It was a week after Dylann Roof had shot and killed nine black worshipers inside Charleston's Emanuel AME Church. We’d covered from afar that news, his arrest, and the vigils and flag protests that followed. We wanted to do something different than we had before when parachuting onto ground zero of a national story. This time we wanted to explore the conversations the killings had resurfaced by sending one of our presenters.

I'd been asked to fly to Charleston after the initial shock, as heightened interest was on the decline. There was no angry protest or national movement as seen with a high profile killing by police. But there was an ongoing conversation, and the Confederate flag had become a symbol for the discussion. This was a moment prime for us to engage our audience in the deeper issues. And I wanted to produce it with the explicit goal of creating a widely shared video – viral if possible.

It was possible. The videos we produced on the ground in South Carolina during our two days reporting went viral, sparking lively debate. I'm going to tell you why we believe they did so well, and how we planned for their success, from incubation to release.

Audience development

Perhaps one of the greatest resources in our office is our audience development team: Four staff members tasked with helping to grow our audience. I arrived in Charleston with the challenge of producing two 3-minute contextual videos in two days – a type of video that on our Facebook page is typically outperformed by our breaking news videos. Because, Internet. You can rarely beat what's trending.

So, before leaving I consulted with our Senior Manager of Audience Development, Tom Hanc, and asked him which of the story ideas might go viral.

That's right. Viral.

This point may be uncomfortable for some journalists. But it shouldn't be. Our industry's most vital arena for audience engagement is social media, either entirely (in our case), or in addition to traditional platforms. Here's our reality: The top video among all our competitors the week before we released our "Is the South racist?" video was a NowThis clip: "Kitten thinks she's a puppy because she was raised by a dog."

We're literally competing against cats. Social media wins don't come from battles for Pulitzers. Rather, Webby's. If you understand the fundamentals of our craft and are willing to embrace how to sell important stories to a fickle audience – you will win.

Tom and I began our brainstorming session by discussing the top conversation threads that had emerged in response to the Charleston shooting – the "questions of our time" as I like to call them, which were: Gun control, the Confederate flag, and racism.

We eliminated gun control as a topic because we perceived it to be the third ranked among those talking about Charleston (and it had been done countless times before). More complex were the other two. The entire country was debating the flag, but we wondered, how did South Carolinians feel? What if we asked them simply: "What does the Confederate flag mean to you?" in a man-on-the-street format?

Here's how Tom summarized why that would work: "It's focused. The Confederate flag is a widely known symbol, and opinions on it are hard-wired and baked in whenever you bring it up (pro or con). Talking to people, many of whom are likely to defend it in Charleston at this moment in time, sounds like an easy win (provided they're honest)."

And they were.

We were among the first outlets to visit a Confederate gear shop and among the first asking those in Charleston their opinions of the flag. Many in our audience responded positively, thanking us for also sharing the voices of those in support of the flag.

Our second – and more controversial – idea developed after much back and forth.

Tom and I agreed that the perception that the South is more racist than the North is polarizing, and therefore an interesting trope to enter the online conversation around racism. We wanted to explore why it was that the shooting took place in Charleston in a way that would allow both residents and our U.S. and international audience to weigh in. As a general guideline, Tom suggests thinking about what a headline or one-liner for a video might be in order to frame a conversation. I suggested that we have our presenter, Dena Takruri, pose the underlying question: "Is the South racist?"

Tom's response: "People would absolutely click that. Editorially speaking, is that unfair? I personally don't think so because it's a stereotype that exists and we're giving people in the region a chance to address it."

We both agreed that if executed well, it might go viral. We knew it was a simple "yes" or "no" question most anyone would have an answer to. We knew that our audience would be prompted to answer the question if it were posed as a headline – guaranteed engagement. We also knew the headline would be clickbait, which really just means "something people want to read or watch." It was timely and moderately controversial.

That last point is key. Racism was on everyone's minds, if not lips. For that reason, such a story at that time on a scale of controversy would perhaps fall on the moderate end, rather than high controversy. Studies have shown that stories with high and low levels of controversy receive less engagement than stories with moderate levels.

The facts of the case had brought the issue of racism, specifically in the South, to the fore. We were going to leap into the heart of that conversation.

On the road

On the ground, Dena, our cameraman Dariel Medina and I agreed on a road trip format with three clear stops: The church, the State House and Lexington, where Dylann Roof had attended high school. Giving clear markers means higher audience retention.

We would consider our audience throughout our shoot, which is natural for any TV producer. The difference for us is thinking about what cuts may secure viral video status. We know, for example, that social media audiences drop off during b-roll transitions. At Tom's suggestion, our video has a cold open (jumping directly into the story before the title sequence) with one of the more shocking – albeit not uncommon – responses.

As I edited a rough cut I was also monitoring the news cycle to see when the conversation would spike again. The video was completed the Monday after activist Bree Newsome took down the Confederate flag. Later that night, she released a statement about the motivation behind her action. It went viral, and the chatter began to climb. We released our video Tuesday morning, during our peak audience window.

Why it worked

Video numbers are relative. For us, the video was a hit. With no advertising dollars behind it, it organically generated more than 6.4 million views and 90,000 shares on Facebook. In addition to the reasons I already shared, here's also why: "It had the N-word in the first seconds," one of our audience development experts pointed out.

That effectively launched the audience directly into the heart of the issue – likely shocking and angering them, and hooking them to keep watching. On YouTube we have an 85 percent audience retention rate on the video, which is very high.

The most viral videos are those that evoke anger or happiness, and we knew the heated emotions such an opening would rile up. Audience response was widely disparate – as we expected. There were those furious with the question itself and that we had dared to pose it. There were those angry about the cuts we chose, particularly those that showed white Southerners who were racist. Others were applauding us for those same reasons.

Many were answering the question themselves, or urging us to visit elsewhere. Quite a few wanted to see us pose the question in the North. We read many thoughtful comments that ignited debate, one of the most popular including: "The only difference between the North and South is that up North it's practiced behind a smile and a handshake. Potentially more dangerous than the South." We had sparked conversations around racism that delved into personal experience, history, geography and policy.

Ultimately, the mission behind the viral goal was to gain more audience members and engage those members in conversation, which we achieved. One of our major editorial goals at AJ+ is to inspire thoughtful conversation on social platforms.

Journalistically, we didn't shy away from a touchy topic, nor did we sugarcoat the answers. Our staff often pushes the envelope with mixed reception, seen recently with our widely hated and loved "Americans Show Why They're #1" – starring some of our proudly American staff, not actors. For us, there's no conversation that's untouchable. It's not our job to feed the echo chamber, but rather to explore the unanswered and the uncomfortable truths. We're the Jon Stewart generation. In being unafraid to ask "Is the South racist?" or to poke fun at ourselves, we spark conversations on our page that on social media typically exist in silos. Below most of our videos are a wide range of opinion that essentially break through the "spiral of silence," the tendency not to speak up about policy issues in public when you believe your point of view is not widely shared.

I've been noticing that some media organizations I admire are now jumping into the viral fray by also sharing cute cat videos. Whether you appreciate our take on controversial topics or not, I defend our decision to experiment and "question everything" in that much of our content aims to challenge our audience on important issues.

I would hope that other outlets continue to cultivate such social conversations, which are less easy, but much more satisfying, viral wins.