Going viral used to be a digital equivalent of winning the lottery, but today's hottest content creators have cracked the code for bringing fans back again and again. For some, this consistent success has opened up brand opportunities, book deals and other new avenues for growth. For others, it's simply enabled them to do what they love and see where their next ideas take them. As part of Adweek's Creative 100, we look at 10 viral content creators who prove that, while tech may change, one thing that remains the same is the power of addictive storytelling.
"In our short videos, you will find a little magic twisted with a normal everyday life," says King, who’s known for his "Magic Vines"—comic minimasterpieces that employ smooth edits and inexpensive effects to subvert reality and defy viewer expectations. Recent examples include six seconds with low-budget ad gurus Rhett & Link (the former is transformed into a bushel of “couch potatoes”) and a Fantastic 4-themed clip in which King’s arm becomes the stony appendage of The Thing, and with one punch sends a pal crashing through a wall. Rejected by film school a few years back, King promptly launched FinalCutKing on YouTube, creating the popular “Jedi Kittens” trilogy about furry fiends dueling with light sabers, and cementing his reputation as a video innovator. With nearly 1 billion Vine views and 10 million followers across all social platforms, he aspires to make Hollywood features and recently signed with CAA. "There’s not enough clean, fun, hopeful and inspiring content these days," he says. "I want to bring that back into entertainment."
Class has been in session since the main Vsauce channel premiered on YouTube in 2010, with Stevens and cohorts making science fun for all. In 2011, for example, Vsauce explained that the Internet, while intellectually “heavy,” actually weighs only about 50 grams— because it stores information in binary form, which uses electrons that have precious little mass. In January, Vsauce determined—imagining a 6-foot-tall pitcher filled with liquid for its computations—that while the Kool-Aid Man really could survive busting through a brick wall, he’d be pretty shaken up afterward.
Is Helbig the new queen of all media? Not yet, though she continues to put her acerbic stamp on multiple platforms. Rising to fame as a YouTube celeb, her main channel, It’sGrace, has nearly 120 million views and 2.5 million subscribers. It showcases her anything-but-dumb-blonde takes on offbeat topics like doing yoga with a canine partner and how to make phone sex unsexy. Helbig also penned the bestselling book Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-up, hosts her own chat show on E! and produces a hit podcast.
Born Devin Graham, this enthusiast designs wild rides, jumps and dives to generate maximum attention for brands. Among the clients that have leveraged his reach—590 million YouTube views and 3.3 million subscribers—are Bear Naked Granola (human bowling, which you can watch below); Mountain Dew (“human catapult” rides); and Intel (a wingsuit race, with speeds reaching 140 mph). Of his approach, he says: “You create a cool experience that’s larger than life, but that people can still believe, ‘Hey, I could go out to the mountain and set up something like that with my friends.’ That’s what people share.”
John and Hank Green
The Greens are best known as keepers of the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, an entertaining, eclectic and informative enterprise that’s amassed 2.6 million subscribers and 550 million views. The brothers' empire also includes sub-channels like Crash Course and SciShow (both educational) and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice developed by Hank and friend Bernie Su). “Having this dedicated group of supporters [known as Nerdfighters] is hugely inspiring, but they also expect a lot of us, and I would never ever want to let them down,” says Hank. John, of course, moonlights as a best-selling novelist whose young-adult romance The Fault in Our Stars was adapted into a $300 million-grossing Hollywood film.
“While we want to be conscious of skewering Internet culture, our larger concern is using that format to mock every aspect of life.” That’s the scoop on ClickHole from Affonso, who serves as the site’s founding editor after having helped launch The Onion spinoff last year. Tweaking hackneyed formats like listicles and quizzes, his wry scribes comment on just about every aspect of modern life, “whether it’s the strangeness of basic human interaction or the horrors of living life cognizant of our mortality or fire trucks being really big and really loud.”
The smash 2014 debut of her addictive podcast, Serial, gave that particular medium a big boost—and for a time, elevated the term “MailKimp” (the mispronunciation of one of the show’s advertisers) into the cultural lexicon. The key to Serial’s success? “There has to be something at stake, tension [and] an element of surprise,” Koenig said at a New School forum in February. Serial delivered all of that, and more, en route to amassing more than 90 million downloads (and counting). Koenig, along with Serial co-creator Julie Snyder and producer Dana Chivvis, were even invited to speak about the factors behind the podcast's success at this year's Cannes Lions.
Rolling Stone crowned him “the king of the oddball funny pages” for his groundbreaking xkcd webcomic, which delights fans by delving into science, philosophy and politics in a deceptively simple stick-figure style. Last November, the artist (who has a degree in physics and once worked for NASA) livecartooned—over 12 hours, in 142 frames—the last leg of the Philae lander’s voyage to a comet’s surface, creating an informative and entertaining flip-book chronicling the event. Two years earlier, he scored a viral smash with “Click and Drag,” a drawing (46 feet wide when printed at 300 dpi) that allowed users to explore the nuances of an amazingly detailed imaginary world. He has also penned several books, including What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.
Neistat feels equally at home on YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. Entirely self-taught, he developed a highly recognizable style, with a sense of adventure and mild anarchy defining spots for J. Crew (he surfed, snorkeled and snowboarded in one of their suits); Nike (he and a pal jetted around the world until their budget ran out); and Mercedes (with cheeky elements like gals in star-spangled bikinis). “Lending my voice to something is not me endorsing a product as much as it is me sharing my perspective on it,” he once told Adweek. “That’s at the heart of everything I make.”
This former art teacher turned Snapchat storyteller prides himself on a wide range of work. His wry humor informs snaps for Pretty Little Liars (Platco hosts the show’s weekly account); Vevo’s celebration of Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” video (recreated in fan selfies and decorated in his trademark silly-cool style); and a branded story for Head & Shoulders, in which he is himself—a bearded dude acting goofy in the shower. When he’s not snapping, Platco claims to be the world’s biggest Harry Potter fan. “I started the Boston University Quidditch Team,” he says, “placing third in the 2009 Quidditch World Cup!”
More of Adweek’s Creative 100:
Check out all the honorees by category:
• 30 Copywriters, Art Directors and Creative Directors
• 10 Chief Creative Officers
• 10 Digital Innovators
• 10 Branded Content Creators
• 10 Viral Content Creators
• 10 Commercial Directors
• 10 Visual Artists
• 10 Celebrities and Influencers
This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.