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Creating viral video with data, emotion and culture

Dr. Andrew Fletcher  Director, Thomson Reuters Labs™ – London

Dr. Andrew Fletcher  Director, Thomson Reuters Labs™ – London

Underpinning shareability with data

We live in a data-driven world; one in which data is finding its way into virtually every decision-making process. Some things are still considered out of reach, even if that pool is growing ever smaller. Making a viral video used to fall into that category, with viral success being a bit like a lightning strike; you might know when the conditions were favourable, but you would have no way of knowing if, or where, or when it would happen.

Yet Unruly are a rapidly growing company bringing that predictability to online video. Back in 2006 they created the Viral Video Chart by tracking every post of a video with its URL. All that data, going back so far, gives them an unrivalled data asset. It is the largest database of video sharing anywhere, with insights that are or prime interest to brands.

Co-founders of Unruly MediaSarah Wood and Scott Button were interviewed as part of TechTalks@Cass. They shared their insights on building a data-driven company, how to predict the next ‘lightning strike’ viral video, and what it’s like to be partners in life and partners in business.

Catch the full video (26:54)

In the early days, they promoted videos via their own site, but when their web traffic peaked they took a platform approach to monetize video sharing via other sites too. Now they can reach 1.27 billion connected consumers every month and brands pay Unruly to distribute their videos. They do this by having relationships with individuals creating content on the web, whether that be via mobile game or app or as in their earlier days, via popular bloggers.

Predictive analytics: What will viewers like?

Video is now a ubiquitous way of communicating online, and although the number of video ‘shares’ is no longer doubling every year, it is still growing steadily. The data that Unruly tracks is constantly changing. For example, the growth in shares via mobile has reduced the importance of cookie date, and Facebook’s video player has grown its share from 1% to 10% in the past year.

The real asset is being able to predict the success of a video before it is launched, and Unruly created ShareRank to do just that. When faced with being told that it was an ‘impossible problem,’ Scott and Sarah became convinced that it was a problem worth solving.

To predict, they first show a video to a group of people who match the demographics of the target audience. They then track the emotions, and the strength of emotion that the group shows over the course of the video. That response is then fed into Unruly’s algorithm to map it against data they have from previous videos, and different local and global effects. To go viral you need to ‘understand who you are trying to reach, how you want them to feel and what you want them to do next. You want them to feel motivated and part of a tribe.’ Contrary to popular belief, including cats and babies in your video doesn’t improve shareability!

Spreading the Unruly company culture

Sarah and Scott are a couple. So, what is it like to work so closely with your partner? As two passionate workaholics, they would highly recommend both working for the same company. You can take a view about what’s best for the business, when juggling meetings and deciding who should go and pick up the kids. They also believe it helped when creating their exec team, because the whole group was built around the philosophy of trusting each other. Everyone on team needs to put the team first. Sometimes, you can only find this out after hiring them. Their recruitment philosophy is to find PANDA people – Positive, Anything possible (without ego), Nurturing, Determined, A+ players.

Unruly has gone from three founders to 160 employees. Having funded themselves for the first 5 years, they only took funding in 2012 when they already had 70 people in 5 offices. As a result they did things that a VC might not have advised, such as opening an international office before they had dominated their home market. However, this enabled them to learn quickly what it takes to spread company culture, creating a start-up guide to document all the details for new sites. One employee can easily step from one office into another with minimum adjustment. They opened the Singapore office in March and have such confidence in the approach that they haven’t been out there yet, although scaling-up still remains the biggest challenge. Scott and Sarah advocate ‘extreme communication,’ taking the view that you can’t over-communicate. You need to talk a lot to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on. They bring everyone together for the annual Unruly-fest and have a large travel bill to make sure that the best people spend time in the other offices.

City Unrulyversity, a free pop-up university for the next generation of entrepreneurs, delivered with City University, is another way to spread the company culture. They host it in their office in London and their staff are heavily involved. They do it because it’s fun and part of the company DNA.

Cracking the viral code, the impossible problem, is solved by that unique combination of data, emotion and culture.

Learn more

Visit Innovation @ to learn more about how we are pairing smart data with human expertise and how you can get involved.

About the series

Thomson Reuters Labs™ partners with Cass Business School to bring you EntrepreneursTalk@Cass in London. These interview-based evening events feature founders of successful start-ups from London and take place at Cass Business School. EntrepreneursTalk@Cass are designed to inspire students, entrepreneurs and anyone interested in tech.

The talks are hosted by Axel Threlfall, Editor-at-Large, Reuters. Prior correspondent experiences include: Reuters TV, Wired UK, CTV News, and CBC Undercurrents.

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