Here’s the Story Behind the CNN-Owned ‘Great Big Story’ and Its Rapid Rise

Social video network tells surprising stories every day

Either you surprise the crew at Great Big Story or you go home. 

They, of course, will explain this in much kinder terms. But the basis of their visually stunning short- and long-form videos is surprise.

"There has to be a sense of wonderment," said Chris Berend, svp of global video for CNN and CNN Digital Studios, and co-founder of GBS, told Adweek. "Ideas here don't get out the door unless they're surprising." 

GBS, which is owned by CNN but operates independently, launched in October 2015 and has told more than 650 stories in 65 countries—GBS Nordics recently opened in Stockholm, and a London branch is set to open in March—with no signs of letting up. Just six months after launch, it was seeing 40 million views per month. On YouTube, the GBS audience has collectively spent more than 345 years watching its videos.

Sure, GBS can make amazing two-minute videos, Berend said, "but we can also turn those into bigger stories."

The stories that come out of Great Big Story are "fundamentally optimistic, but not naive or sunshine-y," explained Berend, adding that in a world in which a three-second play counts as a view on Facebook, GBS accepts its role of creating things that "make people stop."

"We're an antidote to the news," he said, adding, "There's a noise and an ADD in news feeds, and we're the counterprogramming to that. We're not chasing Facebook views, but we're chasing engagement."

It has to be difficult for GBS to continually surprise. How do you keep finding stories that haven't been told or perspectives that haven't been sought-after?

"We always have our antennae up," said GBS executive producer Courtney Coupe. "All the credit goes to our producers. Whether they're experts on Japanese blogs, or digging into other subcultures on the internet, there has to be that buzz factor to it."

Each day, Coupe's team holds a pitch meeting. By the end of it, she has 10 to 20 ideas to review or assign. She used to be concerned that they would run out of ideas, but she's now convinced there's always a new place to look or someone new to talk to.

Sometimes that means diving into the origin stories of unexpected phenomena (like, where did the air horn sound in so many popular songs actually come from?). Those kinds of stories make anyone want to tune in, regardless of age, though GBS is geared toward millennials.

"That age group appreciates the process of storytelling, because odds are they've done it themselves," Coupe said. "They're creative, either in their job or in their side hobbies. They grew up with Instagram and GoPros and making YouTube videos."

GBS is rather unique, too, in how it creates branded and sponsored content. In its first year, GBS worked with 15 different partners in categories including tourism, auto, tech and retail.

"We get to tell people that if they work with us, they'll automatically be a fifth of what we produce that day," David Spiegel, svp of sales and brand strategy at GBS, told Adweek. GBS only publishes three to five videos each day, which is in contrast to other digital publications that focus on driving growth through views. 

"Brands are starting to tire from working with the same people in the same way," he said. "They're struggling to make an actual impact. With us, they can take a risk in a safe environment."

As it embarks on its second year, there's still plenty for GBS to figure out. For now, it's delving into 15- to 20-minute documentaries and has put a lot of time into curating its Apple TV app, on which viewers can easily sit and watch dozens of short-form videos, one after another.

"Inherently, we're telling stories that deliver something you're not going to see anywhere else," Spiegel said. "We're not giving takes on the news or pop-culture cycles already out there. What we do is memorable."