LOS ANGELES — It is pouring on a typical stormy weekend morning with people staying in to avoid the weather. Taking a sip of some warm coffee, eyes are glued onto the screen as I check the latest trends on the news. With what seems like just casual click baiting by today’s press, I stumble upon an interesting article about the Syrian Electronic Army.
I reach for my phone and login to my Skype account to notify a friend about the news. Surprisingly, he had already heard the news and read the same article earlier that morning. The news was grabbing massive headlines and even had millions of social media users on the edge. As social media marketers, one knows that when a huge trend is taking over, it is crucial to observe and take notes — before the buzz dies out.
In that case, I observed every single tweet, I read how every article was written, and most importantly, I researched where the viral news originated. It was crucial to see whom the first to report it was and how it was published. With granted permission, I tagged along with the marketers at SocialVEVO to observe everything that goes behind viral marketing. I questioned the viral phenomena and asked myself, how did the story go so viral? What did it do to capture such a large audience and have strong social media interaction?
The answer baffled me for a very long time.
Instead of the typical “Hey! Let’s perform viral marketing and pray our projects go viral…’ the marketers decided to use their marketing skills to fully understand the complicated ‘viral’ side of marketing. While majoring in Psychology at the time, performing viral marketing while potentially reaching millions of people sounded like interesting psychological research data to cluster.
Moreover, within a few weeks, I started our mystifying journey into the world of viral marketing, and what I also liked to call “Cyberpsychology.”
The Dawn of Something BIG
It was September 12, 2013 and the marketers at SocialVEVO had just finished promoting a musician from Los Angeles, California. As I sat on my couch with my laptop looking through viral trends, my partner pointed out the highly popular video game GTA 5. Fans of the game were anticipating a PC announcement soon from the publishing company.
Wasting no time, they developed a plan, and I created a blueprint of all the procedures and techniques that the marketers use in their viral campaigns. Spending countless nights studying a variety of viral phenomena, I quickly learned a pattern in each of these trends. Since none of the marketers had studied Psychology, there were a whole lot of confusion and mystery surrounding these viral trends, in which it never seemed to hit me.
Even more bizarre, after spending weeks studying how topics become viral, it all started to make sense to me. With a vanilla ice coffee in my hand and about an hour to spare, I came up with what I thought would be a highly-effective ‘SECRET’ marketing strategy of the marketer’s effective viral marketing tactics. This plan (that at the time I jokingly called ‘blueprint’), consisted of a technical system and a psychological system. The formula for an effective system went a little like this:
With all these procedures in place on my laptop, I was ready to participate and observe the first viral campaign released by the notorious marketers at SocialVEVO. The marketers decided last minute to carry it out as a hoax. We began working the very next day.
On September 13th, we launched our first viral marketing campaign called RockstarAnnouncement. It featured a countdown and had a few social button counters on the site. We went through the list of Technical and Psychological steps from our ‘blueprint’ and began to spread the countdown in as many places as we could. The viral site found instant success and received a variety of reactions.
Within a few days, the site had been covered by numerous tech news outlets including Softpedia, Softonic and Examiner. People were so amused by the countdown that YouTube videos were being uploaded of the hype. Although the news coverage and social media interaction was very low, they still considered it a success.
As Simon (one of the SocialVEVO marketers) ranted to his fellow partners about the recent viral countdown, I studied the reactions and feedback of the people who were hoaxed. By the end of my research gathering, what struck me as odd was that most users shared the site even though they knew it was a fake. This type of behavior was significant to my research because this social behavior was repeated in EVERY single viral campaign we launched.
It seems that although people know something is not real, they tend to keep the delusion alive and share it anyway. This means that people like the fear, mystery and anticipation and always give in to it. I did not just only observe this social behavior of typical internet users, but I observed it on reporters and bloggers alike.
In fact, our biggest and strangest discovery with this entire psychological operation occurred during our Emma Watson hoax. I will discuss my findings from that incredibly insane campaign at the conclusion of the article — in the ‘Big Emma Finale’ section.
Houston We Have a Problem
We never expected success of any sort with our first campaign and while we were planning our second viral campaign, we kept on studying on what we had messed up on. I swear, this was the most coincidental viral campaign we ever performed. Without even hearing about the news that NASA was shutting down, I was browsing through space website themes. On October 1st, by pure coincidence, I found a design that looked like a space rocket, planet earth, a small astronaut on the far right corner of the screen and a countdown timer.
Within a few minutes, I had rearranged the theme and made it look like an official space countdown. That same morning, we registered the domain RememberThe13th.com and immediately went to work. But this time only, we decided to promote our viral marketing campaign outside the U.S. from the very beginning.
We reviewed our procedures from our ‘blueprint’ and launched the site just 2 days after we registered it. The countdown was scheduled to end on November 13th, 2013. But this time we expected big results, and oh boy… did we find what we were looking for.
Using the same forum communities, we decided to get the countdown rolling without much trouble. A lot of people bought into it and the campaign started appearing in science and space forums. The site quickly found success, well… until it hit Reddit.
The four most active places discussing the countdown was UOL, Reddit, AboveTopSecret and GodLikeProductions. The site went viral as soon as it hit Reddit and that’s when users started to take a closer look at the site. Once it landed on Reddit’s radar, it quickly gained news coverage and caught the attention of several big blogs. Again, the same social behavioral pattern that existed on our previous campaign, appeared on this one too.
As I scanned through the massive number of tweets mentioning the countdown, I saw that most people knew it was not a NASA site and still decided to spread it. Blogs quickly caught on to the suspicious site and reported it as a potentially ‘silly viral marketing scheme’. Slate and various other blogs reported on the site right before the countdown had hit zero.
Looking through all the Facebook posts mentioning our campaign, we saw a female Apollo astronaut who warned users that the site was not affiliated with NASA. Simon and I quickly grew concerned that the site would not hold until November 13th, so we changed the countdown timer. The countdown timer went from a month left, to 3 days left!
With just a few days left, curious internet users continued to spread the content like something big as about to occur. This was all despite the contradicting news reports and the warnings that many big Twitter and Facebook account kept passing along. It was eerie to see the similar behavior and the way users shared our campaigns. We finally saw a pattern.
With only a few minutes left until the timer runs out, we came to the quick conclusion to brand one of Simon’s old music videos and pin it as the aftermath of the lovely NASA stunt. As soon as the timer ran out, a button appeared which redirected users to YouTube — and onto a music video titled ‘Purple Ninja’.
The aftermath and results after the timer hit zero was nothing short of success. International news outlets started to report about the NASA countdown stunt. The countdown & annoying sounding music video had received international newspaper, magazine and television coverage. International Business Times (AU), Houston Chronicle, The Daily Dot, Ilbo Chosun (Korea) and Galileu Magazine (Brazil), were among the many that covered the NASA hoax.
The success was widespread and till this day, was our favorite viral marketing campaign. What we learned from this viral campaign was that most people loved the sort of fear and emptiness of information that the countdown brought to the table. Popular explanations or ‘theories’ that people came up with was ‘Life on Mars’, ‘a habitable planet’ and a ‘apocalyptic asteroid’.
Because we didn’t give any hints or details on what the announcement could be from the start, people’s imaginations are what led the countdown to viral success. Gathering this new data, we came to the conclusion that the less detail we put out, the more likely it will go viral.
Let the users speculate what the countdown is going to be about. Think of viral marketing as a baby, let go of its hands and watch that baby walk on its own. Anticipation is also the key to viral success.
It Almost Came To An End
That same month, SocialVEVO decided to launch another viral campaign, but for the first and only time, we utilized a video. I contacted a graphic designer who worked on numerous CGI projects and asked him to make a futuristic hologram style video for the marketers. The video were to feature a man in a business suit going through holographic slides with his hands.
Putting dramatic Hollywood music in the background made the video even more mystic. Adding images of political conflicts and a cryptic message at the end definitely put the cherry on the cake. There are people that are still trying to decode the message of the mysterious video till this very day. The viral video came to be known as #231134421.
Many who witnessed the video campaign in action say it was work of a ‘marketing genius’. It was an incredibly out-of-the box idea that I had lingering in my mind. Something totally unrelated to what they were doing. “I also was dying to bring it to life”, said a SocialVEVO marketer. This campaign more like others, taught everyone a little something about the conspiracy community. DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING THAT YOU SEE!
Not everything is legit, no matter how professional it looks. When the video was first launched, it died. The buzz was very minimal and we thought we were going to experience our first viral marketing failure. It took a whole week and lots of spreading for the hoax to finally start running.
Eventually, the campaign went viral and achieved huge traffic on YouTube and the website that accompanied it: 231134421.com. The site was mostly covered on small blogs, but managed to land on major FM radio stations in the U.S. The media coverage was very minimal but the online community and on-air radio buzz was too big to ignore.
Yet again, people were terrified of the video’s mystery, but at the same time people at the same time knew it was a hoax. You know what that meant right? Yes, that led even more people to share it. Within the next few months, I was invited in the performing of more viral campaigns.
BriansAnnouncement.com ended up becoming our second most covered hoax of all-time. Brian the dog from Family Guy had died and SocialVEVO decided to create a countdown clock about that. This viral campaign ended up hitting CNN, Fox News, Gawker, WSJ and even Xfinity. That was just a few of the hundreds of big-named news sites that fell into the hole.
The countdown’s buzz died on the launch day, but was later revived the next morning after Deadline picked up on the site. How did Deadline pick up on the hoax? Easy, through the forum posts and the news tips hotline. Both were the biggest factors on Brian’s Announcement and how it became a viral hit.
There wasn’t nothing else to it. Oh, and also the timing was just right. In the weeks preceding the Family Guy hoax, we decided to invent a new marketing strategy. This one is what came to be called ‘The Bait Technique’. Our primary target was going to be The New Yorker, but we decided last minute to end up getting The Daily Dot to cover the information we wanted — without them knowing it.
In fact, we got information published by various other news outlets thereafter using the same technique. SocialVEVO created the character of “Juice”, an angry former employee of the marketing company — who had a lot of juicy details to leak. The whole entire process was acted and executed properly.
The marketing company’s dirty laundry was then published in December of 2013 on The Daily Dot. The article which was published by Fernando Alfonso III and managed to bring some attention to the ‘hoax economy’. The article attempted to investigate who were the ones behind the recent hoaxes and what the motive was. The article received its share of media attention and people reacted hysterically.
Although most of what the article had was made up information, and ads were never placed on these countdown sites – people were finally waking up. During the time after Brian’s Announcement, we decided to launch a few more hoaxes. Dawn of 2014 was a small one we had hidden under our sleeves for months.
The YouTube views economy had been hit at about that time. Our resellers had contacted us saying that YouTube had performed a huge system update. For YouTube staff, it was popping champagne time. For us, it was the bible prophecy end of times.
Luckily, the long anticipated update that worried would crash the YouTube economy historically, ended up being minimal. And all the marketers were up and running again. The marketers at SocialVEVO had put the buy now buttons back to their YouTube section and I resumed my psychological research.
With what seemed like an addiction to hoaxing, we became hiatus for a short time. For many months, the research that I was collecting felt incomplete. It felt like I was missing something… Rantic was getting tired of depending on journalists to jumpstart their viral campaigns, so they came up with the idea to build a news magazine outlet. It sounded like a lunatic idea, but it eventually became a reality.
While searching for domains, one of the marketers stumbled upon two possible domains: Nbc69.com and Foxweekly.com. Since Fox was not trademarked and we never planned on using their logo, the marketers chose FoxWeekly.com.
The site featured an elegant magazine style design that was unique in nature. Unfortunately, the template design came with a dozen sample articles as a demo to fill in all the empty spaces on the site. Because of this mistake, we had articles from major news outlets in our site without permission. Rantic removed them as soon as The Daily Dot pointed them out.
They had built tons of original articles pertaining to entertainment and politics. The news website became very successful and eventually major news outlets started republishing and mentioning the content on the original articles. With the news site running on all engines, we decided to use it in a viral campaign. But we needed something clever, something that was believable.
In August 2014, Rantic returned to the GTA V community and decided to do another viral hoax. This time, they had manufactured an interview with a supposed ‘former Rockstar marketing employee’. The idea was smart and quickly went viral. News outlets like CraveOnline, Huffington Post, IbTimes and Kotaku picked up on the hoax. And during the planning of this viral hoax is where the man known as “Brad Cockingham” was born.
After this viral campaign, we thought we were ready for the final big one. It only took a famous manufactured news magazine, a countdown and a few tablets of Advil – to trigger one of the biggest hoaxes of all-time.
The Big Emma Finale
It was September 21st, 2014, 8:58 p.m. to be exact. I had about all the data I needed to complete my research project. Despite that, lingering feelings of emptiness clouded my mind throughout the rest of the night. While having the urge to do one more viral campaign, I contacted one of the marketers at Rantic.com and explained my plea. “One more viral hoax won’t hurt, let’s use FoxWeekly again… ”, I begged a Rantic employee.
The marketing company (who had recently re-branded itself from Swenzy to Rantic) had told me that they were going to see what they can do. Within a couple of hours, Rantic marketers began skimming through news headlines and stumbled upon Emma Watson’s U.N speech on gender equality. Without having knowledge of what was to come, they sent me a YouTube video link to the widely publicized Emma Watson speech.
I didn’t think much of it until they sent me another link, this time, it was the celebrity nude photo leak scandal. Confused, I googled the recent news on Jennifer Lawrence and Victoria Justice alleged private photo leak. The attack had apparently been targeted using Apple’s iCloud system. Then, the marketers showed me Emma Watson’s Twitter fan base and Google search volume.
I thought to myself, ‘…a photo leak of Emma Watson?’
This is either a clever or a gruesome hoax. I didn’t have time to think which one I thought was the answer, but the marketers at Rantic immediately went to work. One of the marketers re-used the same website design as Dawn of 2014 onto EmmaYouAreNext.com.
The only change that was done was the removal of the Microsoft logo and background picture of Watson. From the time the idea popped into one of the marketers head all the way until the site was launched, was a very fast process. It only took about 6 hours until everything was ready. The FoxWeekly article was written and published within minutes of launch.
On September 22nd, 2014 at 6:30 pm, the countdown was live and the viral marketing began. Since FoxWeekly had authority from prior practices, people were already following the countdown site and shares were starting to come in. On the original FoxWeekly article, the countdown stunt was not mentioned in the title, it was placed at the very bottom of an article, on the last paragraph in bold.
As people on social media started to see the article, things began to heat up.
It was 8:29 pm and no news outlets were reporting on the countdown clock. And in that case, this is where the ‘official’ viral marketing began. The marketers at Rantic took both the countdown and the FoxWeekly article to the boards and beyond. There were perhaps dozens of accounts created that day on some of the most popular forums.
At about 9:00 pm, Rantic avoided Reddit at all costs and put most of their attention to a website called 4Chan. 4Chan was reportedly responsible for the celebrity hack nude leaks and is also a very huge internet community. Observing the marketer’s work, I witnessed that the first two threads that were opened on 4Chan — were immediately closed. Although I did see that after a couple of tries on /b/, one of the threads quickly became active.
From there, news tips were sent via email to a huge list of news outlets and bloggers. Keep in mind, the original news article that was published by FoxWeekly, stated, “…could potentially be part of 4chan”. The marketers who created the countdown website never stated that the site was going to leak anything. FoxWeekly even warned readers to be skeptical because the countdown is likely a hoax. Eventually, small news outlets and blogs were the first to report the countdown site.
The marketers were getting excited and the traffic was skyrocketing. Over time, the countdown made its way to Reddit – due to the high popularity. But then… Here’s where an interesting thing occurs. Out of nowhere, news outlets like The Guardian, The Telegraph, BBC and The Huffington Post, were among the first ‘major’ news outlets to report about the countdown.
Having seen the warning stating that the site was dodgy and on top of that, the huge number of threads being closed after people started passing around The Daily Dot’s investigation on FoxWeekly — the outlets reported on it anyway. Even more astonishing, they had switched the words around and made the title more sensational than it already was. Instead of investigating the origin of the website or paying attention to all the information that stated FoxWeekly was a hoax, they proceeded to create and publish propaganda. I believe this is what people call ‘click-baiting’?
At 11:45 p.m., a Rantic employee had contacted me saying that the media was playing the game telephone with their countdown site. Keep in mind that nowhere in the site did it state that anything will be leaked.
The story went from:
“Mysterious countdown site allegedly coming from 4chan hacker? “(Editors Note: Website looks dodgy, but we will report when we have more information. Beware, this website is most likely a hoax.)”
“4chan attacks Emma Watson for her U.N. speech on feminism”; “4Chan hackers: You spread good message about feminism, we leak nudes”; “Feminists rally against 4chan trolls for online snaps threat”
Some news outlets got extra creative with the click baiting titles and generated a huge buzz on their social media accounts. It was the ‘perfect’ news story and most news outlets knew exactly what they were doing. They definitely took advantage of the hoax to make some extra ad money.
The funny thing was that as I looked through Twitter feeds of reporters whom had reported on the countdown, most of them were getting tweets from warning them that it was a hoax. They simply ignored it. If you remember during the last hoaxes, internet users pretended the hoaxes were real because they liked the fear, mystery and propaganda. Well this time it was journalists who were spreading the propaganda. It was a behavior that caught us by surprise.
It was crazy because I remember seeing one of the marketers at Rantic tweeting to an IbTimes editor the information regarding The Daily Dot’s investigation with FoxWeekly and SocialVEVO. She muted him on Twitter and never edited or investigated the countdown. I think its safe to say that the irresponsibility of these journalists played a big part into leading this hoax to go mega-viral – and to go on to receive coverage by almost every major news outlet on the planet.
From South America to Europe, even Asia, the news coverage and traffic was astronomical. Traffic had hit past 40 million within a few hours on Sept 24th. As a matter of fact, the countdown was so popular, that the Google analytics dashboard system crashed numerous times on us. Rantic’s guess was that it couldn’t keep up with the traffic and the many places where it was coming from. It’s crazy to see how news reporters can easily twist a story around and create such massive hysteria.
The Bait Technique was extremely successful on this hoax. Rantic managed to get dozens of journalists to report what they wanted, without them even knowing it. It was also the secret of how the aftermath attracted such a wide news buzz from sites like Info Wars, Playboy Magazine, MTV and even RT. While putting together all my final research data, I concluded that there were only two news outlets that used common sense during the big Emma finale.
The two news outlets were Business Insider and The Daily Dot. Everyone else turned into a sheep and failed to use journalistic integrity in their content. If either of those two news sites would’ve been the first to write on the countdown clock, the hoax would’ve been dead due to the fact that those reporters perform a lot of research and investigation during hoaxes like these.
As a result of this, maybe that’s why SocialVEVO will go permanently hiatus? Whatever the reason may be for our departure from viral marketing, don’t let the upcoming imitators fool you. ■