Shannon Baker of Gatesman Dave.
Shannon Baker of Gatesman Dave.
Shannon Baker of Gatesman Dave.

Shannon Baker, Partner, President at Gatesman, has carved out a niche as an expert in social media and viral video, studying what makes certain videos—like the “Mannequin Challenge”—catch on, while others do not. NEXTpittsburgh caught up with her recently to find out more about that and what else is going on in the world of advertising and PR. 

What makes a viral video take off? Is it all luck, or is there a formula?

Elon University conducted a study evaluating the 20 most viral videos on the Internet and found prominent similarities between them, such as an element of surprise and irony as well as a musical element, and short titles and run-time. We believe the best videos create an authentic connection with people. They understand intended audiences and what motivates them, and they give a clearand simplecall to action that will allow the masses to participate and help create a movement. They’re inviting and inclusive.

Do you have any favorite viral videos?

My favorite viral video is the “Ice Bucket Challenge” in 2014. There were so many creative takes on it, such as Canadian ice hockey player Paul Bissonnette’s video in which he stood on a mountain while a helicopter poured ice water on him. Even Oprah and Mark Zuckerberg got in on it! But more important than the celebrity involvement was the fact that anyone with a bucket and a water source could participate. It was simple action for an inspiring cause. And to have such an impressive result$115 million for ALS research, patient and community services, education and more, it shows the power of bringing people together. The team at Gatesman even joined in on the fun!

What got you interested in viral videos as a subject to study?

In order to be an effective communicator, you need to know what kind of content makes your audience excited enough to engage. Viral videos aren’t something marketers can simply manufacture. A lot of viral content is created by everyday, relatable people, who are in their element and interacting with peers. Look at the “social influencer” movement with bloggers and YouTube stars. It’s been a wake-up call for marketers, and it’s why we at Gatesman put so much emphasis and dedication behind ensuring everything we doevery idea, every message, every medium we useconnects back to a person and an insight about them. It’s a fascinating time to be in this industry because it has changed so much. The power has shifted from brand to people.

Do viral videos serve a purpose, beyond just being fun?

Viral videos are really what we decide to make of them. There are definitely some that only serve the purpose of being fun like the mannequin challenge, but otherssuch as the Ice Bucket Challengeserve to raise funds or awareness of a cause. Viral videos generally unite people behind a cause or trend. People of all different backgrounds join in on the biggest ones and find a way to customize them.

What kills off a viral or potentailly viral video?

Studies show that a video is less likely to become viral if it’s too long, if it doesn’t have an element of surprise, humor or irony, if there isn’t music or if it’s overproduced. The list goes on. Once a video does go viral, its biggest enemy is time. Viral videos become big, but our attention span doesn’t allow them to stay big for too long. It’s only a matter of time before another video becomes viral and the focus is shifted elsewhere.

Can this phenomenon be placed in a historical context? What were some similar crazes before Internet video?

Before the Internetand especially social mediamade it much easier to make content go viral, marketers had to rely on more traditional mediums such as TV and radio to make a message widespread. However, there was no guarantee the messages really influenced audiences. Historically in advertising specifically, it was all about one-way messaging. Word of mouth, peer influence and family/friends’ recommendations were really the drivers of strong influence. The web and social media have magnified 100x over the power of word of mouth.

How does this knowledge inform your work at Gatesman Agency?

Remaining curious about new mediums and trends, testing content, exploring new ideas and theories, and anticipating what will “take off” is the name of the game for agencies . . . It goes back to truly understanding behaviors and influences that motivate people. When we know what our audience is engaging with, and we’re able to understand why, we can make better connections with them. We can use videos to help brands connect with their audience in a personal and meaningful way because we know how we can add value to their lives whether it’s adding whimsy and entertainment, education and training, or surprise and delight. It gives us an opportunity to bring out the personality of the brand and engage in a meaningful way.

Any clues about the future of viral video?

I don’t see viral videos becoming a thing of the past anytime soon. Like the rest of the Internet, viral videos will continue to evolve and update with the technology available to us.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...