Commentary

A Dose Of Science Mixed With Art

Words and ideas — and analogies that make them comprehensible to those of us who got into digital before “meme” became a meme — spill out of Emerson Spartz so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. But that’s okay. In the end, you’ll find yourself latching onto something that resonates and you’re sold. Which, probably not coincidentally, is how his business operates.

About seven years ago, fresh out of Notre Dame, Spartz started Chicago-based Dose, which aggregated content for Millennials. As his team got better at marrying the science of testing and algorithms with the art of human judgment and creativity, Dose transformed into a site publishing strictly original stories. It garners more than 50-million unique visitors a month.

More recently, Dose is taking what it has learned about predictive, data-driven tech to the worlds of brand marketers and Hollywood studios so that they, too, can quickly give social content that’s getting the most attention its best shot at going viral.

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“The way I think about it is, the old school model is basically ‘create and pray,’” Spartz says. “Create content; pray that it works. Our model is ‘create and optimize and pray.’ Still to pray. There’s still a lot of guesswork involved. But what we’re aiming to do is to minimize [it].”

The company does so with a three-step process named after three innovators from the Age of Enlightenment: Johannes Kepler, the astronomer, Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, and Charles Darwin, the naturalist. Here’s a quick summary: The Kepler stage is creative pre-testing of your ideas. The Mendel stage is creation and optimization of the ones that show promise. Darwin is distribution.

“It’s a natural selection, survival-of-the-fittest process, where we basically have all these different versions of the content competing with each other, just like in the wild,” Spartz. “We find one piece of content that resonates much more, and then that is the one that we really focus on distributing.”

It’s time to bring out one of those analogies.

Think About How Comedians Develop Material
“The way that comedians write jokes is very different from how most brands, and publishers, and agencies, create content,” Spartz says. “What comedians do is, they try out new joke material all the time — at dinners, lunches, breakfasts. If one of their friends laugh at it they think, ‘Oh, maybe that was funny.’ They’ll make a mental note. They might try the joke out again, over dinner the next night. They’ll just keep repeating that process until eventually, they start trying out the joke at open-mike nights, in front of small crowds, to people who don’t really know them. They’ll see if it gets laughs, and they’ll keep refining the pacing, the sequencing, the timing, the delivery until eventually they’ve got it down. They know it’s funny, they know how to deliver it, and then they drop it in Vegas for their Netflix special and bring down the house.

“This process involves creating thousands of jokes only to actually really use a few hundred. Because of this process, they come up with much funnier material, and this is a process that basically every successful comedian uses. It’s iterative, it’s evolutionary, it’s a survival-of-the-fittest approach to humor and content.”

It’s also an approach used by industry disrupters such as Airbnb and Uber, Spartz points out. But the traditional brand, agency and publishing worlds have been late to the game.

“Think about a brand campaign, spending months preparing to release a video. No one really has any idea if that video is going to work. That’s like the equivalent of comedians working on the joke in private for three months, and then releasing it to the world and hoping that people think it’s funny,” Spartz says.

As a marketer, Spartz maintains, you want to have processes and technology that enable you to do, at scale and with agility, what comedians are doing over many months to refine their material.

“You can actually see objectively what's working, and what isn't working, in a way that wasn't possible before,” on social media, he points out. In real time. And “old-school marketing testing was based on declared intentions … like asking people what they want,” he says, which doesn't always match up with their actual behavior.

A few other tips gleaned from our conversation:

  • Facebook rewards good content by giving you lots of reach for very little money, he says. “Imagine if the Super Bowl gave you a 50% off discount if your ad was twice as fun. That's essentially what Facebook does.”
  • Use captions on your video. “Right now, Facebook is basically 85% sound-off videos. It has a humongous performance difference.”
  • Another reason for captions: Because videos autoplay, most people don’t see what’s happening until two to eight seconds after they’ve started. “If the video doesn't make sense when you're five seconds in, then you're just going to keep scrolling."

As I was trying to wrap up our conversation — thinking about the manual task of sorting through and consolidating all Spartz had told me — he protested that he was just getting started. My declared intention is to come back down the line to see how it all evolves. 

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