from the webinar:

  • Keep digital storytelling costs down by getting the client and agency client to agree to make decisions on the spot or defer to your judgment. My comment: overthinking is usually a mistake when you’re looking for authenticity.
  • Surprise is one of the most important elements of any successful digital storytelling piece. (Chip and Dan Heath say this in Made to Stick … it’s the U of SUCCES  (Unexpected).
  • Get the editor involved the day shooting begins (this is one reason why “preditors” like me have an advantage)
  • Content drives visitors (here Mark Calamin is telling us what we already know, right?)
  • Don’t make it an ad. If it feels like an ad, viewers won’t share it (unless it’s positively stupendous)
  • Make the content valuable. This is especially true of items that we hope will have substance and a brand message attached.
  • Sometimes (often) the value is the connection with an audience that the movie generates. Case in point, Evolution of Dance by Judson Laipply. In my view the biggest reasons for his 120 million views are the songs he chose (and the deft editing of them); plus the impressive, polished choreography that he obviously rehearsed quite well.
  • At other times, the sheer joy of a spectacle captures us — such as the spontaneous excitement and infectious fun of Matt the Dancer
  • Bottom line, a strong emotional connection is vital… that’s the E of Chip and Dan Heath’s SUCCES formula for sticky content.
  • Choose the name and thumbnail well — without editing this is normally the middle frame of your YouTube video. The right name greatly increases contagion.
  • Create events around the video – there’s nothing like a spectacle that is shot and posted by a crowd of people with cell phones.
  • Have at least one more related or more in-depth video already done and in place before you start uploading the ones you hope will go viral.
  • When promoting with email, use link-bait like “Exclusive”, “Behind the scenes”, etc.
  • Solicit comments and make it easy to join in discussion or sound off.
  • Use brand ambassadors but make sure they’re genuinely interested. This is a big issue with me: I applaud the growing movement against paying shills to generate “grass roots support” (this is called Astro-Turfing)
  • Use the Related Videos box on your own YouTube channel to post more of your own material, and thus maximize the promotional value to your brand without losing the stream of viewers to all the other “stuff” that will be competing.
  • Do your SEO ahead of time, and get the search terms you want into the mix before you go live
  • You can change the tags during the course of the video. Perhaps as the content changes this will help attract or hold interest if your video lives on your blog, for example.
  • Don’t use “video” as one of your search terms. Use tags that relate directly to the content under consideration.
  • Use Hey!Spread to automatically spread a video to multiple venues. They also suggested “Lookscool” but that one has shut down.

Finally, all the participants suggested that there is no real difference between doing “viral video” and any other creative media tool. It all involves creativity, content, listening, and scaling a budget to the particular communications challenge. All agreed that no one in the business likes the term “going viral”, though we all use it since everyone knows what it means. Bottom line, we try to be authentic and find a way of communicating a message that will resonate with the people we need to reach for our clients.

It reminds me of Lincoln’s statement that “Only events can make a president”. That’s true, but Lincoln had has cronies filling the seats of the nominating convention, and Obama had his email and twitter-driven grass-roots organization. And both men had messages to present that were timely, relevant, and well crafted to appeal to the audiences they faced. When lightning strikes, we can’t control the storm but we can place the rods, ground them properly, and set up the measuring instruments to evaluate the juice when it hits!

Thanks to StudioDaily and all the participants for putting on a useful and informative webinar!


Whats your story by Dan Pink

Found this nearly decade-old article from Fast Company by one of my favorite writers. It’s about Dana Winslow Atchley IIIDana Winslow Atchley III, who by 1998 was developing a business client list by promoting brand identity with a combination of one-man theatre and digital video storytelling. Mr. Atchley founded a digital storytelling film festival in Colorado, which lasted 5 years. Mr. Atchley died in 2000 of complications of a bone marrow transplant.