Since CNN launched Great Big Story in 2015, the brand has shot over 1,300 videos all over the globe, many of which go on to receive millions of views on social media. StoryHunter spoke to Khalil Jetha, the Vice President of Audiences at CNN Emerging Brands, to find out what it takes to make stories that people want to share.
Storyhunter: When looking at story ideas, how do you determine which stories will emotionally resonate with your audience? Is it just about getting to know the audience, or is there more to it than that?
Khalil Jetha: There’s always more to it than just knowing the audience. It’s understanding their specific relationship to the topic that is important. If, for example, we’re running a video about Star Wars characters challenging social stereotypes, we don’t just target fantasy fans or sci-fi geeks. We will target female fans of Doctor Who between the ages of 25 and 40 with the knowledge that we’re pulling the emotional strings associated with the latest Doctor, who happens to be female. We’ll target Star Wars fans of John Boyega, knowing those fans are pulling for the most significant franchise character of color since Billy Dee Williams. We don’t just know facts about our audience, we know what they care about and what makes it significant from an emotional standpoint. We know what gives them hope, what stirs their determination, and which emotion associated with our videos will leave the most lasting impression.
SH: Can you describe a video produced by Great Big Story that gathered views very quickly?
KJ: A recent video of ours that took off was Sounds of the Nightmare Machine, which in its first week saw more than 500,000 views on YouTube and more than one million on Facebook inside 24 hours.
SH: What do you think made this video different from others? What makes this type of content go viral?
KJ: This video appealed greatly to a specific niche of audience, namely those audiences with specific tastes in cinema and aesthetic. Where a large majority of our audience is into podcasts and in-depth narrative similar to This American Life and 99% Invisible, The Nightmare Machine struck a resonant chord with those audiences who enjoy the drier humor and darker aesthetics you’d see in Tim Burton films.
SH: Does Great Big Story know ahead of time if a video is likely to be shared widely before it is published?
KJ: We do have an idea depending on the video and the platform on which it takes off, but occasionally there are resonant pieces that take us by surprise.
SH: Can you go into a bit more specifics about that?
KJ: It all comes to how your specific audience has approached you on either major platform: YouTube versus Facebook. Our YouTube fans, for example, gravitate toward the quality of our editing and our distinct narrative style. They’re the ones who are going to be aspiring filmmakers themselves, and, irrespective of the topic, they’ll sound off on whether or not we did well in the aforementioned areas. Our Facebook fans are the ones who emotionally connect with the topics we tell stories about–they’ll gravitate to the pieces we’ve emotionally counterpointed to emphasize hope, happiness, or elation.
SH: What do you use to determine if a video will go viral?
KJ: The most common factor is that emotional response, which we’re getting better at forecasting with the use of our in-house EQ [Emotional Quotient] tool.
SH: Can you tell us how it works?
KJ: Our EQ tool is basically a really complex calculator that lines up the emotional response evoked on certain platforms with the subject matter that evoked it. We index every emotional response from likes or dislikes to sentiments in our comments from all our 1,300 plus videos, categorizing those videos by the dominant emotion and that emotion’s share of total response. So if we are interested in finding travel pieces that over-index in nostalgia and surprise, we can backwards search for video posts that scored highest in those emotions and pinpoint exactly what about those videos gave us that specific response. You can imagine how valuable a tool like that is for our storytellers — and, of course, our brand clientele.
SH: Wow, that’s really incredible. Once your team notices a video is going viral, do you change your distribution or social media strategy?
KJ: Once any video picks up traffic, we typically choose to either promote to a wider audience depending on that emotional resonance. For example, when Nightmare Machine took off, we didn’t change the distribution of that piece, but we certainly looked at our coming slate of videos to calculate the odds of any taking off with similar audiences. A viral hit can either be a flash in the pan or a foundational piece for growth, and pulling off the latter is what we’re really interested in.
SH: How can you keep up enthusiasm for a video once you notice the popularity is decreasing?
KJ: Aligning our video offerings — including those in our back catalogue — to be complementary to viral hits is a crucial step. In our 1,300 plus video library, this can mean remarketing similar pieces aligned by emotional resonance (nostalgia, aesthetic, or topical interest), or it can mean reorganizing an entire platform’s SEO strategy if the viral lift is substantial enough.
SH: When a video proves very popular, do you ever re-use that video in a different context?
KJ: Absolutely. When a brand achieves growth the way GBS has, it’s important to take a closer look at the numbers with a specific growth goal in mind. View counts themselves are meaningless without context — are these views in vacuum, for example? Moreover, if you see a viral hit on a feed-heavy platform like Facebook that gets you new followers, it’s likely they’ve seen very little of your previous offerings. Suggesting older content they’ve not seen based on their consumption of that viral hit is a significant piece of keeping our audiences engaged.
Josh Futtersak covers media innovation and video production for The Video Strategist and In the Field as a writer for Storyhunter, the media production network. He is a graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He also helps with Storyhunter’s social media. Twitter: @storyhunter Facebook: @storyhunterTV. Storyhunter, founded in May 2012 by a group of journalists, filmmakers and web developers, is a talent marketplace and network for video professionals worldwide.