Matthew Segal Wants Your Attn:
But none succeeded like “Dads and Moms Deserve More Time Off With Their Kids,” which features a real-life couple (the “Catfish” host Nev Schulman and Laura Perlongo) striking silly domestic poses as they make the case for more parental leave.
“It’s going insanely viral,” Mr. Segal said a few hours after the video went live. He was at dinner with his co-founder, Jarrett Moreno, who helped raise nearly $25 million in funding from big-name investors like Bill Maher and Ryan Seacrest.
By the time dinner ended, the video had spiked to 21 million views, from 15 million. “Feel free to write down that this happens every day,” Mr. Segal said jokingly.
At the Attn: staff meeting, Mr. Segal wore black jeans and a wrinkled dress shirt as he listened to a pitch lamenting that there are more police officers than counselors in some American school districts. When a young woman proposed a video about reducing the stigma against women who have an abortion, he questioned whether that stigma would preclude women from sharing the video on Facebook, where Attn: has more than three million fans.
“There’s the launch of Shout Your Abortion,” she replied, “where women are coming forward. …”
“Perfect!” Mr. Segal said, interrupting in a way he often does when he gets excited about an idea. He combines intellectual curiosity with a short attention span, which means he rarely lets people finish their thoughts but often has a compelling reason for butting in.
To get people to share the abortion video, Mr. Segal urged the staff member to open with a focus on advocacy. “That way people are applauding women speaking out,” he said.
A few minutes later, an earnest 20-something pitched an idea about the disappearing bumblebee. “Bees aren’t kittens — they don’t engender a lot of sympathy,” Mr. Segal interjected. “Why should I care?”
“Because bees pollinate a third of U.S. crops,” the staff member said. “Blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes.”
This led to a brief discussion about the cause of the bee carnage, which was apparently due in part to a pesticide (neonicotinoid) that no one in the room could pronounce. “I would open with, ‘You’re literally going to run out of blueberries, cranberries and tomatoes,’” Mr. Segal concluded. “Scare people. Then you can talk about … bees.”
Mr. Segal certainly isn’t alone in targeting progressive-leaning young people with shareable video content. Mic, NowThis and Upworthy are a few of Attn:’s more established competitors. But he seems particularly skilled at translating complicated issues into short, cogent content.
“Matthew’s smart enough to not try to fight an unwinnable war against the brief attention span of millennials,” said Mr. Maher, who recently narrated an animated Attn: video about Mr. Trump. “In 90-second videos, Attn:’s getting young people to care about things that actually matter. And, you know, sometimes you have to trick people into caring.”
“If you want the dog to eat the pill,” Mr. Maher added, “you have to wrap it in a piece of baloney.”
Mr. Segal probably wouldn’t put it that way, but he relishes the challenge of taking seemingly wonky issues and making them “shareable” (a word he uses practically every few seconds). He’s especially proud of Attn:’s video about the less-than-thrilling topic of gerrymandering.
“We were like, ‘How the hell are we going to make gerrymandering interesting and shareable?’” he said. He and his team decided to make a “Schoolhouse Rock”-like animated video that has been viewed nearly six million times.
“If there’s one thing that eventually goes on the Attn: tombstone,” Mr. Segal said, “it should probably be, ‘Makers of the Most Viral Video Ever About Gerrymandering.’”
Though many of Attn:’s videos feature interviews with politicians and celebrities (like Elizabeth Warren and Snoop Dogg), Mr. Segal is careful not to give them too much screen time. In the video about our dirty oceans, which features an on-camera interview with Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr. Segal opens not with Mr. Kerry but with an image of a dead shark with blood in its mouth.
“I wish it were as simple as people wanting to hear John Kerry talk about how messed up our oceans are, but you have to work a little harder if you want people to care,” he said.
Mr. Segal learned that lesson at Our Time, a nonprofit he founded with Mr. Moreno in 2011 that worked to empower young voters. “But we did too many years of the hard sell: Go register to vote, or else,” Mr. Segal said. “It became clear to us that if people don’t understand the issues, or why their vote matters, telling them to vote is a moot point.
“Politics are confusing,” he continued. “Fewer and fewer states are teaching anything about civics. But when you turn on cable news, there’s very little discussion about issues, or why they matter.”
As a freshman at Kenyon College in Ohio, Mr. Segal didn’t know much about issues either. Nor did he understand the difference “between a state senator or a U.S. senator,” he said. Still, he was excited to vote in his first presidential election. Mr. Segal cast his ballot early that morning in 2004, but he watched friends stand in line all day; some were still waiting to vote when the networks called the election for George W. Bush.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, every vote apparently doesn’t matter,’” Mr. Segal said. “And we were lucky, because we could skip class and our professors would cheer us on. But what about the single mother working two jobs? It really pissed me off.”
Mr. Segal spoke out publicly, and before he knew it, he was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, which was investigating voting irregularities. “It seems almost hypocritical that a society so focused on the importance of the vote did not concern itself more heavily with the actual process of voting,” he told Congress.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, met Mr. Segal soon after and remembers being impressed by his dedication and moxie. That was echoed by Mr. Seacrest, who said he invested in Attn: partly because he found Mr. Segal “so engaging, intense and ferocious.”
Leading up to Election Day, Mr. Segal and Attn: have focused much of their attention on voter registration. They’ve started a “3 Minutes” video campaign, which features celebrities like Usher and Mary J. Blige talking about specific issues.
“It took me three minutes to roll this blunt,” Snoop Dogg says in a haze of smoke for his recent Attn: video. “It only takes three minutes to register. If you want your marijuana legal, then register.”
Despite concerns that millennials won’t vote in this election, Mr. Segal said he expects them to turn out. “That’s my hot take,” he said. “It’s not just about voting against Trump or electing Hillary. People are getting fed up with police brutality, the war on drugs, the minimum wage, three-strikes laws, the transgender bathroom controversy.”
But even with the looming election, Mr. Segal is careful not to overwhelm his audience with politics. In recent months, Attn: has produced videos about how weddings are too expensive to attend, how public bathrooms in Japan put America to shame and how society discriminates against people with tattoos. Tattoo-phobia?
“A lot of employers won’t hire people with visible tattoos,” he said. “Maybe it’s not as serious or seemingly existential as a video about how our oceans are going to kill us, but it’s still a serious economic issue with generational implications.”
The more one talks to Mr. Segal, the more convincing he is as the ideal personality for an issue-driven media company aimed at young Americans. He clearly cares about a lot of things, but he also “gets bored really easily,” he confessed.
Might his short attention span be similar to Mr. Trump’s? Mr. Segal looked momentarily pained by the question. “I hope never to be compared to Donald Trump again,” he said.
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