Friday, October 29th, 2010...10:50 am

Doing It Viral

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You don’t have to be Mark Zuckerberg to realize super cool stuff on the web goes viral. When something is so catchy, fun or interesting, you just have to pass it on to all of your friends through email, social media, instant messages, etc. Digital communication makes it easier than every before to spread information around the world (kind of like that scene in the movie Outbreak). It happens when a kid gets too gassed up at the dentist, a cat plays the piano, one little guy bites another little guy’s finger, blender experiments, and mash-up remixes of sports press conferences.

As a digital guy I hear the term viral tossed around like a Charlie Sheen escort. I tend to be skeptical of marketing plans in which “cool” viral content will be created. I’ve been creating content on the web in one form or another for over ten years and I’ve yet to output anything that has even come close to being viral. It’s almost as if things seem to go viral by accident more so than it can be planned. I’ll view something that’s so unbelievable that my first impulse is to share it with others because you just got to see it. I’ve yet to work with anyone who has been able to consistently, and predictable create content that goes viral.

My view on viral marketing has changed a bit after following my friends at execute a viral marketing campaign this week.

The story begins with Antoine Dodson. Antoine was interviewed for a local news story in which an intruder broke into his house and tried to abduct his sister. Antoine, in all his flaming glory, calls out the intruder with a passionate rant. My favorite lines of his are “you all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your husband because they raping everyone out here!” and “you are so dumb, you are really dumb…for real”. The rest of the world seems to agree as the news segment has so far been viewed over 20 million views. The unlikely combination that the love child of Willie McGhee and Richard Simmons — from a housing project in Huntsville, Alabama no less — freaking out on camera over a sexual intruder is just too precious. The best SNL skit out there couldn’t make up something this good. It went viral.

Another phenomenon of viral content is that it gets remixed and mashed-up (thanks to digital technology it is easier to do than ever before). This happened with Antoine Dodson. One particular remix, by an outfit from Brooklyn called the Gregory Brothers, was especially catchy. The Gregory Brothers handle the auto-tune like Steve Nash with a basketball. They knew that they could create some hot shit from the Antoine Dodson remix and they did. The song has been viewed over 50MM times on Youtube and has become a top 100 Billboard hit. My guess is that they just floated the song out there and it went viral. Kudos to the Gregory Brothers. They expressly tried to create viral content and they did. Before you go and hire them to auto-tune your life and turn you into some kind of F-List celebrity realize that the combined audience of their other 48 videos on YouTube is less than the Dodson song.

Now here’s where Ross and come into play. BeenVerified is an online background checking company. They deal with large sets of human population databases as a core part of their business. They’ve also created a few mobile apps that have done well.

Ross, Josh and team came up with the idea to create the Sex Offender Tracker mobile application to identify sexual offenders in your neighborhood. Another company has actually done this but BV takes it a step further by using augmented reality. That means that when you hold up your phone it will compute results based on your exact geographic location. Open App. Point in any direction. Find predators. This app would probably get some decent PR on it’s own but BV wanted to make it viral. They wanted to people to pass it on and on and on. So they enlisted the help of sir Antoine as their pitchman.

Watch the Sex Offender Trafic app promo video featuring Antoine Dodson.

BV floated this out their on Monday morning. First, the top technology blogs picked up on this because it hits on a few digital trends (mobile apps, augmented reality, viral marketing, privacy) and it’s entertaining. Mashable, Huffington Post, and even TMZ ran with it. Readers started passing it around to their friends. On Tuesday night Jimmy Kimmel featured it as part of his opening monologue. In less than a week the video has been viewed over 600K times. This is without any marketing dollars being spent on advertising, promotion or distribution. The entire project’s distribution strategy was that this would go viral once it got out there.

I’m still not sure what this all means. While the PR and exposure has been valuable for BV, they are still figuring out (like much of the rest of the media world) the ROI on this type of campaign. I’m still not sure if you can plan or bank on viral but sometimes you just have a one-off Home Run idea and if you execute properly you can optimize the odds that it does spread virally. The Gregory Brothers did that and so did BV. But viral traction doesn’t necessarily tie directly back into sales since it’s hard to perfectly connect that viral spark with the actual product or service that genreated it. Just because Antoine Dodson cracks you up doesn’t mean you need a sex offender application on your phone. Yet, I’d bet most digital marketing agencies would triumph either campaign as a shining success and charge a pretty penny to their clients.

As for Antoine he’s leveraged his good fortune to move his family out of the hood (NPR Podcast). He even offers a Halloween costume on his website. Who knows how long he lasts as a viral star before he has to do what most other established brands need to do – pay for marketing.

  • JasonPeck

    There is a lot of gold to be mined in viral hits and trending topics. Kudos to BeenVerified for their efforts here. I actually saw the Antoine Dodson promo for their app this morning on Hilarious and well-done.

  • dherman76

    It’s a case of being able to react quickly to the marketplace and BeenVerified was setup to do so. Most brands cannot.

  • Litty

    As I talk to more people, common theme is BV’s ability to execute is very impressive. If you have confidence that you can efficiently try new things without disrupting your normal marketing operations it’s allows for a lot of leeway to take chances.

  • Litty

    Another thing worth noting. There’s a pretty mature market to buy distribution through youtube, social media channels. This can easily be called viral but I don’t think it’s truly viral because the content producer is paying for distribution. Yet, it’s the smart thing to do if you’re executing a campaign on behalf of a client in which you need to deliver guarenteed views.

  • adamiss

    Definitely the direction I see PR going – and why it will continue to be meaningful (of course the publicist says that). Earned media at it’s finest – and it starts with creative ideas for owned media.

  • Nate Westheimer

    Was an awesome move on the Been Verified guys’ part.

  • Danny


    Thanks for the thoughtful blog post and subsequent comments. While there have been many relevant points and comments, this one particularly hit home.

    The ability to execute- yes- the ONLY thing that matters. However, your question about how a program like this “fits in” with everything else we are trying to do as a business… That was my biggest struggle.

    The answers are not always clear and unless you are willing to take risks, can often be used as a way to rationalize not ever trying things in the first place. I, for one, was very concerned about this and might not have saw it through if acting alone. (That is why teamwork is key) It is a great example of a business decision that can not be made with the help of a good excel spreadsheet.

    The most important part of the analysis was first understanding exactly where our overall business was at this particular point in time. The analysis needed to be anchored to the present. I have a tendency to weigh the decisions based on where we want to be in the future, which is a very different analysis. At the end of the day, we listed out the pros and cons and the pros won.

    Anyway, if answers to these questions were clear in the first place, what fun would any of this really be?