Over the past two years the world watched in shock as people were attacked by sharks and lions, and chased by bears while snowboarding, we watched a Stormtrooper fall down the stairs, a woman almost get struck by lightning and two men ‘fight’ with selfie sticks.
But today a small independent Australian production company The Woolshed has come forward and admitted it is behind eight of the biggest viral hoaxes, which between them have gone viral in over 180 countries and had been viewed a total of 205 million times.
The worldwide coverage also garnered 1.6m likes and 500,000 comments on social media, with the world divided as to the authenticity of the clips.
Two years ago, the young production company released its first video – which not only caught the attention of people around the world but many news agencies as well – of a man jumping off a cliff to come face to face with a shark.
With 40.8 million online views, ‘GoPro: Man fights off great white shark in Sydney Harbour’ was the kickstarter to Richard Hughes and Dave Christison’s success, sparking the two-year social experiment which has had funding from Screen Australia, enabling the team to experiment with concept creation approaches, production techniques, distribution and seeding strategies with the aim to maximise sharability and entertainment value.
One of the early learnings from the shark video, which caught fire online and divided audiences, was the more people argued over the authenticity of a video, the more viral the video became.
Managing director and co-founder of The Woolshed Company, Dave Christison, told Mumbrella: “We set out to better understand exactly how to create short-form, highly shareable, snackable content that is capable of reaching worldwide mass audiences without the luxury of pricey media buys, ad campaigns, publicity strategies or distribution deals.
“We didn’t have the budget to create movie magic like a $100m film can do, so we had to kind of work within the perimeters that we had,” Christison adds.
But even organic looking hoaxes are expensive to make, and that’s when the Screen Australia funding came in.
“I think the Multi Platform Fund is about supporting upcoming filmmakers in their craft. We had KPIs that we set out to achieve which were measurable metrics and views, and we have certainly shared with them our learnings and findings the whole way through,” says Christison
“The revenue that comes through those Youtube ads count for a fraction of the costs to make them. It’s only when you have a real success on Youtube in which you get 20-30 million plus views within a 48-72 hour period that you bring in real money.”
Asked how much Woolshed could expect to make from ad revenues around Youtube, Christison admits: “They change the rate cards that the way it works, it’s almost impossible to predict.
To put something in perspective, if you had a video that hit five million views in it’s critical period, which is the first couple of days to a week, you’d be lucky to pull in a couple of grand off that. Now if you had another video that hit 20-30 million in that then yes maybe you’d be making $10,000 – $20,000.”
As a way to keep production costs low, the actors in some of some of the videos were members of the production house’s team. Director Caspar Mazzotti was the man who bravely fought off the shark at jump rock near Manly.
Co-founder and director Richard Hughes played the daredevil tornado selfie guy with the other videos casting paid actors. However, if you look at the videos closely, you will see other members of The Woolshed team.
The success of its first video resulted in the Woolshed’s first commercial job, ‘crazy guy runs into outback tornado to take selfie’ which was commissioned by Roadshow Films to promote the film ‘Into The Storm’.
The key objective of the ‘outback selfie’ which has been dubbed the ‘dust daredevil’, was to get people talking and to put the topic of tornados back in the headlines.
Christison says: “Unfortunately, natural disasters usually come with a bad news story, so we set out to create one that was a little more fun and a little less serious.”
The success of that video, which achieved more than three million views in one week, spurred the company on to experiment with more viral content.
“We wanted to master the craft of it so it couldn’t be called a fluke,” says Christison.
Asked how the creative team continues to come up with ideas, Christison says: “If you go to the stuff that works, watch the stuff that’s out their right now, it’s on Facebook every day, always go straight to the viewership and if it’s got more then 10 million views I’ll watch it through and figure out why it works.”
“Danger works, animals, close encounters with dangerous animals work. We tried play with humour in some of them, the risk of danger seems to work stronger then others.
“Kids and animals doing hilarious stuff always works.”
This concept of having a close encounter with danger was the driving force behind ‘lighting almost strikes girl in Sydney!!! Boyfriend’s reaction is priceless!!!’ which was a spontaneous success for the team.
With 58.9m views that video was a quick turn-around for the Woolshed team and was inspired by videos doing the rounds online at the time when Sydney was being hit by a massive storm. But that meant the team had only a brief window to execute the video.
Christison explains: “It was newsworthy but funny and lighthearted at a time when everyday news reporters had to talk about the rain and the storms.”
The success of the video came as a shock to the team. Christison says The Woolshed kept the audience in the back of their minds when developing videos, in a bid to minimise the danger of the content not getting shared.
“We always kept our finger on the pulse and had strategies in place, especially as we built the momentum, and became smarter about when you would pull the trigger,” he adds.
However the tornado video was the only one which the team owned up to soon after the fact, with the other seven only coming to light today.
Asked if the best strategy for brands looking to make content go viral with spoof videos would be to follow in the Woolshed’s footsteps and keep quiet about it, Christison says: “I think it needs to be looked at case by case in what the communication message of the video is.
“To put it into perspective, the last one we released, which was the lion revenge video, was clearly fake. I don’t think anyone has watched that and totally bought that, but people love getting behind the message of this, like karma and revenge on these people [hunters] for doing horrible things. They’re out there illegally hunting and poaching.
“It was definitely mentioned a lot in the comments of the video that people were saying this is clearly fake, but it’s being sponsored by some kind of wildlife conservation company because it’s trying to raise awareness about these issues. People were putting their own message behind it in a way.”
The success of the videos was propelled mainly by online news organisations, eager to pick up on something trending online and give it a more mainstream run. Almost every media organisation locally has run at least one of the videos, while the likes of Sky News UK (snowboarder vs bear), Japan’s Fuji TV (lightning strikes girl), The Lad Bible (Lion takes revenge) as well as sites such as The Daily Mail and Mashable helped propel global success.
Christison admits he was surprised by the content which had been picked up, and by what was shared in different countries.
When asked if he felt guilty about duping the media, Christison said he was surprised no-one had noticed how five of the videos originated from the same account accredited to Terry Tufferson, including the twister video, which had already been owned up to as a fake.
However, Christison was reluctant to share too many of the company’s findings, saying The Woolshed will now step away from the social experiment and look to use the knowledge it has built up as well as the infamy from claiming credit for the videos, to create commercially-funded videos for clients.
Christison concludes: “We hope that we’ve proven our ability in being able to replicate results.”
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