The HERO System for Creating Viral Videos
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Everyone posting videos online are secretly hoping they’ve created the next viral sensation. But the truth is the odds of that happening are slim, in large part because sheer luck plays such a big part of it. But what if you had a formula that you could follow that might increase your chances of creating videos that connect with your audience and consistently convert very well? Matt Johnson, founder of Guide Social, actually has that formula and is sharing it with us today.
Rich: My guest today is a social video pioneer, helping invent the format system and science of viral videos in the publishing world at Business Insider, Now This, New York Magazine, Men’s Health, and others. He’s the author of Producing Empathy: The Secret Method I Use To Get a Million Views on Videos Online. He has produced and overseen over 2,000 pieces of video content that have generated well over 10 billion views and millions of dollars in sales. He’s also worked on viral video campaigns with brands such as Toyota, The National Football League, Campbell’s, Chase Bank, Verizon, Adobe, Title, FreshDirect, and many others.
He’s the creator of the HERO system for viral video and the 3PP methodology for predictable scalable video sales. We’re going to be diving into how to create a video that connects with your audience with the CEO and founder of Guide Social, Matt Johnston. Matt, welcome to the program.
Matt: Thanks for having me, Rich.
Rich: My absolute pleasure. So tell me, how did you get involved in video, and how did you end up making videos that have generated so much success for your clients?
Matt: I got my master’s in journalism, actually, broadcast journalism at Syracuse. Which sort of led to TV career, which then led to a TV journalism career, which then led to a digital career. So, that’s what I was doing before I was an entrepreneur. I was running a lot of big video programs at publishers. Like I ran New York Magazine’s video program, and I was a business insider for a couple of years, I ran some Sandals, and now this and Men’s Health and stuff.
That was my sort of background was I was the Facebook video guy. I helped create a lot of the viral video systems that a lot of the new publishers use now. Stuff that we see as like old hat, I was there on the ground floor in those days of like 2014, 2015 and stuff like that. And then I started this company. I started leveraging everything that I learned from the days of what went viral, organically, what did people want to watch? What do those things have in common? And I turned those things into ads and that turned into a company.
Rich: All right. This makes a lot of sense. Now in a previous conversation, you told me that platforms know less these days about their audience. What do you mean by that? How does that impact the videos we might create?
Matt: It’s really just the death of the third-party cookie, is really what I was talking about. Obviously, most of your audience probably knows, but a cookie is basically a little thing that sits on your website, tracks you, and it tracks information and people that go to your website, do things on your website, and then sends those to a third party like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Google, YouTube, all of these types of things.
But there’s been a revolution in the past year by the platforms and privacy advocates and it’s starting to disappear. Which just means that algorithms need data to live, just like we need food to live. And if we all of a sudden had less food available, we would struggle to get through our day. And the algorithm is really struggling to do its job these days. Which is relevance, which is finding the perfect people at the perfect time to do exactly what you want them to do. Which is mainly why online advertising on social media platforms blew up so much over the past, I don’t know, seven years. But now it’s getting choked off and we have to start to look to new strategies rather than relying on the algorithms to do the hard work for us. So that’s really what I was referring to there. I talk to business owners every single day, and most of them tell me that they’ve just seen big declines since these privacy changes went into effect and started showing their teeth. So actively looking to ways to combat that is really top of mind and what we do.
Rich: So as we think about this, and the fact that the algorithms aren’t as good as they used to be about delivering our videos or content or ads to the right people at the right moment, what are some of the things that we should consider as we’re starting to develop out content, and in this specific case, video?
Matt: Yeah, I think the algorithms still have use, they just don’t have as much data. So the best thing that you can possibly do to get better results from your ads are to feed the algorithm more data so that you can tell it what types of people to continue to show it to. So, that’s where creative comes in, really. I think of creative as a self-targeting by creating the right types of video ads. And this is why I basically ditched everything else in my business except for video about a year ago. I was just like, this is all over, let’s just focus on video. That’s where everybody’s going to have the biggest opportunity for our help.
So if this video is done correctly, it sells to the right audience. It speaks their language, sells the product. Well, it’s going to send signals to the algorithm and give it more data about who’s interacting with that, who’s clicking that video. And it’s going to do a much better job than image ads because a video sells people more. It speaks to people more, talks more about problems and pain points. There’s just more of a relationship that happens with the viewer. So the more video you put out there that does that, the more it sends signals to the algorithm and gives them data about who your potential buyers are. And then it will necessarily show two more people like that, and it starts to solve some of the targeting problems that you had. It’s one of the many advantages of it, but it’s the biggest way that it helps the data specific problem that we’re having.
Rich: So if I’m understanding you correctly, the problem that a lot of marketers are facing these days is that the algorithms don’t have that third party data to rely on and to know who’s going to click on this. So we need to be creating for it. We need to help feed it with this first-person data – so basically on the platform * and the way that we’re going to do that successfully is by creating effective videos, that in fact is where you need to focus on today.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah. And you know, I know I’m biased because video is what I do, but I think if you ask anybody, they’ll probably say the same thing. The best thing you can possibly do is have a great video ad, have many great video ads, ideally. If you just think about it, when you experience an advertisement, if you only have an image and you’re just looking for the click, and that click is going to turn into having your landing page do all the work to get you to convert, turn into a lead or into a customer, whatever it is, it’s going to be much harder to find those people because there’s no other interaction they can do then click. And they may not be interested in the first place. A video just does so much more to sell people before they even click over. Not to mention it gives you all the other data points about how much they’re watching, what they’re watching, and if they’re engaging with the content. So, it’s a big equalizer.
Rich: All right. Makes a lot of sense. And so videos can definitely inform the algorithm above and beyond anything else they may be able to accomplish. Now I’m sure that creating a viral video is a dream of many businesses. Now you’ve got this HERO system that you’ve developed. Can you talk to us a little bit about what that is, and what could help a video go viral or get more engagement or just be more effective?
Matt: Yeah. I’ve been behind a lot of viral videos, so I created this system to help point out the things that make a video go viral. There’s so much luck that goes into that as well, so I like to think of it as preparing every video to go viral. And what we do in the company right now is ads. But all of these things, it’s all the basics of ads that are there as well. But the HERO system is really all about how you create videos that are going to be optimized for a newsfeed and are going to make people feel something and are chock full of empathy. I think those are the three main building blocks of any successful video that travels online and any successful video ad as well.
My book is all about the HERO system, and we don’t talk too much about ads in that book. But it’s all 100% applicable. So it’s an acronym; hook, empathy, response, over deliver. Hook is just, you need to grab them right at the top of the video. It’s an obvious thing. Everybody has that advice now, but it’s 100% true. So audio, if you’re on an auto-play platform with sound like TikTok or YouTube, or whether it’s crazy footage or even a great headline, never start with your logo. You only have a very brief amount of time to capture people as they’re scrolling, so thumb stopping stuff.
The E is for empathy. And this is like my big idea. This is what Matt Johnson is all about. He’s the empathy guy. That was my book, Producing Empathy. I just believe that empathy is the reason why anybody clicks anything, buys anything online. People, I think, are generally inclined to want to see themselves in the content that they watch online. They identify with it emotionally in some way, and it sort of puts us on the same team. So the more that we’re able to identify, create content that clearly identifies with our target audience, emotionally identifies, the more they’re going to feel magnetically drawn to us. Because they want to see themselves, and we’re sort of putting ourselves on the same playing field. It’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, they get me, they understand me.” And these are not things that you necessarily think about consciously, but they work on you subconsciously. And they feed very well. Like this idea of empathy feeds so well into all the basics of direct response marketing and direct response copywriting, like pain, agitate, solve, problem solution, all of those types of things.
The R is for response. Just making sure that you’re being clear about what you want people to do and paying off on the hook. And O is for over deliver. Just the idea that there’s so much content out there and what’s your X factor in this video that’s going to make it stand out from others. So that’s the HERO model.
Rich: So let’s talk a little bit more about the empathy component of this, as this is kind of like where you have put your focus anyway. What are some examples of some videos that you’ve been involved with that really tap into the empathy component and get people to be like, “Hey, I want to be like that”, or “They’re speaking to me” or just tugging on the heartstrings, whatever it may be, to get them to engage with that video. What are some good examples that you’ve been involved with?
Matt: I think the easiest examples are just this format that we do for all of our clients. It’s a big one that we do called, our ‘centerpiece videos’. And they are just built around empathy, and we have billions of these videos. And what they do is it’s an ad that is one person talking to the camera, but its very empathy driven, because the protagonist, the main character is always a stand in for the avatar or a stand in for the ideal target customer. Somebody who went through the buyer’s journey and went through that pain agitate solve journey. And we like that person. We get to know that person, we understand their journey, we empathize with it.
So for example, one of our highest performing videos made millions of dollars for this company is called Hydroviv. Basically, they make custom water filters, they were on Shark Tank. They are custom built water filters that you can install in 15 minutes that go under your sink and are built for the water in your zip code rather than just blanket. And they told me when we first started working together a year ago, they told me that they’re one of the most common buyer journeys that existed was that somebody saw something on the news like, “Oh, there’s lead in my water. What do I do?” They saw on the news there was lead in their water or something like that, or PFAS or something. So I was thinking about that when I was writing the script, and we wrote it around that buyer’s journey. And we mimicked all the things that people probably think about under sink water filters and things like that, about how they never really considered it, they thought their Brita was fine. All of those types of things. And then we scripted around that and then she says, “Oh, I never thought about needing a water filter in my home until I saw this news story. And this news story said that there was all this crap in my water. And I was like, my kids drink this water. I’ve got to do something. So I started researching and there were no good solutions. Darn it. This is a terrible market. And then I was watching Shark Tank one day and I saw this and ended up that I…” and then it pays off on that.
But I think what’s where empathy plays in, is clearly that we are trying as possible to always have that main character, have the exact feeling and life experiences are as similar as possible to the people that are likely to buy the product. So this is why we’ll have one for every avatar. So like if a client comes back to us in six months, they’re like, “Oh, this type of person is buying more from us right now. We need a video for them.” And I’ll say, okay, so let’s write a story around what that person’s life is like, what their problems are, and how they’ll solve it.
Does that sort of help?
Rich: Those are some great examples, and just help me really anchor in and what you’re doing. Now those seem like they’re one person in front of the camera telling us what should resonate with me. Are there other styles of videos that you’ve seen out there that can also tap into empathy? Or is that really your go-to model that you found to be very effective?
Matt: Well, it’s the most effective because people like seeing people. It’s funny, ever since the beginning when I was at Business Insider, I was a news editor for a while. And so I was in charge of the headline. I was like the headline guy and the thumbnail guy. I was in charge of making sure people clicked on stuff. And all the testing, no matter what, thumbnail images with people on them would always outperform thumbnail images without people on them. There’s just, it’s empathy. It’s human experience. It’s all this stuff. People just want to click that. It does tend to do better, but it goes through everything.
In fact, if you read my book, I talk a ton about text on screen, like simple text on screen videos. Because that’s what we used to make like crazy at these publishers. And it’s all about the writing. I would say that it’s much more about the writing than the visuals, and I’m a big believer in that overall. Like, it’s all about the writing. And so yeah, are you emotionally identifying… whatever the core is, how are you making it relevant and matter to the person that watches it? To me, as long as it makes them feel something too, it falls into this category of empathy, and it gets people to click. So I would say, yeah, I would like of all the videos that I’ve made, probably tens of thousands of videos, most of them have not been this format. They’ve just been written in a way that emotionally identifies with the target audience in the way the story is crafted.
Rich: And I like the fact that you say you’re kind of mimicking the customer journey or the customer journey they’re most likely to take. It’s almost like a shortcut for the viewer. It’s like, yeah. I probably would have had to go through all those steps and all that research, but I found this video and it’s pointed me towards this water filter, or whatever it is that you happen to be selling. Because I identify with this person, I figure my journey will be identical. Let’s just skip to the end and make a purchase. So it seems like it would be a very effective way of tapping into that customer journey, also.
Now I’m sure a lot of people listening to this are like, okay, that’s great for a company that’s got a big budget. You worked with the NFL, you work with Toyota, you worked with Shark Tanks, but I’m not that kind of person, I have a very small budget, this probably isn’t for me. What would you say to that person?
Matt: It’s not expensive. A lot of those videos that I did with NFL, Toyota and stuff, those are huge, branded content campaigns that I did for other types of content. When we’re talking about video ads, we’re not very expensive to do these videos. It’s all about the writing, right? Like they look good, but it’s all about the writing. One person in front of the camera, well-written script doing the thing. Now that being said, if you don’t have any money to pay anybody, obviously, you can definitely do this kind of stuff on your own. But just remember that it’s all about the writing. That’s the most important thing.
The first thing that you do is, well, don’t get intimidated. First of all, everybody gets intimidated by video and there’s no need to. The first thing that you need to know is just know your avatar deeply. It’s fascinating to me how many business owners I talk to that don’t understand their target customer. You got to know it. You have to know it, right? Like what’s the emotional pain that leads them to becoming a customer of yours? So you know that, you map out the journey, then you just have to write the movie of that turn. Like what’s the beginning, middle and end, like, and it usually comes down to. Very simple arc. There’s the before state, which is the, here’s how I felt before then. There’s the incident, you know, and I have these problems. There’s an inciting incident. Like for example, in the Hydrovive one, it was watching the news story like, “This tipped the scale for me”, or whatever it is. Then there’s the climactic reveal of this, solve the problem. Then you have the like honeymoon little period, like, oh, this did all these amazing things for me, blah, blah, blah. And then there’s the after state where it’s like, and now I feel XYZ. Like it’s like a release of tension. I feel relieved.
So if your product doesn’t suck and your service doesn’t suck, people have this experience with your company. So what is that experience, and how can you put it in a story. And then use that story for all sorts of stuff. If you want to hire an actor to do that after you write up that story. Awesome. If you want to, as the CEO, get in front of the camera and find a way to spin it from your angle, you can do that. I think it’s more effective to use a customer or a stand in for a customer. Because obviously, who do you believe, the person that has a vested interest in making money, or that perceived third-party?
But the other thing is when you’re getting video testimonials, having that journey mapped out is crucial. Do your video testimonials on zoom, interview them and get them to answer specific questions that give you each part of the journey so you can get the before and the inciting incident and the reveal. And it’s just, so what did it feel like? What were you doing before you worked with us, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah? What was the thing that tipped the scale for you, where you were like, I got to find somebody with this, or I need to find a product to help me with this? Okay, great. So how did you hear about us or where did you come across us? Well, I did this. Oh, what was it like once you tried? Okay, cool. How do you feel now? So those are the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 questions that you can ask in every testimonial to be able to get a testimonial that doesn’t suck. Because most of them suck. Because you’re, “Hey, can we record something on your phone?” Just say, “You know what? What was it like working with us?” or “Just tell us how much you like our products.” And it usually doesn’t come out very well. So if you guide it like a story, then you can actually replicate a lot of what I’ve been able to do in much, but much more highly curated stuff. So that’s a great little hack.
Rich: That’s a great approach to video testimonials. And I hadn’t had heard it spelled out like that, but that’s really helpful. As far as these videos go when it comes to ads, do you have any kind of technical advice in terms of the right type of length or the right type of format or anything like that? Or is that less important than just nailing down that script?
Matt: It’s definitely less important than the script. The script is everything. And it’s mostly boring. I would say on Facebook and Instagram, it needs to be a square video. They always outperform the other videos. We always put captions on… well, we don’t always. Generally, if somebody works with us and they hire us to do these centerpiece videos, we give them 12 versions to test. So there’s three different hooks at the beginning to test. And a few different versions with like a headline bar on top, and square versions with captions, and all this type of stuff. So you never know what will hit. In general, the ones that work the best are on Facebook and Instagram are square, and they have a headline bar on top typically. Well, I guess it’s kind of split 50/50, but definitely square with captions.
But these are also great ads for YouTube and just telling the story on YouTube. As long as you have a strong hook, your YouTube ads can also be good as well. And you’ll need to use wide for that. Usually these videos are like a minute and a half long, but I don’t get too caught up in length. People get all caught up in the tactical aspects of it, but I think it’s all about the story.
I’ve worked with clients who, when we’ve done other stuff with them or whatever, they’ll have these literally just ridiculous 10-minute ads that will just convert of like the CEO just talking. And for some reason she or he just happens to be a very likable person. And they’ll just be a huge driver of sales. So you really never know, but it doesn’t really come down to the technical stuff at all. People get obsessed with that, whereas, no, it needs to be 15 seconds. No, it’s just crap. Really at the end of the day, it needs to make people care. Really, that’s really what it is. And they have to be able to see themselves in it and what they’ll clearly get out of it. Nobody really buys anything because of the thing, right? I don’t buy a washing machine because I want a washing machine. I buy a washing machine because my clothes are not coming out as clean as I want, and I feel dirty all the time and it’s a pain in the ass.
So sorry your podcast episode just went to explicit territory, but yeah, that’s the thing I would say one of the biggest mistakes that people make when they make their own video ads or really any ads, is that they’re so focused on the features and stuff and not about the problem that it solves. Because that’s the real reason that people buy stuff. So that’s what we need to talk about.
Rich: Absolutely. And I agree with everything you just said in terms of telling that story and the empathy. And the only thing that I would say on the technical side is it sounds like the most important rule to follow is just do some testing. Because there’s probably ones that will work most often, but it sounds like there’s also some surprises in there, too. So if you have the bandwidth or the budget is to create a few different versions or few different openings or closings or calls action and just measure, see what works the best, but make sure that you’re really speaking to that ideal customer.
Rich: Yep. Awesome. Hey Matt, if people are interested in working with you and learning more about you, where can we send them?
Matt: Oh, we’re done already? Let’s talk for another 45 minutes.
Rich: It just flew by.
Matt: I know, it did. I have a little page set up when I’m on podcasts, I’d love you to go to it. It’s guidesocialglobal.com/podcast, which I’m allowed to do because I don’t have my own podcast. I can just come on yours and use that URL.
Rich: There you go. So we’ll put that in the show notes as well, in case you were driving. But other than that, Matt, this has been great. Thank you so much for coming by and sharing your expertise with us today.
Matt: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Matt Johnson knows how to create videos that connect with audiences. He’s helped some of the biggest brands do it, he can help you, too. Check out his website for more tips and info. And for a deeper dive, read his book on the topic.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.