Viral Content: What Marketing and Advertising Lessons Can Newspapers Learn?

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Illustration by Tony O. Champagne
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

When a woman from Texas named Candace Payne filmed herself putting on a Chewbacca mask inside her car back in May (, she probably didn’t expect the video to take over social media.  Right now, it currently has 158 million views. Captured on Facebook video, the four-minute clip features Payne trying on the Chewbacca mask she had just purchased as a present to herself from the department store Kohl’s. Each time Payne opened her mouth, the jaw also opened on the electronic mask, causing the Wookie sound effect to go off. The sound made Payne break into sheer joy; her hysterical laughter triggered anyone who was watching the video to also join in on the fun (it worked for me). It showed that laughter is truly contagious.

What was also contagious was the marketing and advertising that went along with Chewbacca Mom as Payne came to be known on the Internet. After the Chewbacca masks sold out at Kohl’s, the store delivered Payne and her family $2,500 worth of gift cards, which they filmed. The video has been viewed more than 30 million times. Payne also did the talk show circuit appearing on ABC News and The Late Late Show with James Corden. She visited Facebook headquarters and even got to meet “Stars Wars: The Force Awakens” director JJ Abrams. Perhaps the icing on the cake was getting her own Chewbecca Mom action figure courtesy of Hasbro.

Payne didn’t set out to become a brand when she put on that mask, but thanks to the power of video and social media, that’s what she became. So, what can newspapers learn from Chewbacca Mom? E&P talked to social media editors and viral experts to find out.


The Emotional Appeal

People who watched Payne’s video couldn’t wait to share Chewbacca Mom with others. Some even filmed reaction videos of themselves erupting in laughter as they watched Payne’s original video. What made it work was simple: it made you feel something.

Dream Local Digital is a digital marketing agency based in Rockland, Maine, and works with newspaper publishers on business marketing solutions, such as social media, video and mobile. Founder and client success officer Shannon Kinney said she wasn’t surprised to see companies jump in and become part of a viral video series. “In many cases it’s something so unexpected that people are motivated to share and share quickly. But, it’s hard to make news content feel that way. What you can learn is humor is working, low quality video works, and that when there is interaction with the audience it drives views.”

Shannon Kinney, Dream Local Digital founder and client success officer
Shannon Kinney, Dream Local Digital founder and client success officer

When something like Chewbacca Mom takes off, Kinney said it starts with a psychological response (how the content makes you feel) and social motivation (why you want to share it). “Think about what audience you’re trying to reach,” she said, “and then how do you want them to feel, and why should they share it.”

Kinney noted she was completely struck by the first Dollar Shave Club video (, which currently sits at more than 22 million views. “It was a brilliant way—with very little budget—to build a national brand. I watched it over and over, and shared it with people because it was just so funny and completely unexpected—while also getting the message across… It tells a story, combines humor with benefits, relates to the customer in a spot on way, and is really well planned.”

Another viral moment that Kinney shares in her office is the Honeybadger video (, currently sitting at more than 78 million views. “That one has become a core part of my company’s culture because we value the perseverance of the Honeybadger,” she said. “The video combines humor with facts and tells a story about an animal in such a way that it is so unexpected you have to watch it.”

Eric Webb, Austin American-Statesmen social media and engagement editor
Eric Webb, Austin American-Statesmen social media and engagement editor

When it comes to that emotional appeal, Eric Webb, Austin American-Statesman social media and engagement editor, said Chewbacca Mom made people feel like they belonged. “There’s an element of simple escapism—this is silly, this makes me shake with uncontrollable laughter in my lizard brain, this is a more pleasant feeling than sitting at my desk at work. There’s also a sense of exclusivity, which seldom lasts long. From Chewbacca Mom, Damn Daniel, all the way back to Tay Zonday and ‘Chocolate Rain,’ these viral videos are worldwide in-jokes. Same thing with a trending hashtag. It can make you feel like part of something bigger, even if that ‘something bigger’ is taking a selfie and tagging it #BigGuyTwitter. The Internet is lonely, so these things make us feel less alone, for better or worse.”

Webb said the emotional appeal plus the timing also works well together. “When David Bowie died, someone mysteriously altered a road sign in downtown Austin that originally said Bowie St. so that it read David Bowie St. It tapped into this notion that Austin has about being a ‘cool’ city. It was an accessible entry point for our readers into this international camaraderie over an icon’s passing. That story led to several follow-up blogs, a video and photo gallery, which kept momentum going.”

Dustin Barnes, engagement and social media editor at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., said timing also caused the Chewbacca Mom video to explode. The DVD for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” had just been released a month earlier when Payne purchased her mask and filming for the newest “Star Wars” installment was underway.

“Right now, a popular video being shared is a video showing cats eating ice cream and automatically getting brain freezes,” Barnes said. “What makes it work is that it’s humorous; it has cats; and it goes along with summer.”


Short and Sweet

Not only is keeping videos “short and sweet” a driving factor to make people share, according to Kinney, keeping it upbeat also works. “Top emotions that make people share are warmth, happy, humor,” she said. “Other top emotions to get people to share: be a conversation starter, help people express themselves through your video, and help them identify with the content.”

Time is precious to people, and with more content available now than ever before, it can become overwhelming. “That’s why people are leaning more toward video,” Kinney said. “Our brains are wired to process things faster (compared to reading text), so we absorb videos better.” As our attention span shortens, Kinney said if a video doesn’t capture someone’s attention or make them feel something (“smarter, concerned, funny”) by the first six seconds, that viewer has already moved on.

To put it into perspective, Kinney said, “Goldfish have an eight second attention span. Humans have seven seconds.”

Although some people in the industry might not want to hear the hard truth, our seven-second attention span might explain why videos from BuzzFeed are so popular. A video titled “5 Things That Are Harder Than Registering to Vote, Featuring President Obama” had more than 1 million views two days after it went live. The video is under a minute long, and it features the president in funny scenarios, such as naming every “Game of Thrones” character who has died, playing the board game Operation, and making friendship bracelets. But once you get past the humor, there’s also a serious message that needs to be shared—remember to vote this year.

The president was also the focus on one of the more popular videos at the Austin American-Statesman. It worked because it was a national story intersecting with a local audience, Webb said.

“President Obama came to Austin for SXSW this year. He stopped at Torchy’s Tacos, a local taco joint with a lot of hometown pride behind it. We were able to get pictures and embed tweets from the scene,” he explained. “As for what made it work: immediacy, because we got it up online super quick, and that personal element that makes people click. Did the leader of the free world order the same taco I order? You have to find out.”

Dustin Barnes, Clarion-Ledger engagement and social media editor
Dustin Barnes, Clarion-Ledger engagement and social media editor

At the Clarion-Ledger, Barnes hopes to capture an audience with shorter video clips. He wants to create films surrounding topics like 60-second reps and quick recipe videos, but instead of simply telling people how to do the reps or how to cook, he’s going to show them.

“It’s like what the reality is versus is this going to be a horrible mess,” he said, stressing that the videos are meant to be fun and silly. “The goal is to create engagement and be funny so people will watch the videos and share them.”

When you post the videos also makes a difference. “The more shares a video generates during the first two days after launch, the higher the viral peak and the greater the overall volume of shares,” Kinney said. “Newspapers should consider front-loading campaigns to maximize visibility during this window. The launch day also makes a difference. Most sharing activity happens on Wednesday (the optimal day), Thursday and Friday.”


What Newspapers Can Learn

Statista predicts that the number of mobile phone video viewers will rise close to 136 million by 2019. That’s why companies like Periscope and Facebook are investing so heavily in the platform, especially when it comes to live video.

Kinney said the watershed moment for Facebook was the Ice Bucket Challenge two years ago. Not only was it a lesson in viral content for Facebook, but it also showed its users creating video wasn’t hard.

“Quality is not an issue,” she said. “It’s the presentation, the content.” And with the Ice Bucket Challenge, “it taught (Facebook) users they could contribute and do video, so they started to adopt it more.” With the introduction of Facebook Live, creating video on the social platform will only continue its growth.

Local Media Association president Nancy Lane suggested that local media companies, rather than focus on creating videos that will go viral, they should focus on doing a better job in producing videos overall.

“Have more fun,” she said. “I’m not saying we should take away from doing serious journalism, but we’re not being edgy enough.”

She pointed to Newsy (owned by Scripps), Gatehouse Media (who uses mobile video platform Tout), and Calkins Media (with their OTT programming) as examples of media companies that are taking different approaches to making videos.

LMA recently visited the headquarters of YouTube and Facebook and Lane said they saw many great examples of how they’re doing video. “It made us all want to up our game,” she said. And it’s possible for media companies to join their ranks now, thanks to the technology available right on our smartphones.

Nancy Lane, Local Media Association president
Nancy Lane, Local Media Association president

“Live video is going to be a gamechanger,” Lane said. “Facebook Live is exploding and will change how we do video. When Facebook saw the results and how fast it took off, they were blown away. I believe more media companies will participate more in Facebook Live and it’s the largest opportunity for them right now.”

Barnes also sees an uptick with live video especially in breaking news. During a recent landslide, a breaking news reporter was updating through a video livestream and taking questions from viewers in real time. “Readers value that,” he said. “They no longer want to passively watch a video. They want to engage.”

Webb said the trick for news organizations is to figure out the return on investment. “How do I use these social media tools to get site visits and page views, which then lead to advertising revenue? For the big guns, solutions for platforms like Snapchat may seem more attainable. For a metro paper, figuring out how to leverage the social platforms you have usually comes down to ‘Am I going to get a click from this, or is this primarily a branding play?’ Neither is wrong, but you’ve got balance that question with staffing and time resources.”

LMA serves more than 2,400 local media organizations and assists them with their digital transitions through programs, conferences, webinars, and research and training. Lane said many of them—particularly newspapers—are still looking for a future business model. As they move more toward digital and as their audiences diversify, video will be huge, Lane said. The good thing is that these traditional media companies are seeing a lot of progress now due to their investments and with their training.

Yes, there are lessons when it comes to Chewbacca Mom, and Double Rainbow, and Charlie Bit My Finger, and David at the Dentist, but Webb said, “The lesson isn’t to equip all of your state government reporters with Chewbacca masks or your transportation writers with white Vans, for starters. Nothing is more pathetic than a serious news organization trying to like young and hip by co-opting a meme out of context. But the root lesson applies: Make readers care, or let them know why they already care.”

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