UNITED KINGDOM — It was one of those nights, I had Netflix opened up on one tab and Pizza Hut on the other. Skyping with my co-workers we look through all the hottest trending headlines. Upon scanning dozens of headlines, we find one that’s just about right for a viral campaign.
It was September 21st, 2014, approximately one day after Emma Watson gave her UN speech on gender equality. News coverage on the powerful speech was barely hitting the top of the Google trends chart. Although we saw headlines with more media coverage, this one stood out the most and had the biggest potential.
Simon Z was the first co-worker to whom I shared the Emma Watson countdown concept to. “It will definitely be a risky and difficult viral stunt to pull”, Simon Z said. The whole celebrity nude leak scandal was being desperately monitored by the FBI, so pretending to be 4chan would be a mission.
With that being said, we started the ‘canons’ and prepared for what would be our final viral hoax of 2014. A hoax that forever made a mark on the internet culture. Not to mention it was our biggest hoax — yet.
Preparing the countdown website for EmmaYouAreNext.com was a breeze. It was super easy because we got lazy and re-used the same design from our previous viral hoax “Dawn of 2014“. All we really did was modify the background picture and title of the website.
The site was simple and had a sort of mysterious vibe to it. It didn’t directly portray a nude leak or anything of that nature. The spectators and the media had publicized their own interpretation of the site.
The marketing strategy of limiting information and creating a whole lot of mystery is what made the hoax more viral. More shares and media coverage was dramatically increased because of this. Its a strategy we used on all our viral campaigns since the very beginning.
As we were setting up the servers, one of our co-workers made a significant hiccup. The IP that was given to our countdown site was supposed to be unique. This caused our hoax to end earlier than expected.
When we first launched the countdown, we were sure something big was going to occur. The atmosphere was just right. It was another perfect hit.
The marketing started on September 22nd, 2014 after we had our article live on FoxWeekly. What most journalists misreported was the claim that FoxWeekly jump started the countdown hoax. This was not the case, FoxWeekly didn’t receive any recognition until the big SocialVEVO scavenger hunt.
EmmaYouAreNext.com started spreading quickly through Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. On 4Chan, the posts mentioning the countdown site were not getting much attention. It wasn’t until the first batch of news articles where 4chan started to pay attention to the countdown.
Twitter was the biggest contender when it came to making the countdown viral. Tumblr followed as the second internet platform that made the countdown go viral. The first major news outlets to report on the countdown was The Guardian, Huffington Post and Entertainment Wise.
The countdown was originally set to cut off in about 5 days. This would of gave us enough time to reach the attention of Barack Obama and the White House. If it wasn’t for that small technical hiccup, EmmaYouAreNext.com would have seen ten times more news coverage and traffic then it had reached.
This marketing shenanigan came to an end when a 4chan user discovered that EmmaYouAreNext.com and Rantic.com were hosted under the same server. This simple mistake cost us thousands of news articles (on top of the 2 thousand articles we gained) and perhaps a viral campaign of over 250 million visitors. After 4chan users started spreading the news, we monitored the /b/ section of 4chan and changed the countdown timer.
The countdown now had only a couple of hours left to go.
While the staff team prepared the landing page for Rantic’s home page, I did all the interviews with the mainstream media. We did a video interview with Entertainment Tonight, as well as other news outlets. We didn’t respond to most of the interview requests as we were busy trying to get the website running perfectly.
During the final hours of the countdown, Simon Z received an intimidating letter from MI6 (a British Intelligence Agency). It warned us that if any nudes of Emma Watson were to be leaked, our location would be immediately discovered. The letter also stated that our identities and locations are in the hands of the feds.
The other letters and emails we received were death threats from feminists. This all happened within a couple of hours of the timer hitting zero.
We counted the final few seconds and immediately hit redirect when the timer hit zero. Once the timer had ended, the amount of online hysteria that we caused was gigantic. A marketing stunt that will forever be remembered.
News outlets quickly changed their headlines as news of the hoax broke out. It sparked a huge reaction from all corners of journalism. It had feminists on their toes about gender equality.
The viral stunt not only made Emma Watson’s speech more popular, but it forced a significant list of news outlets to quote her speech. A speech that no one cared about suddenly becomes the talk of the internet. Of course, Emma Watson had to keep hush about everything or else the huge free publicity would fail.
EmmaYouAreNext.com became a worldwide hoax that taught everyone a lesson. Whether it was for good or bad, everyone who hopped in the journey — felt something. The countdown site turned into a #Shutdown4Chan campaign which took all the enormous traffic from 4chan and dragged it to Rantic.com and all the news outlets who covered it.
The home page of Rantic had an open letter addressed to President Barack Obama explaining the need for internet censorship. Although we never wanted censorship, it was a great psychological experiment to observe. A lot was learned about journalism and the internet on that day.
One thing that we have never revealed are the ‘what-if’ scenarios. Basically, right before the timer is about to hit zero, we plan what the outcome would be. We always lay out approximately 3-5 scenarios of what could be the aftermath of the hoax.
In the case of EmmaYouAreNext, we laid out 4 possible scenarios. Besides the shutting down of 4chan, we came up with: “Pinning the blame on PewDiePie“, “Purple Ninja music video” and/or “#ShutdownTumblr“.
All these ideas could’ve been the ending factor to the countdown site. Originally, our plan was to make it seem like YouTube sensation PewDiePie trolled the internet and 4chan. A hoax that could’ve attracted even more attention than the #Shutdown4chan.
Instead, we simply just placed a anti-4chan landing page and staged the hacking of our home page to rack up more news coverage. Despite news reports, Le 9gag army was not capable of breaking into our Rantic website. Simon Z fed all the 4chan users temporary login credentials to tamper with the FoxWeekly news website.
All in all, the hoax sparked a large reaction from the media and hopefully served as a way to improve journalism. There is still a big exploit in journalists today that needs to fixed. But each hoax is patching up that exploit, little by little.