Secrets From The Guy With 100 Million YouTube Views

Somewhere in a little town in Belgium, on a square where nothing really happens, Kris Hoet and his team decided to place a red button. A large arrow dangled above it, with the words, “Push To Add Drama.”

The resulting video -- a promotion for the launch of the TV channel TNT in Belgium -- has been seen 50 million times and is the second most-shared TV commercial of all time. (The first is Volkswagen’s Darth Vader ad.)

Hoet himself is the head of digital & Change Architect at Duval Guillaume, a small agency in Antwerp. In addition to the dramatic surprise on a quiet square, they’re responsible for the Carlsberg bikers ad, this stunt for the launch of “Skyfall,” and this eerie provocation about Internet safety. Duval Guillaume has generated over 100 million YouTube views -- earned views, not paid eyeballs -- as well as countless coverage by all forms of media. So when I caught up with him yesterday, I begged him to tell me how he did it. What’s the magic?

He starts by refusing to think about advertising in a traditional way. “Advertising,” he said wryly, “has a bit of a branding problem.” What he and his colleagues strive to do is separate the storytelling component of advertising from the social currency. They might have control over the storytelling, but it doesn’t mean anything unless people experience a strong response to it. “We don’t think about creating something viral or doing a fun video to get a lot of views. We think, how do we create something that will get people talking about that brand, and not just that brand, but also something specific about the brand essence.”

OK, sure -- you want to get people talking about the brand. So does everybody. But how do you go about it? One specific tactic that Duval Guillaume sometimes uses is having real people in their ads, reacting authentically as events unfold around them.

“The ‘real people’ thing is important, because it makes you identify yourself,” Hoet says. “You can see yourself going into the cinema [with the Carlsberg bikers] so your brain quite quickly goes into the mode of, ‘What would I have done?’ And that’s the thing. I don’t just want people to like a video or say, ‘Hahaha, that was fun.’ I want them to have an opinion about it, to share it, with the message of saying, I would have done this, or I never would have done this. That’s what builds the social currency.” He adds, “We made the TNT video in 2012 and it’s still getting 10,000 views every day. People are still talking about it, and still have strong brand recognition.”

In a crowded landscape, building it is no guarantee that anyone will come. I asked Hoet how the agency launches its videos. “We look at all the places, people, websites, whatever would potentially serve as fertile soil to put the message out,” he says. “In the case of TNT, I think we only sent the message to 10 or 20 websites, and I tweeted it from the agency account , and that’s about it. We had so many millions of views in the first 24 hours that it will probably never happen again. When we did bikers in 2011, there wasn’t a lot happening in the online video space, but today I would advise clients to put some paid seeding or YouTube advertising against it at some part of the process to make sure you can get the type of visibility you need to make sure that it works. “

All the creativity in the world is useless without one additional, essential ingredient: a brave client. “I don't want to go all cheesy now, but I can tell you that it's very important a client is willing to 'take the jump' with you,” he notes. “Earned media is uncontrolled media, which equals no guarantee of success, so if you don’t have full alignment with the client, you’re going to have problems.”

Before I let him go, I had to ask him the one piece of advice he would give to people looking to achieve success online. “Whatever idea you generate, you have to ask yourself: ‘Will this get people to talk?’ If you ask yourself honestly that question, you usually see that this is very closely related to having an opinion about it. It’s not just, I like it or I don’t like it, but I would do this [or] not do this, would I walk away from the button or push it. In other words, does it get your juice going?”

Beautiful storytelling, focused on creating social currency. Allowing people to self-identify with the story. Appropriate seeding. And a high level of empathy. You’re welcome. Let me know when you hit 100 million views.

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