When Great Storytelling Bucks Data-Driven Trends

May 22, 2013


Quick math question: Which video has a better chance of going viral — one that is less than three minutes long or one that is more than 22 minutes long?

No doubt, brevity has been a big advantage for YouTube’s most infamous clips. So much so that we, as content marketers, consistently abide the unwritten rule a video produced for online consumption should never last more than three minutes — if that. A 2011 white paper found the 20 greatest viral videos according to Time Magazine lasted an average of 2:47. The average has likely become even shorter since 2011 as marketers continue to pump out 30-second clips literally designed to go viral.

How do we come to the conclusion a viewer has three minutes to spare, but not four? Three minutes is fine, but two is probably better?


A funny thing happened yesterday on the Internet, and it sort of swept away the notion no one has time to hear a long story anymore. Two videos made the rounds and each was the type of tear-inducing, water cooler topic-to-be one couldn’t help but share on Facebook and Twitter. Neither video was produced as part of a marketing campaign, but there is still a lesson here.

But first, the videos:

Oklahoma tornado 2013

The first video featured a victim of Monday’s tornado outbreak in Oklahoma. It was two minutes and 38 seconds long, but it felt longer. The woman, possibly in her late 60s, tells a CBS News reporter the blow by blow of her survival experience, explaining how she sat on the stool in the bathroom, her dog held tight, waiting for the tornado to pass. Instead, the tornado struck. Chaos ensued. The woman survived, but she couldn’t find her dog and feared for he worst. Then, there was a commotion — the dog! On live television! Found and safe! It was a perfect moment of serendipity caught on national television.

The video earned more than 600,000 views yesterday.

My Last Days: Meet Zach Sobiech

The second video featured Zach Sobiech, a high school senior from Stillwater, Minn. who passed this week after battling osteosarcoma. The video, produced by Soul Pancake, is 22 minutes and 21 seconds long. Zach, who was this incredible, old soul, shared some of the insights and conclusions he had come to realize while enduring terminal cancer. Family members and friends discuss what it’s like to know each day could be their last with Zach.

The video earned just shy of 1.9 million views yesterday.

For those keeping score, a 22-minute minute video outperformed a two-and-a-half minute video by nearly 300 percent. In our increasingly data-driven field, this might be a total outlier, but it is a major victory for creativity and storytelling.

It just so happens some of the best stories require more time to tell. And if the story is told in a compelling manner and the audience has an opportunity to invest both intellectually and emotionally, viewers will make the time to consume it. For those who still celebrate the creative aspects of marketing and the way a gripping story can stop you in your tracks and affect you, yesterday was a good day.