Portal A is a creative studio with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles that develops, produces, and distributes video content made specifically for the social web. The firm creates original and branded digital content, has worked with major brands like Microsoft, Intel, and Banana Republic. The studio might be most famously known for a video it produced for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s re-election campaign, which featured the likes of now-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, and then-SF Giants reliever Brian Wilson, all singing and dancing to MC Hammer’s “Too Legit to Quit.” That video went on to generate more than 500,000 views on YouTube. More recently, Portal A is behind the AARP’s new web series on YouTube “Takei’s Take,” starring George Takei.
With that in mind, VideoInk spoke with Zach Blume, Portal A’s managing director, and Kai Hasson, the studio’s creative director, on their company, their work, and their thoughts on YouTube. Nate Houghteling, Portal A’s third partner and its executive producer, enjoyed his weekend.
What’s the origin story of Portal A?
Zach Blume: Nate, Kai, and I grew up together, we’ve been friends since the age of 5 — playing on the same basketball teams, getting sent to the principal’s office together, and many years later, taking off on a motorcycle adventure to Southeast Asia to create our first web series, “Huge in Asia,” in 2006.
The show was later sold to Lonely Planet, and we all went our separate ways professionally. Kai began working at Current TV, Nate at News Corp in NYC, and I began a career in political management at a leading media firm in San Francisco.
In 2008, Kai and Nate left their jobs and moved to LA to begin creating video content for the web — recognizing in its early days the incredible opportunity to reshape the way people consume and share media online. The two created a flurry of video content, building a following, a reputation, and a portfolio…and picking up enough client projects along the way to keep the lights on and the dream alive.
I finally quit my job and together we created and produced “White Collar Brawler,” a real-time, documentary web series that later won IAWTV’s award for best documentary show and will be airing as a reality TV series on the Esquire Networks this October.
The show — and an explosively popular video we created with the San Francisco Giants to promote WCB — was a major breakthrough for Portal A, helping raise our profile and cement our reputation as a team of creators who could develop, write, produce, and distribute high-quality and entertaining content specifically designed to make a splash online.
It’s tough to find success on YouTube, and everyone seems to have a thought on what is necessary to ensure your content gets the highest number of views possible. In your experience, what are the top-line things that every creator or studio needs to address when creating content for YouTube?
Zach Blume: First off, there is no secret formula to a site that has 1 billion unique monthly visitors and 6 billion hours of video watched a month. It is an incredibly dynamic, ever-changing, and unpredictable ecosystem. That said, the platform — just like any other social network — has developed its own language and set of rules, cues, and expectations that help shape what type of content rises above the white noise of YouTube.
There are a series of questions we ask ourselves as we are developing our creative and presenting it to our clients — is the concept clear enough that it can be summarized in the title of the video? Will the opening capture a viewer’s wavering attention in the first 10–15 seconds? Will it be visually captivating when consumed in a tiny box on a tiny screen? Is it the type of content that will appeal to digital journalists and bloggers at sites like Mashable, Wired, Buzzfeed, etc.? Does it speak specifically and authentically to a niche web community that can rally around the content? Does it elicit a strong enough reaction that the viewer feels the need to share it with others?
Nobody can predict “virality” — don’t trust them if they say they can! The rules of the game are in constant flux and the variables and predictors of online popularity are infinite. But after creating literally thousands of videos for the web, there are certain themes and rules of the game that begin to come clear. If you combine this set of principles with the most important objective of all — creating spectacular, entertaining, unique content that could perform on any platform — you’ve greatly increased your chance for success on YouTube.
“Takei’s Take” — which Portal A is writing, directing, and producing — is a bi-weekly series. Could you run through the process of producing each episode?
Kai Hasson: The entire process to create one episode takes about two months. First, we search for relevant topics. Our core, targeted audience are people between 40 and 65 years of age who might be thinking about one day becoming AARP members (the brand client on the project). When we pick our topics we’re looking for things that are trending now and also has some relevance to an older crowd. For example, people over 45 are the fastest growing demo in online dating. When you combine that with the explosion of dating apps like Tinder, it makes online dating a perfect topic.
Once we’ve set our topic, we write our script. We go through 3–4 drafts, starting with a basic outline and adding more and more jokes and references as we go along. We’re always checking in with George and making sure that he’s comfortable with what’s on the page. Ultimately, this is a show about his take on technology so we’re constantly getting his feedback.
While the script is being written, we’re doing typical pre-production and we’re also looking for guests who might have an interesting perspective on the topic. We work with Fullscreen to try to find guests who the “Takei’s Take” audience will enjoy and who also have their own audience that we can send to Takei’s Take. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
We shoot two episodes at a time, once a month. We shoot on green screen with three cameras. So far, we’ve shot at YouTube Space LA and YouTube Space NY, which have both been great.
The final step is editing. Each episode takes about three weeks to complete. It’s a fun and arduous process.
What are some things to keep in mind when producing a web series? Things each episode needs to address — in terms of formats, marketing, engagement — to ensure it continues to build viewership?
Kai Hasson: Great content is the single most important thing, but that doesn’t ensure an audience. In order to build a viewership we try to put the show in the best position to succeed by doing all the little things right. That means being consistent with the release of our episodes and setting an expectation with potential subscribers or general audience members for more great content. It means tapping into George’s pre-existing audience and the audiences of our guests. It means choosing topics that are relevant and making sure that bloggers and journalists are well aware of the show. It also means explaining to our viewers (many of whom are new to YouTube) how to subscribe, where to like and comment, and asking them to share the show with their friends. When it comes to building an audience you have to be extremely vigilant and precise, making sure you’re introducing the show to new viewers and giving your audience the tools to become fans.
How does Portal A juggle producing content that’s both branded (so inherently commercial) and entertaining for online viewers?
Kai Hasson: There’s a lot that goes into it, and finding the balance is definitely the biggest challenge to making branded content. One of the things that we strongly believe and that isn’t talked about a lot is that you must respect your audience. We don’t try to fool anyone into thinking that we’re not making branded content. We embrace it. We have fun with it and make it part of the story. Great online content is authentic, and if you try to make something that shies away from your true motivation for making the piece, viewers will sniff it out. Online viewers also know that some of the best content on the web comes from brands. Brands are patrons of online video, funding some of the biggest, most daring projects on the web. If you approach your branded content with the goal of delighting the viewer, giving them something to think about, and ultimately something that is worth their time, then they’ll evangelize the work.