John Papola is the CEO of Emergent Order and Director of EconPop, which just launched a YouTube show. Papola joins the show to tell us more about it. Papola directed the videos, “Fear the Boom & Bust” and the “Fight of the Century”, which have been seen by millions on the Internet. He explains the genesis of these ideas and what went into their productions.
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Start of Interview with John Papola
Jason Hartman: It’s my pleasure to welcome John Papola to the show. And that is a name you may not know, but you probably have watched his videos. He publishes some awesome viral videos, and I wanted to bring him on for two interviews on some different shows of mine. One addressing the economics issues that are talked about in his videos. And just in case you don’t know, these videos have been seen by millions of people and you have probably seen them yourself. They’re econ videos, and one is called Fear the Boom and Bust and the other one is called The Fight of the Century. And John has done a fantastic job with his ad agency Emergent Order creating viral videos. Just wanted to talk about some of those secrets with him here today, and if you’re interested in the economic side, look him up on some of my other shows. Hey John, welcome. How are you?
John Papola: Hey Jason, thanks for having me on.
Jason Hartman: Well it’s great to have you here. So you’re CEO of Emergent Order; it’s an agency based in Austin Texas. And John, tell us what you did with these two videos and how many people have seen them, and then share some of your secrets with our listeners.
John Papola: Well I can share the first secret right away, and that leads into what we did. Which is, the best thing you can do with any creative product is really embed your own passions in it, because creative enterprises are so subjective that if you don’t love what you’re working on and what you’re creating, you really become unmoored from any kind of judgment or sensibilities. So what we did with our videos Fear the Boom and Bust which has 4.6 million views just on YouTube. And Fight of the Century, it’s sequel which has over two and half million views, is an attempt to bring alive a debate that I was personally very excited about, especially in the wake of the financial crisis. This debate over what causes the boom and bust in our economy.
And I had begun reading economics to try to understand this, and I was turned onto the ideas of Friedrich Hayek partly from the presidential debates of 2008 and hearing Ron Paul talk about this monetary system and that it’s the cause of a lot of these problems, and the cures that become popular in the aftermath are often the result of a different thinker, John Maynard Keynes. So it was really just a personal passion for these ideas, and geeking out on them, that gave rise to these two projects. And I teamed up with economist Russ Roberts who I had been using as my own personal teaching by way of his podcast, and we began to collaborate on how can we bring these ideas to life?
Jason Hartman: And just to get a little background on the econ side; I don’t want to go that in depth here because this is not an… you can listen to some of my other shows if you’re an economics wonk and you want to get into that and the personal finance stuff. But The Fight of the Century really has been between F. A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. Sorry, see I’m a little sick, I told you that. My mind just isn’t quite here – I do know who that is. But one believes that government should be small and have a small place and spend within its means, and the other believes in the concept, and this is Keynes of course, of the Keynesian idea of priming the pump, I remember from my college econ classes.
And the government really plays a role in moving things along and getting the market going by printing some fake fiat money. You can tell where I stand on this by my sarcasm probably. And pumping it into the market place; doing government projects like many of these failed solar projects and electric car projects, and all this silly stuff that government does that never really seems to work very well, occasionally it does work, but I’d argue that even the free market would have done it better. But admittedly, maybe sometimes the free market does need a little bit of a push, and that’s what canes believed.
And so you illustrate that just beautifully, these two different opposing viewpoints, in your videos. It’s just awesome. Anyone that sees these very short videos that are only a couple of minutes long, if they have no background in economics whatsoever, they get it.
John Papola: I’ve been pretty impressed by how much these videos, which are actually quite dense… we really do condense an enormous amount of ideas into the short format, and yet I get Emails from high school teachers and even high school students that are really enraptured by them and manage to follow them and they’re not necessarily grabbing every Easter egg of a concept or a buzz word or a little piece of jargon, but they’re coming away with the overall principles.
And I think in a way that’s one lesson I’ve taken away from creating viral content, which is don’t underestimate your audience. People are smart, and of course people have instant access to anything that they don’t know, and people know that so it’s actually great to be able to have something that peeks people’s interest and encourages them to go find out more. That’s exciting. You’re hearing something new.
And I think there’s always been a tendency within advertising to try to speak to the lowest common denominator. And sometimes that’s important. You don’t want to be too confusing or get lost in the weeds, but I think in our fast paced media landscape now, where you’re watching this within the context of a browser and you’ve probably got four other browser windows open at the same time, being sort of dense and being very targeted is a really good thing.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, no question about it. So have a passion for it that was your first secret, if you will, for the content. And you mentioned, I don’t know how to sum up that point you just made of dense content, targeting, not necessarily to the lowest common denominator of who might be listening, right?
John Papola: Yes. I think the thing is that you can create great work that operates on a number of levels. You want to obviously have an emotional hook, you want to be able to connect with people’s heart in some way, whether it’s through humor or through music, which are the two tools we’ve played a lot. And I think they’re very effective but they’re also very difficult. Or other sorts of emotions whether it’s empathy, with great human stories, or surprise or even shock. I think you’re wanting to make an impact on people in a world where there’s so many messages out there and there’s so much clutter.
Jason Hartman: So how do you break through? How do you get passed around? Let’s talk about length of videos. I was looking at an article recently, I believe it was on TechCrunch or something like that, and it talked about how, the ideal viral video is 15-30 seconds long. Wow, that’s short. Yours are quite a bit longer than that, but still an incredible pass-along rate.
John Papola: Well, I think it really just depends on the content.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, I agree with you.
John Papola: Statistically, sure. I’m sure that big data crunching will find that maybe it’s an average of a minute or 30 seconds or something like that. There’s a reason why the 30 second ad persists as a format. But it really depends. Can your story fit into that time frame? If you remember, that Kony 2012, that was a 30 minute or 20 minute…
Jason Hartman: 30 minutes, yeah.
John Papola: Now, how many people watched all 30? I don’t know. But the fact is, both of our videos are 6 and almost 8 minutes each. And yet when I look at the back, and most people make it, the overwhelming majority make it through to the credits, at which point of course they drop off. Which is fine.
Jason Hartman: What other pearls of wisdom do you have on creating good viral videos? Maybe one area to talk about is what people should expect in terms of production and contrast in some of the videos out there. Your videos have, in my opinion, very high production value. Feel free to tell people what you spent on them. Since you did them for yourself, it wasn’t really for a client. So the expenses may be calculated differently. But some viral videos are really cheap and they spend like nothing, right? The baby who bit my finger thing? That costs zero probably.
John Papola: One of the more interesting ones in the advertising world is probably the dollar shave club ad.
Jason Hartman: Oh those are awesome! I love those. That guy is funny.
John Papola: And rumor has it they only spent 75 hundred or 10 thousand dollars to make that and they filmed it in his warehouse, and I think the man who stars in it is actually the CEO of a company.
Jason Hartman: And he happens to be a comedian though, which is a huge advantage.
John Papola: Oh yes. His performance was great, he had great timing. He worked. It worked. So I think when you’re trying to create something extemporaneous, something that is alive, you can come up with concepts or even just scenarios that you might try to capture that are real. And they can be low cost and potentially really catch on fire.
Jason Hartman: I remember one that was really funny a few years ago. It was about a mobile home sales man. Do you remember that? Did you see that one? And that had tons of views. And I guess two comedians produced it for some mobile home dealer in the Midwest somewhere, and they just totally poked fun at mobile home sales and made it out to be kind of cheesy and funny. And the other thing to also think about is, do these videos actually work for the bottom line? Maybe they get passed around, that’s great. But another thing to keep in mind is what is your actual goal of the video? Who wants to be a famous mobile home sales man if you’re not going to make any money for it?
John Papola: That’s right. And I think with our rap videos, we are really going for awareness and education. I was working with a professor and we had teamed up with Mercatus Center out of Georgia Mason University, so simply being shared was actually really our main objective. So when I get an Email from Hong Kong of a teacher that created a lesson plan around our rap video, that’s success. But if you’re a business, you want to drive conversions. Not just get people to your website, but you get people to actually stay there and buy something. The beauty of commerce.
Jason Hartman: So can a viral video be a good sales pitch that really asks for the order with the person pointing, sign up over here. If it’s going to get passed around, you’re probably going to lose that because it’s going to be a YouTube video rather than on your own site. But can it be a real sales pitch or is that going to turn everybody off?
John Papola: It absolutely can. And one of the ways we work, is we’ve developed a fairly straightforward questionnaire and we basically provide at the beginning of the creative process, especially for folks that are not used to creating video content. It basically asks what’s your story, what are you trying to sell, what are your goals, and who do you see as your audience? Who are you trying to talk to? And I’ve never approached the creative process from a pandering point of view, and that’s partly because I spent several years as a creative director/producer at Nickelodeon. And we would never say the word fun at Nickelodeon and we would never talk about kids like a third party we’re aiming to entertain. We would find the kid within ourselves and we would always try to show the fun, not say the word. Because if you have to say it’s fun, chances are it’s not. And if it’s not and you’re saying that it is, you’ve lost your credibility with your audience.
So I think it really is a process of identifying what you want to do and what you want to say, and trying to come up with great, funny, surprising creativity that you can execute well within the budget. And that actually brings that to life. We’ve done some work with some financial publishers that basically are doing direct sales, direct marketing. And not only do they get enormous traction out of some of the most surprising content; you’ve probably seen these talking text videos, where it can be up to an hour long of a long form essentially sales pitch, where you’re basically just seeing text on a screen of what the person’s saying and yet, they work surprisingly well at driving people to sign up for these subscriptions, so it’s pretty amazing how many ways you can grab a hold of an audience and move people to take action.
Jason Hartman: Right. Absolutely. If you had to categorize the types of viral videos, everyone I think, at least I do, my mind just goes to funny or maybe musical. Which is entertaining in a different way. I think of that Friday song that that girl did that was just all over the place. How many different sort of categories of viral videos are there?
John Papola: One of the things that has been very interesting, is to watch the rise of Upworthy.com.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, amazing blog. They’ve done an incredible job.
John Papola: And their stick is to repackage what they view as meaningful and uplifting content and then they package it with really smartly conceived headlines that grab your attention. So they’re just taking other people’s stuff out there, put in a really great headline, apparently they write up to 25 headlines for every post and then whittle it down to a select of strong ones and then AB test them to see which ones people actually click on.
Jason Hartman: So UpWorthy doesn’t produce any original content?
John Papola: Not to my knowledge, no. they’re purely an aggregator.
Jason Hartman: Wow. That is an amazing business model. So if you want to go viral, UpWorthy would be a great place to be if you can.
John Papola: Yeah. I’ve worked with one of the writers at UpWorthy on some projects. Now the UpWorthy has a sort of left progressive political bent to it, and it’s sometimes more overt than other times. But they’re incredibly good at what they do. So politics aside, it’s an impressive thing. I think that they’ve gone up to, I think they’re approaching a hundred million unique views a month.
Jason Hartman: And how old are they? That company isn’t that old.
John Papola: Only a couple years old. I believe they started in 2012. And actually there’s been some other studies that have actually showed that positive videos and stories actually get shared more frequently than negative. I’m always a little skeptical of some of these meta studies, just like I’m skeptical of macroeconomics. But what I think is often forgotten when we think about viral, is how frequently our, now I’m 36 years old, but my mother in law in particular will often forward me these Email chains and they tend to be positive stories of something uplifting, and often for me it’s kind of cheesy.
Jason Hartman: Yeah that’s pretty interesting. I get those from my aunt as well, things like that. Well, they’re not all uplifting. A lot of them are complaining about the people in Washington and so forth running the country into the ground. It’s interesting though because that really flies in the face, if it’s true and I know we’re both a little skeptical, but it really flies in the face of the concept in news over the years, if it bleeds it leads. The bad news goes first, and the dirty laundry, Don Henley’s famous song about we all love dirty laundry, right?
John Papola: I haven’t really watched the news in many years, in part because A I think it’s information content is a little too thin to be worth the time it takes. It’s not entertaining enough to overcome how low the information content is.
Jason Hartman: I would agree. Television is most certainly the idiot’s medium of all of them. Because the segments are so short on TV. At least with Talk Radio, if you can tolerate 18 minutes of commercials per hour, you’re going to get some deeper discussion on an issue.
John Papola: It is a sort of odd thing that the “if it bleeds it leads” really does still seem to operate in a lot of news.
Jason Hartman: Let me tell you my theory about this interestingly, and you may agree. I think on social media and just forwarding Emails and so forth with the viral content, the problem is it comes from a specific person, and so when I put something negative maybe complaining about politics on my Facebook page, I get a certain small group of die-hards liking it and agreeing and then a person debating the issue. It’s always sort of the same mix in every post, even if the people rotate around. But when its news media, it’s not coming really from a person per say, it’s coming from an institution. And so maybe that’s one of the reasons the content is more positive in the viral world. It’s just a theory.
John Papola: I think that that’s true. I think that that’s part of why a lot of websites have switched to using Facebook for their commenting systems because within the theory that when you have your own name and likeness and sort of online identity attached to your words, you’re less likely to be a troll and be a jerk. Although, that’s not always true.
Jason Hartman: I don’t know about that. I think we’ve all been in a few arguments online on our social media pages probably.
John Papola: Yeah, well. Guilty as charged.
Jason Hartman: Yeah, me too. Guilty as charged. But what else John? Any other tips you want to share before we wrap up? Because we’ve got to have you on and talk about economics too.
John Papola: Well, something I’ve always tried to live by in my creative work whether it’s at the networks or now in our agency, is to set your sights on what you can execute really, really well. It’s very interesting. There’s somewhat of a paradox in the creative field and in video and advertising in particular. We get enamored with ideas, whether an idea is really great or really stand out, and often overlook that every idea has already been thought of before. We’re telling the same stories that William Shakespeare did in every movie and TV show. But it’s the execution that makes the idea come to life, and that a great idea poorly executed can flop. And an absolutely run of the mill, been done a thousand times before idea can really fly if it’s executed right. So I like to think of execution as a multiplier of ideas.
Jason Hartman: Right. And I agree with you, but what do you mean when you say execution? My mind instantly goes to production value of the video, for example.
John Papola: In the case of video, that’s exactly right. And I’ll give you an example that maybe can draw a finer point on this. If any of your listeners are science fiction fans, they’re probably familiar with the Sci-Fi channel. And for a time, and maybe it still does, the Sci-Fi channel was somewhat infamous for TV movies that just looked absolutely cheesy and terrible. And I think to some extent, they embraced that. But the concept of ideas versus execution really plays out here because on paper the idea of a massive alien invasion where you see the big skyline of Los Angeles all in flames as giant ships descend upon the city and laser beams are setting fire to the Hollywood sign, that is a great idea! Of course it’s done a million times, but still, big idea, if you don’t have the budget or the mechanisms to execute it really spectacularly, it’s going to look horrible.
So given your constraints, you can tell an actually really good and exciting and thrilling and perceivably higher production value story by setting the story entirely in the subway system. Because you don’t have the budget to do the big aerial landscape, but if you set it in the subways during an alien invasion and you only have four people and you’re getting occasional flashing lights and you use those flashes as these thriller opportunities to get glimpses of the aliens that are making their way in, you can basically tell the story, you can actually put people on the edge of their seats, and it won’t feel like you were trying too hard and that you didn’t quite do it…
Jason Hartman: Yeah, okay. I got it. So let me ask you, I just want to make sure we’ve got the lesson about the Sci-Fi channel though. So are you saying, my mind went back to that old terrible Japanese movie, Giant Robot. I remember that as a kid; it was such a low production value. And the Japanese used to do all these really low production value Sci-Fi monster type things like that. Are you saying then, I got the example of the subway, that’s a great idea, so just keep it simple. Just tell a good story in an easy space where you’re maybe one space and so on and so forth. But are you saying embrace the cheesiness? Is that what the sci-fi channel did? Is that the lesson? Is that the take-away?
John Papola: I think in a lot of cases that when the producers embraced it, they got it to work. So a great recent example was a movie called Sharknado, where a tornado filled with sharks would… So right off the bat, it’s ridiculous. The idea that sharks in a tornado that somehow the tornado persists and goes around a city and the sharks come jumping out of the tornado eating people. So right off the bat…
Jason Hartman: It could happen.
John Papola: Hey, anything’s possible. But a lot of times rather than either embracing your limitations in a playful way, you simply have these action melodramatic films that didn’t appreciate their limitations and instead of executing a smaller or a different concept well, they executed a big idea poorly. It’s sort of matching it up. Being that there’s a lot of creativity there because obviously you can do what you were saying; you can take your limitations doing a local ad for trailer parks and be hilarious and absurdist and make it great with low production value. With a production value, it’s actually the cleverness and the editing and the writing, but that’s the skill. That’s the challenge. How do you bundle all these skills together and make the right choices so that what comes out is good?
Jason Hartman: Fantastic. Okay, well John. Give out your website and tell people where they can find you. And if you want just quickly, what type of budget you cater to, and then if you have any other resources you want to mention where people can learn more about this, or maybe there are lower budget agencies, and of course there’s always higher budget agencies. But if you have any of those you want to mention too, you’re welcome to.
John Papola: Well, our agency is called Emergent Order. And it’s an evolutionary, and a biological and an economics concepts, so it’s kind of heady. But it speaks to what we like to do, which is take complicated ideas and boil them down into surprising and fun and sharable pieces of content. So EmergentOrder.com is where you can see more of our work. You can see our broadcast work, which is very high end, including the rap videos which are on YouTube but produced every bit as well as what’s gone on television.
And we do a whole lot more. We develop an entire strategy around the content. For example, a recent campaign we put together on the concept of crony capitalism; we actually created an entire website and action figure line of cronies and produced a live action commercial leveraging my Nickelodeon background, of kids playing with their cronies action figures. So we sort of covered the gamut of creative communication. From a budget range standpoint, it really can depend. We can certainly, I think our work can show that we can do very high end work, and we of course love that. But we’ve also worked with small clients as little as 25,000. Which I know…
Jason Hartman: Some listeners are thinking that’s a lot of money.
John Papola: For a small business, if you’re a local business, we might not be a perfect fit.
Jason Hartman: Do you have any recommendations for other places they can go? Like some people want to do this themselves, is there a website that can help you do that? There is for everything these days.
John Papola: It really depends. If you’re a small business and you want to spend, say 5 thousand dollars on a video. I think one great place to look is film school. So if you’re in an area or you’re aware of a local film school, there’s an opportunity to work with a hungry talented young person who’s going to put in way more effort into trying to make something great. They’re going to learn a lot in the process, and you’ll have a lot less of a challenge with trying to deal with a company that might be oriented around high volume, low budget work. I can’t really speak to…
Jason Hartman: Okay.
John Papola: I’m sure there’s a large ecosystem of providers out there. I’m truly amazed at the quality of wedding videography that’s happening today. There is just some terrific cinematography and editing going on for people’s weddings. So there’s a full range. And hey, you know what? Reach out to us. Because sometimes we might have some folks that have a little downtime and have some creative juices to spare and we would love an opportunity to work on something and to hit it out of the park for you. So if there’s a listener out there who is thinking oh I can’t afford this…
Jason Hartman: Maybe you can. Okay, good stuff. Well that’s John Papola, CEO of Emergent Order, and thank you so much for joining us today.
John Papola: Oh well thanks for having me on.
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