Funny or Die features a mix of original videos and user-generated stuff. How do you strike a balance between content creation and curation, and does one type of content inform the other?

Our goal is to always get our best content out there. When we started we were only producing exclusive content, about one video a week. Now we’re doing about 25 videos a month.

Obviously it’s important for us as a brand to be creating content, but the curation is also vital; whether it comes from friends of Funny or Die or our homepage editors scouring the Net on a daily basis to find the funniest stuff out there.

At the end of the day it’s about making our audience laugh and want to come back. That’s not something that can be done solely by pushing our own content.

In the last couple of years you guys have established yourselves as specialists in branded entertainment. Is it a challenge to create content that has to reflect both the Funny or Die brand and someone else’s?

The branded content is a big part of our business and revenue stream. These campaigns are developed by the same team that creates our original content. Depending on the deal with the brand, it’s then featured on our homepage.

In terms of the challenge, it really depends on the brand. Some brands are great and have a genuine understanding of the Internet and its capabilities. Even with guidelines in place, the objective is always to make a funny and effective video.

Other brands are more conservative and put a lot of restraints on the creative process, sometimes resulting in a less-funny video. There is always the challenge of making a suitable video for the brand while maintaining the integrity of what they’ve come to Funny or Die for in the first place.

You’ve said that you’ll work for any brand as long as it’s done transparently and the Funny or Die writers have total creative control. But have you ever been approached by a brand that’s just unspoofable?

For us, there’s no brand that’s unspoofable. In fact, the ones that might fall into that category actually end up being the most spoofable.

When Mini Cooper approaches us to do a collaboration, it’s a lot easier than if, for example, Intuit comes to us. It’s hard to make tax software funny. But there’s never been a case where we’ve had issues coming up with ideas or have questioned whether or not we were the right fit for a brand.

We’ve done a lot of thinking about what makes a video go viral online. Have you come close to identifying the secret sauce?

My caveat would be that if anyone says that they know the components of a viral video then they’re lying. I do, however, think that there are some underlying elements.

A viral video has to have a universal theme, something that everyone gets. The content must affect the viewer at an emotional level. Take Susan Boyle, for example. Otherwise, it has to have a laugh-out-loud or shock element. Ultimately, viral videos are things that people want to discover and share with their friends. People want to be the ones discovering that video. Influencers and people who share videos a lot are those who get the videos quicker, and that adds to the virality of a video.

We have a promotional strategy for all of our bigger videos. Obviously we spend a lot of time developing our social media accounts – Twitter (2 million+ followers), Facebook (900K+ followers), Tumblr, etc. - but we also have an outreach program to bloggers. That helps expose the content to those outside of our community.

A lot of your user-generated content consists of spoofs of advertising campaigns like the much-imitated Old Spice spots. Do you have a sense of how these spoofs affect the brands themselves?

With any successful campaign the next logical step is spoof-making. The people who make these spoofs are looking for attention. There is already a focus on these campaigns, so the best way of drawing attention over to you is by making a quality spoof. I think it’s a smart strategy, especially for young productions teams, and hopefully they have something to follow up with.

I can’t speak for the brands, and I guess it depends on the spoof, but I think that’s something that would continue to draw attention to the campaign. I would think most brands would be excited about that. Imitation is a form of flattery. Brands need to understand that they don’t have control of the online world. Online, the users control the brand.

Funny or Die has a presence on pretty much every digital and social platform. How do you maintain a consistent brand voice across each one?

I have a team of three people and we control all of the social media channels. Our approach to each of the platforms is different because each community is different. We do maintain a consistent voice, but we have different content calendars and strategies for each platform.

The overarching theme is that we always want to be communicating with our followers, having a two-way conversation. We want to make sure that they feel part of the community and that they own a little bit of the brand.

The latest episode of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis features embedded hashtags that link the video to Twitter. Do you think this sort of cross-platform storytelling is where things are headed online?

I’m really glad you noticed that! We’ve developed a large presence on each of the platforms, but now we’re trying to figure out how to integrate that more with the Funny or Die experience. The embeddable hashtag is one of our attempts to drive engagement.

I actually got the idea from watching TV that displayed a hashtag in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. I would follow the hashtag and see what engagement it drove, which made me think, “why wouldn’t we do that for our own videos when our viewers are actually online?”

It’s a way for us to cross-promote our content on different platforms, integrating the social experience with the content and shaping the conversation.

Funny or Die seems to have become a platform for certain celebrities to relaunch their brands or rescue their reputations. I’m thinking of people like Lindsay Lohan and Chris Klein. What do you think it is about the site that makes it a “safe space” for celebrities to make fun of themselves?

You can look at Funny or Die as an online SNL model. We have access to incredible writers and directors who make the whole process super easy and quick. It’s also a very safe environment. We always operate in the best interest of the talent. None of our videos are ever mean-spirited in tone.

For example, in 2009, Lindsay Lohan was facing a media firestorm. She called us on a Tuesday, we had scripts to her by Thursday, we shot on Sunday, and the video was up on Monday. All of a sudden it seemed to reframe her in the public mind – for that week, at least.

Funny or Die wasn’t always this type of space. We really had to build up our reputation as a place for celebrities to change public perception.

Finally, we can’t talk about Funny or Die without talking about Will Ferrell. How much of a role does he have in the site these days and how much do you think his unique brand is intertwined with that of the site?

Will definitely checks in from time to time. We’ve hired the right people to ensure that his and co-founder Adam McKay’s voices are maintained. They actually brought in our head of creative, Andrew Steele, who was a head writer at SNL for 17 years.

Will’s involvement was super important coming out of the gate, especially when the Internet was still foreign to most people. Will was already an Internet celebrity, so it helped us leverage collaborators. We didn’t start out with people knocking down our doors to make a video with us.

I think that Funny or Die is something that Will is proud of because it has built itself into its own brand. We can make deals now without playing the Will Ferrell card. But the brand itself is still representative of Will and Adam’s original vision.

They started the site as a creative sandbox for all of their friends to play in, and that’s sort of what it’s become and what the attraction is.

Patrick Starzan will be speaking at 140conf, which takes place on June 15 and 16 in New York City. As the event’s official content partner, we will bring you original 140conf-related content before, during and after the conference. Sparksheet readers are entitled to a 25% discount on registration with promo code “sparksheet” - http://nyc2011.140conf.com/

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