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How to go viral: Words of wisdom from the master of viral content

It’s the question you’ve all asked at one time or another: “How do I make a viral video?” You might think the answer to this question is usually “Dumb luck”. You will obviously have an idea about the type of content that’s popular – maybe it taps into trending issues, or is particularly controversial or ‘out there’ – but there’s a massive difference between, say, popular social posts and viral posts.  Who would have guessed that a cat playing a keyboard was going to blow up the way it did? In fact, with so much content competing for attention, who can ever say for certain a piece of content will hit that hallowed viral climax?

But one Melbourne-based production agency seems to have developed a formula for viral content, which has consistently delivered results. The Woolshed Company has created ten videos for its ‘Viral Experiment’, and every single one of them has gone viral, which loosely speaking means they all surpassed a million views in a couple of days. Managing Director Dave Christison sat down with State of Digital Publishing to talk about how to go viral, and how his business cracked the formula.

dave-christison

The viral experiment

The Woolshed Company has been quietly seeding these videos since 2014, when it released a fake video of a swimmer and a great white shark. The ten pieces have each been the subject of rampant media and social speculation as to their veracity, but the production company has since claimed them as elaborate viral ruses. (In truth, there is still one video unclaimed, so I’ve been trawling YouTube to try to figure out which one it might be. So far I have a few ideas, but nothing concrete. What are your thoughts?) The viral posts have received 205 million online views combined, and the number is rising.

Christison is quick to point out that “you can never guarantee success, because there are so many moving parts”. But ten in a row seems pretty close to a formula for viral content, and he admits as such. He concedes that an eleventh video reached 700,000 views on Facebook, but he considers it a failure because it didn’t reach a million in four days.

“We don’t profess to know the answers to everything,” he says. “But we have tried to culminate the learning of what we know works, and then evolve a process over time.” Far from having a strategy for all kinds of viral content, they seem to have developed a formula for a particular kind of video, namely short social videos that generate debate as to whether they are real or not. Of course, they’ve all turned out to be fake, but before The Woolshed Company went public with its experiment, there were plenty of heated discussions across social media, news sites and even television.

What are the agency’s key learnings?

  1. Remember, this is entertainment:

“Create short, snackable entertainment” says Christison. “All entertainment has a very basic story, so if you can apply a beginning, a middle and an end, no matter how shallow the story, it’s a good start.”

  1. It’s all about the click bait:

“This is click bait entertainment,” he says. “You must have a compelling hook, and you have to be able to condense that down to a single image. If it’s more complicated, then it’s not right. You need a very simple narrative, something you can describe in a couple of words.”

The hook is the central element. You want to look for an idea that is unbelievable enough to create debate, but not so unbelievable that it is obviously a fake. “It is always healthy to create an element of debate because it gives people a reason to re-watch and comment and argue one side or the other. It also gives the media an excuse to run with the story even if they know it isn’t real, because the debate becomes the story.”

  1. It helps to be timely:

Christison says that it is not always possible to tap into a trending topic, but it will help. “The perfect example is the Sydney lightning strike video, that was a spontaneous production because storms were raging in Sydney … Even the snowboarding bear video, we made the girl hum the lyrics to a song which was trending number one on the week we released it. Trying to tap into something like that can always help.”

  1. Develop a strong seeding strategy:

The first 24 hours is key, so you need to have your seeding strategy completely figured out in the planning stage. It’s not only about the social channels you use, says Christison, but about the news media you target. “The key element to it is you have to get the [news] media to run with the story.” He admits that in this sense it is very much like a PR stunt, and the interest of news media is paramount in generating rapid growth in views.

Do brands have permission to be in this space?

If you look at the viral videos produced by The Woolshed Company, you will notice that none of them have overt branding. In fact, only two of the videos were produced for a client, and the rest were simply created by the agency as proof of concept productions.

Christison says that overt branding would impede the ability of content to go viral in this way. “The challenge is how to push the brand message subtly and still get something across. The reason brands want to be involved is that you are able to reach massive audiences with a fraction of the cost you would normally need to spend in media or PR. But you forgo the luxury of being able to communicate a direct message that you would in a TVC or branded campaign.”

One of the pieces the agency created for a brand was the video of a hawk dropping a snake on a barbecue, which was produced for the Hawthorn Football Club. It contains no branding whatsoever, but Christison said they were still able to use the content to create awareness for their client. “First we created noise with the video itself, then we came out and claimed it as part of a marketing campaign. So it was basically like a PR stunt. We waited for right moment to strike, and when saw a climax in views and media coverage – it achieved 5 million views in 48 hours – we followed with a PR release claiming the video. In the next 24 hours, it did another 10 million views.”

However, Christison admits that there are hurdles when brands enter the equation. “The caveat is that in majority of cases [with our viral videos], we had complete creative freedom. The challenge is where brands want to be a part of it. It’s awesome and we encourage it, but the more you get agencies and clients and levels of hierarchy involved, there is less creative freedom. If someone comes to us and says they want a viral video, we have to set ground rules. We know we have to achieve their goals, but we also need creative freedom to create what we think is going to work.”

While many brands might be tempted to put paid spend behind their content to make it go viral, this can in fact hinder its ability to do so. Christison says that a sponsored ad immediately puts doubt into people’s minds about whether the content is authentic. Of course, he also says that this strategy only applies to his company’s particular style of viral video, and that there are obviously several examples where overtly branded content has gone viral. One that immediately comes to mind is Felix Baumgartner’s jump from space.

The formula for viral content is far from set in stone, but The Woolshed Company has carved a niche for itself and proven that it can replicate success time and time again. The obvious issue is brand participation, and how much clients can be involved before it begins to limit the ability of the video to go viral. With that in mind, how do you think brands could use this style of viral content to their advantage? In the world of commercial creativity, that’s the only question that really matters.

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David has worked in media and marketing for seven years. He cut his teeth as a journalist and editor and then moved over to agency side where he developed his skills in content marketing and PR. During his career, he has worked closely with all manner of digital specialists, particularly in the performance media and data environment. He has also launched a number of his own business ventures, including an e-commerce platform and a regional magazine. He now works as a freelance writer.


  • Louise Scott

    Everyone wants to get involved in viral but you have to ask, what is the point, what are the objectives of the client – in today’s world where targeted communications are key, the notion of viral seems alien!

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