Director Scott Chan: There Is No Viral Video Formula [INTERVIEW]

When it comes to creating viral videos, I have had directors, producers and creators tell me that they all have cracked the code. Some claim it can be traced to the length of a video. Some have told me celebrities are the key, while others believe it is all about cashing in on popular trends. These people believe that their digital cocktail will unlock the YouTube equivalent of Excalibur: a video gone viral.

Scott Chan, founder and creative director of the creative studio Whirled has a formula, but mass sharing isn’t on his mind. “Everyone wants to create things that ‘go viral,’ and honestly, that is a word that I hate. It is such a bastardized term,” Chan told me.

Since its inception in 2009, Whirled has created prominent digital content for names like Google, Interscope and Verizon Wireless. For the past two years, Whirled has created Google’s “Zeitgeist” yearly recap videos, that combined, have reached over 10 million views. “I think with Zeitgeist we wanted it to come out as genuine and as authentic as possible,” Chan said. “What resonates with people is that Zeitgeist is supposed to capture the spirit of the year and how the year went and how people felt during that year.”

The Whirled-created and Google-commissioned “Zeitgeist 2011” is a brutally honest look at the past year through the lens of the Google search engine. The video starts simply by stating, “2011 was a year of adversity,” and continues to frame the year through a series of achingly poignant YouTube videos and still photos.

Though the past year brought turmoil, Chan and Whirled created something genuinely uplifting with “Zeitgeist 2011.” “All these amazing things were happening under the surface. It offered a glimmer of hope that we are not only going through some hard times but there really was an underlying story of progress. That was the story that I wanted to tell with ‘Zeitgeist,’” Chan explained.

With the success of the Zeitgeist series, it seems that Chan does, in fact, possess the recipe for perfectly shareable videos. But, as Chan told me, it’s never that simple, “It’s not a set formula like you need to do A, B, C, and D. I don’t think it is that easy.” When creating content that demands to be posted and shared, Chan explains that it is all about reaching out and touching people:

“You need to know what resonates with what audiences in order for people to want to share something,” Chan said. “At the end of the day, that is what the nature of viral video is. People finding some reason to share something with their friends.”

That emotional connection is a common thread running through some of the most viral videos of all time. Videos that tug at our collective heartstrings give us a reason to share. Chan explained this technique when creating “Zeitgeist 2011,” “We definitely wanted to make it as authentic and genuine as possible. That is what is going to resonate with people. That’s what’s going to strike that emotional chord.”

With digital video often being judged by shares versus actual content, the nature of Chan’s work is sometimes in danger of being measured through those numbers. However, it turns out Chan doesn’t buy into quality being assessed through shares: “I don’t think views are a barometer of if something is good or not. I don’t think that at all. There is tons of amazing content out there that no one has ever seen,” Chan explained.

The creative director also doesn’t subscribe to the theory that the key to shared videos is through keeping them short and simple, as many claim it to be. “When you worry about attention spans or if this is too long, I think that if you make something really great those things tend to go away, and when you focus on those things it takes away from potentially making something great,” Chan said.

As the world of digital video continues to grow, so will the field for up-and-coming directors all searching for the formula for the perfect viral video. But for Chan, it’s about creating video for a very different reason: “To me, you can see passion on the screen. It comes in all different forms. But I think when you are genuinely passionate about something it ends up on the screen and people see it.”