Viral marketing: Here’s your sign

Kid @ Rockies game

It’s really as simple as this.

I had the TV on mute just now, watching Monday Night Football and I saw some kid and his dad with a sign. Their sign was quite large, had a lot of words on it and was not easy to read. In any case, by the time they figured out they were on camera, they weren’t hold it up and the scrambled to get it up but by then, the cameraman had moved on.

I saw this and immediately thought of viral marketing. We’re talking something where you 1) don’t pay much for it and 2) you’re looking for an added value beyond that of what you’ve invested. That’s what separates social media, blogging and all of this so-called Web 2.0 stuff from traditional media. We don’t spend millions to get folks to read our blogs and while cred can be earned and lost due to a perceived or actual lost in trust by an audience, the fact is, we have to grow our own here and we usually do it on a shoestring.

When someone “makes it big” after blogging, they’re simply leveraging something they did as a hobby or as a side project and turn it into something huge. People who make a living doing this stuff are really astounding. Heck, I shake my head a few times a year when I consider what is it that I do everyday. It’d be one thing if I were just a web designer or something. But we’ve reached a point where many of us are able to specialize in the minutia of the web for legitimate, bricks and mortar institutions.

It’s an astounding thing to consider that 90% of us would not have been able to inhabit the roles we do as recent as a decade ago, because the jobs simply did not exist. With a role like that comes an extraordinary opportunity to evangelize a whole new way of THINKING about the way we do business.

That’s what I do every day. I talk to people about things that are going to frustrate them and leave them wondering why they need to change what they’ve done what they do all of the time. I mean, after all, that’s familiar to them and it’s what works. What we’re able to do when we’re successful, is to excite them about the possibilities and make them seem REAL. Not everyone has a huge marketing budget to sink into all sorts of awesome whiz bang projects and not all of us have the access to teams of developers and other rock stars just waiting to do our bidding.

We often have to wear the hats of developers, designers and marketers. You need to have the savvy to talk to audiences of all stripes and take a decidedly entrepreneurial view of all of this, while recognizing the constraints — especially in higher education — that prevent rapid change from happening, without letting that kill off your momentum or leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.

Remember the guy Rollen Stewart? You probably wouldn’t know him by name, but if you’re a sports fan, you recall he’s the guy who wore a rainbow Afro wig and had a sign that said John 3:16 on it. That’s it, nothing else. Now, whatever your religious persuasion, the point of this is…this was viral marketing in the 70s and no one thought a thing of it. He took a medium — television — and reached audiences in ways that were probably more effective than if a church had bought airtime during those same games he went to and held up his sign.

But what eventually happened to him? Well, he’s in jail for kidnapping. But the real story is, before all of that, TV cameras became wise to his antics and avoided showing him on camera. Per Wiki:

His first major appearance was at the 1977 NBA Finals; by the time of the 1979 MLB All-Star Game, broadcasters actively tried to avoid showing him. He “appeared behind NFL goal posts, near Olympic medal stands, and even at the Augusta National Golf Club” strategically positioned for key shots of plays or athletes.

Rollen taught you viral marketing and he taught you how to be a spammer, at the same time. He managed to keep his ruse up for two years at various major sporting events before they finally caught on? I realize it was the 70s and all, but talk about capturing an audience and finding a way to effectively pitch a message.

Now your message isn’t as well known as the Bible. I mean, even Seth Godin himself couldn’t put a book quote on a sign and expect that scores of people would know or care what he was talking about. The real question here is: What will your sign say, when you get your shot on the screen? Will it be part of a bigger message? Will you reach your intended audience?

It’s not enough to put a domain on a placard and expect that to be enough. And sometimes, your viral marketing campaigns can go really, really wrong.

In the end, it’s up to you to understand who you’re trying to reach and make sure you get to them, to determine whether your viral marketing campaign will be a successful one.

The Big Idea

I am not a television watcher. I just don’t really get much joy from watching much of anything on TV and even find the cable news networks grating and unbearable. I do like to hear what the dialogue on the ground is, so I can parse it and be aware of it. But I don’t enjoy it.

I do however, universally like one show whenever I happen to bump into it when I’m channel surfing and that’s Donnie Deutsch’s show on CNBC called The Big Idea. Unlike a lot of these people who swear they want to make you rich like them, I feel like he really does bring these folks on the show and is hellbent on trying to convince those of us who are on the ground floor that the success we’re looking for isn’t sold at Wal-Mart and doesn’t exist in a magic bottle; but is simply a product of hard work and some luck.

I always seem to get the steam I need at the right time, when channel surfing past that show. I never deliberately plan to watch it and maybe that’s the trick. But I love the way the interactions work there and to hear from people who have found success. Not because I think there are necessarily “secrets” to finding it, but more because it makes them seem more ordinary and gives you the idea — not matter how implausible depending on the subject — that they at one point were unknown and ordinary just like you and over time that changed.