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How to make a video viral: inside the Unruly laboratory

Daniel Best

Daniel Best

A few years ago, the brilliant Onion-esque British satirical blog The Daily Mash ran the following story:

Boss demands successful viral video for boring project

A boss has demanded that his staff create a wildly successful viral video for a boring business idea.

Bill McKay, managing director of Midlands-based Premier Boiler Services, has instructed his staff to produce a worldwide video hit to promote his idea for a customer loyalty card.

Office administrator Emma Bradford said: “Bill came into the office yesterday and said ‘We need one of those virals and it needs to get a billion hits’.

“He’d obviously read something about viral marketing, but unfortunately he didn’t tell us what this massively popular video would actually be.”

McKay said: “All we need to do is think of a completely original idea that millions of people will find hilarious. How hard can that be?”

Ha!

Increasingly, though, what once looked like a mixture of luck and voodoo (“All we need to do is think of a completely original idea that millions of people will find hilarious”) is taking on the contours of a marketing science…

“For us it’s really important that we can make the complex accessible,” explains TV Connect keynote Daniel Best, Director of Planning & Activation at Unruly – world leaders when it comes to understanding and ensuring video virality. “That’s where the name Unruly comes from, the idea of making sense of a really complicated video landscape. It’s sort of a Wild West out there.”

The firm was formed a few years ago, after some of the founders teamed up with academics interested in seeing if they could estimate whether or not a video was going to go viral. They thought that they could. They were right.

Now I am talking to Best in the concrete basement of Unruly’s large and rather chic Brick Lane offices, in a dark room (the ‘lab’) that wouldn’t look out of place in one of the local bars, but for the bank of glowing touchscreens we are moving between.

“The classic thing we’ve been asked, pretty much to this day, is ‘is my content going to go viral?’ ‘What makes viral content?’” Best says, as we look down at a screen showing, in real time, video shares blossoming on a map of the world.

The next screen along shows the Viral Video Chart (VVC), which was Unruly’s first product and remains the de facto first port of call when anyone wants to find out about the internet’s most engaging video content.

“For us, ‘most engaging’ doesn’t mean most viewed,” Best goes on, “because you can buy your way to the top of the most viewed. For us it was always most shared: that’s the gold standard. The likelihood of you watching it, enjoying it and acting on it is significantly higher from that peer to peer endorsement.”

Of course, viral video has changed a great deal since 2006, when Unruly first launched the VVC.

“Back then we were measuring blogs and forums and YouTube, that was it. Think about now, you’ve got blogs and forums, then you’ve got Twitter, Vine, Instagram – pretty soon there’ll be a whole chunk of new micro-video blogging platforms. The opportunity to share content has just gone bonkers. In 2006, 300,000 shares was brilliant. To be top three now, you’d have to have four million and above.”

The content itself has changed too. Best swipes back a few years on the VVC chart, taking us to the early days.

“What you see in this particular time in history was quite gritty content, where often it wasn’t that clear, when you initially watched it, whom the advertiser was. There was a misconception that branding affects sharing behaviour. That’s not really the case. What’s been found by ourselves is that crappy content affects sharing behaviour.”

Part of Unruly’s business is content distribution: they use programmatic tools to help clients get their content in front of the right audience. The other part concerns the testing of the content itself: analysing, at any stage of its production and even conception, how it can be optimised to encourage ‘shareability.’

How do they do this? We move on to the next glowing screen.

“Sharerank is our content testing tool. As you start to test a particular sector, or test something like virality, your learning is like a snowball rolling down a hill…”

The first example Best gives of the many significant factors that can ensure viral victory is the ‘psychological trigger’. “So that could be the obvious: funny or sexy. But it could be something else too. One of the biggest content triggers of the last twelve months has been pride – making women feel proud about themselves.”

Last year’s viral video smash, Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ (65 million views and counting), is a case in point. Overall, Sharerank analyses 120 such triggers.

“What we’re is looking at a piece of content strength between 0 – which means back to the drawing board – to 10 – which means amazing. The highest we’ve ever measured has been a 9.5.”

Best brings up more graphs and figures for us to look over.

“And these are our confidence bounds,” he declares, quite conclusively. “We’ve got 80% accuracy.”

Bosses seeking that ‘wildly successful viral video’ know where to go…

Both Dan Best and Unruly COO Sarah Wood will be appearing at this year’s TV Connect (28 – 30 April 2015 ExCel, London). Click here to download the free brochure. 

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