Q&A: Harnessing the power of viral videos

Joe Sabia has carved out a career making wildly popular and highly innovative viral videos. He spoke with us about the business of creating viral videos, what makes a video most likely to spread, and how businesses can make better use of digital storytelling.
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer on

Remember the viral video that swept us through The Sopranos series in seven minutes? How about the 2010 Google year in review, or the "History Of Lyrics That Aren't Lyrics"? As it turns out, they all came from the same guy: Joe Sabia.

Sabia didn't set out to make viral videos. Back in 2007, he thought people might enjoy a speedy recap of The Sopranos, but he never imagined his video would garner the millions of views it did."It caught on fire," Sabia recalls. "I'd never seen anything like it before. I didn't know what kind of effect a video like this would have, but sure enough it got everywhere."

He's carved out a career making wildly popular and highly innovative videos since then—videos that often receive hundreds of thousands of views, if not millions. Now an independent "conceptor, creator, consultant, collaborator [and] curator," Sabia has helped BBC America, TOMS Shoes, Google and even Barack Obama tell their stories through web videos. He spoke with us about the business of creating viral videos, what makes a video most likely to spread, and how businesses can harness the power of online videos and digital storytelling.

Based on your experiences and the other work you've seen out there, what makes a video go viral?

There is a whole sphere of viral videos that basically are accidental, serendipitous, real-life stuff, like someone tripping into a fountain while texting on a cell phone. Viral videos are probably 60 to 70 percent like that—things that aren't orchestrated by creative minds. But for the 30 to 35 percent of people who are sitting there creating interesting things that go viral, I think effort is a big factor — something that visibly shows you really did spend 500 hours creating this. The internet loves that stuff.

The other big thing is formatting. The video has to start off right away and be thematically clean in the sense that in the first 10 seconds, you know where this thing's going to go. There are videos that are so long — I'm thinking about KONY. That thing's 30 minutes long. No one ever would have imagined a video like that going viral, but it did, because within the first minute you knew what it was about and you knew that it was important and special.

Any other criteria?

The concept has to be fresh. It has to be something that is either really unique or something that's riding on the noise of something else. There are all these really interesting twists that people do on these big concepts — like with flash mobs — but in the end, the concept does need to be unique. It needs to make you say, 'Hey, I've never really seen this type of thing before so I'm going to pass it around because I think it's also going to be unique for you, too.'

I talk about the idea of filling slots. If you have this idea for what you want to do or create, you can find out who's done it already. When you do that, it forces you to look at slots that are open — slots that have never been filled before — and you're guaranteeing yourself a uniqueness factor there. If you can say to yourself that what you're doing is filling a slot, it's another way of saying you're guaranteeing that what I'm doing is something audience hasn't seen before.

So once you make a video that you think can go viral, what's the best way to get it out there?

Spread it everywhere. There's no point in no one seeing what you created. All these videos you want to create are matches in a matchbook. As long as one blog that a lot of people visit posts it, then the match is going to be struck. My general recommendation is to work as hard as you can to try to get a blog to write about what you do. Then the match is struck. If it goes out in three seconds, at least you know you tried.

How can businesses take better advantage of the new technologies out there when telling their stories to the public?

I think video is always an interesting, safe bet. Companies like Flavorpill and FilmDrunk aren't just going to review movies and culture, they're going to get maybe their 23-, 24- and 25-year-olds at work and say, 'Hey, do supercuts [video montages]. We know that supercuts are great. They get a lot of views and it'd be really cool if we did a bunch of them.' The interns then look at all the slots that have been filled for all these supercuts and come up with fresh ideas. That is smart, but it doesn't really usher in any sort of new innovation because this is something that's been around for years now and maybe it's getting a little bit tired.

That said, for all companies, I think the way they tell their stories with new technologies needs to be novel. TheNew York Times is a really great example. They do these Op-Docs that are poignant, beautifully made five-minute short films about really quirky, interesting, beautiful subjects. I think that's incredible. I think storytelling at that level is so neat and clean and it's not like anyone can do it — these are really skilled people doing it. I think the talent curve is something that should be deployed if companies are looking to get into this stuff.

From a more commercial perspective, I would think it's difficult for companies to come up with a video that promotes their business or product, but at the same time has a chance to go viral. Do you consider those two things mutually exclusive?

There are actually plenty of really interesting things you can do with products and video. Think about Blendtec, the blender, and their "Will It Blend?" videos. There's no better way to market a blender than to put stuff inside it and destroy it. It's one of the most successful video campaigns of all time. Blendtec sales ended up skyrocketing because of that.

Or let's say you have a grill. How are you going to make a popular video? Well, why don't you put three smartphones on it and let's see which phone dies last. I think that when you have a product, it's less of an egregious thing — it's something people appreciate because it shows you're being smart and clever in doing things that resonate with the Internet. All of us want to know what phone will last longest.

What about the "Story of Sushi" video you created for Bamboo Sushi? Its message got a lot of attention across the web — including on NPR's food blog — but you actually made it as a marketing tool for a Portland sushi restaurant.

When that project came up, I said, 'Let's not make it about your restaurant, let's tell a story.' At the time, everyone was doing stop-motion graphics. I said, 'What's a really cool way to tell the story visually? What's an aesthetic that's really underused or has never been used before?' Then I thought: miniatures. And sure enough, I found the most talented duo in Brooklyn. They create miniatures for museums and had never done video before. I asked them if they'd be willing to create these scenes that would fit with the arc of telling a story about sushi and sure enough they were. I got my buddy to come direct and film it, I wrote the script, and there you go — you have not just a unique story, but also a unique aesthetic, so it amplifies the chance for the video to be spread around.

But it was still promoting the restaurant.

Yeah, and this is why I always say, 'Create art, not ads.' It was like the restaurant was saying, 'Here's four minutes of a story and at the end we're just going to put our logo there — we're just going to sneak it in and then walk away and you can make your own opinion. I wish more companies would do that.

You're also a big fan of remixes.

One of the projects I did was for Mama Hope's stop the pity, unlock the potential campaign. It all started with filming a 9-year-old African boy recapping the movie Commando. The video was a big hit, and the follow-up was taking African men and showing them sarcastically saying that they like violence and then splicing in all those Hollywood films that show African men as war-loving, war-mongering monsters.

These remixes ended up doing really well for Mama Hope and when we talk about companies employing 23-, 24- or 25-year-olds to do supercuts, I think nonprofits will find that video can do wonders for them, too, if they're able to have some individuals to think viral for them.

What are you working on now?

The thing I'm really excited about right now is this music project I'm doing called CDZA. Every other week, we create a new musical video experiment, which is code for taking Juilliard-trained musicians and putting them in some really fun concepts that are unique, innovative, conceptual and really crazy. So far we've done five experiments and we've gotten great feedback. The idea is to do this for a long time — a year, maybe two, who knows. We've already included 50 musicians in our videos. This viral video stuff allows them to be seen in a whole new way and on a whole new platform.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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