His entertaining and thought-provoking talk contained clear lessons for anybody interested in creating “viral” educational videos.
A former journalist for The Telegraph, Jon moved to Channel 4 in 2015, and has helped raise the number of views of digital on social media from around five million views to over 250 million.
His story is a refreshing antidote to the fable of younger generations being only interested in memes and short videos because, counter-intuitively, the team achieved big gains by making the stories deeper, more serious, and more international.
Channel 4 is a UK public TV channel, but unlike the better-known BBC, it’s funded by advertising. It was specifically created for a younger audience, and to provide content that the more traditional BBC couldn’t easily provide. The channel aims to highlight content that challenges the dominant perceptions, with a diversity of opinions that don’t always get represented in the rest of the media.
What helps a video go viral?
The first three seconds. When somebody is scrolling down in Facebook, they’re not necessarily looking for a video. They’re in “discovery mode”, and you have the opportunity to show them things they didn’t know that they were looking for. You have a “three second audition” to grab their attention. The video has to start with a striking image — even an “emotional gut punch” — and you have to use text to create the most engaging opening possible.
Self-contained narratives. In order to get a wide viewership, it has to be more than a teaser or a trailer that tries to send people to another web site. For example, the video below came originally from a much longer documentary, with a slightly different overall story. The content was readapted to create an experience for the social audience. It was made shorter, obviously, but it also avoided the most shocking scenes, because that’s not the kind of thing you necessarily want to see in your news feed, and would made people hesitate to share it.
“These radical Islamist preachers took their extremist message to the streets of London and got shut down again and again by ordinary Muslims.”
The importance of identity. The Channel 4 videos are designed so that the act of sharing it helps show what kind of person you are. This allows people to indicate their values to others in a non-threatening way.
For example, the video below explains what’s happening in Syria. It’s an extremely complex conflict, and there’s a lot of pressure in social media to make everything simple, to boil it down to “5 basic facts about Syria”. But who wants to share content like that? It just makes the person sharing it look “basic”.
The Channel 4 team instead created “Who is fighting whom?” It has over four million views, not by dumbing the subject down, but by going into depth in an efficient, engaging way.
Design for mobile. The team’s research told them that the majority of videos are watched on mobile devices, and 85% are watching without sound. So videos have to be an audio-agnostic experience that can work on a small screen. The team views it once on a large screen, and then again on a phone with the sound off. It’s essential to test by consuming the content as your audience will.
Here’s an example of a video that was designed directly for mobile devices and social sharing with a square format. It’s the opposite of the high production values of the first video above, and done in a more humorous way. But it still embodies values that people can share with others, and has over 900,000 views: “If the EU were 100 people”.
The idea came from one of youngest members of the team, as part of the regular team discussions around “what would YOU like to cover?”.
Make it relevant. The team works hard to explain how unpopular stories are relevant to the audience. They constantly look for the universal value that lies behind the story, and why people should care.
For example, Bishop Edward Daley passed away last year. In Northern Ireland, on an infamous day known as Bloody Sunday, he had saved a lot of people by waiving a white handkerchief and bringing them to safety. But most of Channel 4’s audience wouldn’t have heard of him, or necessarily know much about the events of that day.
The first headline was something like “Bishop Edward Daley, Hero of Bloody Sunday, has died at 81”. Jon remembers thinking: “I commissioned this, and I wouldn’t even be interested in reading it!”
So instead the team opened up the video with “It was a selfless act of bravery on one of Britain’s darkest days”. Everybody can identify with that kind of emotion, and everybody is proud to share that kind of sentiment.
Another example was when Radovan Karadžić was found guilty of war crimes committed during the Balkan conflict. The team wanted to find a way to connect the events with a young audience who might not have heard anything about events such as Srebrenica, so they started the video with the phrase with “These were the death camps on the edge of the European Union, and it’s within living memory”. The effect is to portray that this is “clearly crucial knowledge you want to know about”.
And they opened a video about Bangladesh with the phrase “How one teenager summoned the courage to leave her house after a horrific acid attack”. In this case, the result was over fifteen million views, and the woman received lots of donations to help restore her sight.
Useful lessons for all educational content
Few of us have themes as important as Jon and his team to communicate. But the steps he’s outlined — explain why people should watch in ways that people can immediately understand, think about the reasons why people would share it with others, optimize for mobile devices without sound, etc. — are relevant for anybody trying to share content through social media.