If you’re making a video for broadcast or online viewing, how do you know what your audience will respond to? It’s a question that big companies spend time and money thinking about when planning online campaigns. 

And some of the answers discovered in the commercial world may equally apply to news journalism. If journalists knew what it is about videos that make people want to share them, they could make better decisions about what stories to cover and how to put reports together.

I visited Unruly Media, a thriving tech company just off Brick Lane in East London, to meet Cat Jones and Louise Tullin and find out about the company’s ShareRank tool, developed to optimise the ‘shareability’ of videos.

They say ShareRank not only isolates the key features of videos that have made people share them but - more importantly - can predict whether a new video will be extensively shared or not.

Unruly has been studying video sharing for what counts as centuries in tech time: it has compiled a viral video chart every day since 2006. If you have a few spare minutes, it’s where you’re statistically most likely to find something that will entertain you. (Most popular in the past month: Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines with 3.2 million shares.)

Tracking what’s been shared is interesting but not as commercially valuable as being able to predict what will be shared. ShareRank was developed for that. Here’s how it was built:

First of all they analysed the most shared videos from their chart, using objective criteria such as length. Were short videos more likely to be shared, for instance? No, funnily enough, they weren’t.

To measure subjective qualities, they worked with academics and used their intuition to come up with a set of hypotheses to test on an audience panel (people sitting at home at their computers, watching videos and answering questions about them).

After watching a video, people were asked which of a list of feelings they’d got from the experience, and how strongly they felt each one.

From the results, Cat Jones, Unruly’s director of product innovation, produced a list of 18 key qualities which would predict sharing - things like happiness, warmth, exhilaration, inspiration, amusement, pride, disgust, sadness, pain.

These are part of a complex formula drawing on tens of thousands of personal responses and the sharing figures for millions of videos to make up the ShareRank algorithm - which is constantly being refined as the company amasses more data.

Using the software, the sharing potential of new videos can be measured. So, for example, if a mixture of exuberance and exhilaration has been associated with high sharing, a video that tests well for those qualities would be predicted to be strongly shared.

It’s all quantified, with ShareRank spitting out a figure for each video - from zero (no sharing) to 10 (100% sharing). If there’s a chance to tweak a video before it’s posted, producers could, for instance, try to enhance its exuberance or whatever quality ShareRank predicts gives it its best chance of being shared.

So how is this relevant to news videos?

Well, Jones said there are a couple of qualities of news output that might lead to high sharing:  ‘knowledge’ is one of the cognitive qualities they isolated; and, in its more intense form, ‘enlightenment’. If a news item is rated highly for either of them, it’ll enhance its chances of being shared.

But straightforward information isn’t going to make a very attractive package. Journalists try to ‘sweeten the pill’ with personal stories and emotion to make dry information more palatable. Does that help?

In ShareRank terms, these attempts to push more emotional buttons by adding qualities like ‘pain’, ‘sadness’ or even ‘disgust’ can be effective. Negative qualities can also be associated with high sharing.

Jones says that such additions work well when they’re “integrated in a genuine way”. But otherwise they can just confuse and make the video less appealing.

What’s more, if journalists are following a formula they should know that predictability is a big turn-off: “the triggers get worn out”. Jones suggests it might be worth looking for underused qualities that could make factual video more appealing: ‘nostalgia’ or ‘exhilaration’, for instance.

The Viral Video Chart doesn’t include a news section but there is serious political content in the Social and Political Organisations category. Most shared this year (more than 700,000 times, and viewed more than 10 million times) is a video called What Most Schools Don’t Teach, encouraging the teaching of computer coding in schools, from a well-supported non-profit organisation called Code.org.  

Louise Tullin, Unruly’s marketing director, is in no doubt that video sharing is an increasingly important part of the media landscape. She points to the growth of Vine, a mobile app that lets users film and share videos up to six seconds long. It’s being used twice as much as it was just two months ago, and Instagram has now started offering video sharing.

Unruly is in a strong position to cash in on the trend, telling businesses how and what they should be sharing to be most effective. The company reported sales of more than £17 million last year.

And you can forget any illusions of online content production having the luxury of a ‘slow burn’. If a video hasn’t made a splash in the first three days of being posted it will fail, Tullin says. So it’s worth making your video as viral as you can from the moment of first posting.

You only get one chance - just like in the traditional media world of newspaper deadlines and live television news.     


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