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How does a 7-minute video about Syria get over 100M views?

Johnny Harris is a senior video producer at Vox. We asked him to share thoughts on their team’s first video to reach a huge milestone — over 100 million views.

The two-minute rule that ruled us all

There was a time in 2015 when Vox thought our Facebook videos had to be short in order to perform well. Under two minutes was the rule of thumb. The thinking behind that rule was that autoplaying videos on Facebook meant that we had to grab people's attention quickly, then quickly finish up so that the viewer could move on down their feed. This rule of thumb makes sense. But it’s also totally wrong.

I learned that last year when Max Fisher, the foreign editor at the time, and I made a video explainer on the Syrian Civil War. Our hope was to deliver on Vox’s baseline promise: to help untangle the complicated moving parts of the war to help people understand what was going on. The conflict had been leading the news for months, and we were confident that most of our audience had seen the headlines without really understanding what was going on. So we set out to explain it. Our goal was a 3.5 minute video, on the longer end for our videos at that time.

I remember one specific meeting with Max when the script was quickly growing into an unruly 900 words (over five minutes). “We have to cut,” I told him, fearing that a 5-minute video would immediately turn off our audience. Max shrugged and said, “This is the story. We need this many words to explain what’s going on over there.”

We took the gamble and locked the script at 910 words. I thought hard on what sort of visual language we could use to keep viewers watching for so long. The result was a map, with icons and arrows, and a timeline at the bottom showing each main event in the conflict.

Johnny Harris/Vox

We published this 5-minute video and crossed our fingers, not knowing that we had just created what would become the most viral video in Vox’s history.

It didn't "go viral" in the usual way though. We published it on October 14th, 2015, and we were happy to have helped give an audience this important background. But over a month later, the Paris terror attacks in 2015 made people interested in what was happening in Syria. And they started sharing it – a lot. The most popular upload of the video now has over 1.3 million shares.

And it performed best not on YouTube, the platform thought to be more tolerant of longer content, but on Facebook. As of today, the video has been watched over 105 million times.

The fallacy of the dumb social internet

The rise of social media has been met with a chorus of criticism about how these platforms reward mediocre content that is short and mindless. There is certainly truth to this critique. But a less-touted effect of social media is that good stories and useful information can indeed reach huge audiences. The fact that people will obsess over and share the Harlem Shake on Facebook doesn’t mean that curiosity about substantive topics is dead. The problem is not the cat videos and listicles, but rather that interesting information is often not presented in a way that is digestible. This is the problem the Syria video solved.

The video did well for two reasons: First, the topic in question, a brutal and devastating civil war that has displaced millions, was something people were hearing a lot about but didn’t really understand. However, that wasn’t enough to ensure the video went viral. The second condition was just as important: We worked hard to ensure our piece honored the intelligence of our audience, while not assuming they knew context or history of the war.

Through a clear and accurate script paired with clear and focused visuals, we made the complexities suddenly approachable to anyone who was willing to spend five minutes watching.

This is, in fact, the premise of Vox’s mission, that our audience will indeed take the time to learn about complicated issues if, and only if, those issues are presented in an accessible way. This also applies to the length of our videos. Shorter is no longer better. The new rule of thumb is that we make video as long as they need to be to tell the story, and keep people engaged. Week-to-week we will make videos ranging from 2-minutes to 15-minutes for Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. And what we've seen is similar engagement and retention on our videos regardless of the length.

We updated the Syria video a few weeks ago when the President ordered missile strikes on an airbase in Syria. While scrambling to update the now 7-minute video, I had a fleeting thought, “What if it was all a fluke? What if the algorithm worked in our favor that day and this updated one flops?” But it didn’t.

The update saw similar traffic to the original, confirming the lessons we learned when we published the first version. Shortly after, Vox General Manager Andrew Golis said it best in a memo he sent around to the newsroom, reminding us that our audience is hungry for “the history and backstory that allows them as curious citizens to understand everything else they’re reading.” The phrase I liked was “curious citizen.” It encapsulates the assumption Vox is built on.

People want to understand stuff. Especially when it’s in the news. As visual storytellers in a social media world, our mission is to put in the work to make our stories accessible to everyone, while maintaining rigor and accuracy. If you had told me two years ago that a 7-minute video about a complex war in the Middle East would outperform most memes and viral cat videos on Facebook, I wouldn't have believed it. But I am now a believer that most people truly want to understand the bigger picture behind the headlines, a service Vox seeks to fulfill everyday.