The first time I participated in a viral marketing effort, it was on a whim. And it failed miserably — in part because we didn't actually have a purpose. I was a freshman in college, and late one night, a few of us came up with a bunch of quirky sayings that included the words "Goats Head Soup" (the name of a Rolling Stones album). We then stuck these sayings under the doors of every dorm room in our part of campus. Perhaps if we'd been trying to spur CD sales, it would have made sense. As it was, all we were after was a little buzz of conversation the next morning. By the time we woke, we'd forgotten what we'd found so funny the night before.
Today's viral-marketing efforts tend to be more sophisticated, and yet there's still a seat-of-the-pants vibe about the whole area. Having your concepts "go viral" has become a holy grail. There is no more hotly discussed business arena today — more debated, more feared and loved, more misunderstood and changeable — than social media. Marketers, brands, and individuals are using tools such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to get earned media on the web. Why pay for an ad campaign when others will spread your message for free? On the other hand, how can you control a message in this unruly world?
When we profiled digital marketing firm Mekanism last May, its partners boasted that they could make an online project go viral, guaranteed. We challenged them, in print, to prove it: Create a viral campaign for Fast Company, and let's see what happens. It seemed like a no-brainer to try it.
It wasn't, of course. We embarked on an experiment that a traditional media company wouldn't consider. Yes, we were testing the subjects of our reporting, publicly. That wasn't revolutionary. But to do so, we had to entrust our brand to the subjects of our coverage. If their viral campaign failed, our reputation might suffer. We knew that we were taking a risk, but we calculated that, at the least, we would be able to experience firsthand the challenges that our readers grapple with in their own businesses.
The objective of our project, as Mekanism put it in a memo, was to "create a nontraditional viral campaign to build awareness and overall love for the [Fast Company] brand." One initial Twitter-based proposal was "Business Jesus," who would answer questions about the business world. Another option was a video series with "WTF Man," who would make fun of foolish business practices with a view to replace them. While potentially amusing, these ideas had a level of irreverence that made us uneasy. They didn't fit the authority we want for our brand.
Another proposal was labeled "The Cover Project." It suggested that we offer up the cover of our magazine as a lure to get people to participate. This we wouldn't do, but it did begin a discussion about using a photograph inside the magazine. After some brainstorming with our edit team, this evolved into a journalistic effort we called the Influence Project: We would try to identify the most influential people on the web. This dovetailed with an editorial agenda — covering online clout — and would allow us to glean new information as reporters. Each participant in the project would receive a unique URL and get credit every time someone clicked on his or her link, plus fractional credit for any clicks garnered by the newcomers. Everyone who signed up for the project would get his or her picture in the magazine; the people with the highest "scores" would have larger pictures. We okayed Mekanism's site design, and the Influence Project went live on July 1.
So what happened next? As with any marketing effort — and any journalistic initiative — you never know what you're going to experience until you get into it. We didn't know if the project, which would run for six weeks, would attract hundreds of participants, thousands, or millions. We posted word of it on FastCompany.com and reached out to bloggers. Mekanism did the same. Things took off fairly quickly. The project was written up by nearly 200 sites, including the Huffington Post, TechCrunch, and The New York Times. But there was also a backlash. Many blogs were critical of our methodology — little more than a popularity contest, some objected. We were attacked for oversimplifying the definition of online influence. There were accusations that the project was nothing more than a link-baiting scheme.
Mekanism offered advice about how to counter the negativity, but in the end, it was up to us to defend ourselves, our brand, and the project. Our editorial crew engaged the most vehement critics, posting comments and reaching out one-on-one. As we posted articles on FastCompany.com about online influence, the project's credibility began to rebound. The naysayers didn't exactly back down, but the attacks — particularly on Twitter — subsided.
And the ranks of participants steadily grew. The functionality that Mekanism built into the site (influenceproject.fastcompany.com) was cool and engaging, and was eventually recognized as a "site of the day" by the prestigious FWA. The load times were slower than we would have liked — sometimes users had to wait as long as a minute to get on — and there is no question the pool of participants would have been larger if the site had been faster. But by the time the project closed on August 15, we'd seen more than 30,000 people sign up and nearly 1.7 million unique visitors generate more than 3.5 million page views.
We'd agreed at the outset with Mekanism on metrics for success: to increase the number of posts on the web mentioning Fast Company by 25%; to engage participants with a reach of 20 million; and to increase our Twitter followers and Facebook fans by 15%. Those benchmarks were reached. Visible Technologies, an analytics firm that Mekanism brought in, assessed Fast Company's brand presence online in the six weeks prior to the launch of the project and in the six weeks during the project. Visible Technologies reported back an 87% boost in Fast Company mentions in blogs across the web. The firm also calculated that Fast Company received 568 million Twitter mentions during the course of the project. The number of followers of our Twitter feed rose 17% and our Facebook fan base rose 23%, though Mekanism was quick to acknowledge that our other editorial coverage played a significant role in those gains.
While Mekanism made good on its "guarantee," our resources and assets were vital to its success. The project required a tremendous amount of time and energy on our part, and given our experience, we'd caution any clients who think they can simply turn over an online campaign to outside experts: It's not that easy. There's a reason, after all, that it's referred to as "earned" media, not free media.
We also experienced just how ambiguous many online metrics can be. Yes, we received half-a-billion impressions on Twitter. But did that meaningfully change our business footprint and prospects? When Shaquille O'Neal tweeted, "Check it out," with a link to his Influence Project URL, we received 3.1 million Twitter impressions from his followers. But how many of them now think differently about Fast Company? The value of this brand exposure won't be apparent for some time, and even then it will be near impossible to distinguish from our other work.
Visible Technologies also provided data about the online "sentiment" around Fast Company before and during the Influence Project. Its graphics showed barely a nudge in "negative" sentiment and a solid bump on "positive" sentiment. Yet the "positive" ratings were misleading: If someone tweeted "I agree," that was measured as positive even if the person was agreeing to a criticism. Due to Facebook's privacy policies, there was almost no data about the scale and tenor of discussion there, despite the fact that two-thirds of our participants signed up via Facebook Connect. All of which provides a clear lesson about how much is still unknown in the social-media space.
So who won the Influence Project? We did, as journalists, because it helped us to learn and understand more. We hope our readers won too — those who have followed our Influence blog on FastCompany.com, and those who check out the final rankings of the Influence Project, which appear as a multipage gatefold with all those photographs we promised (see The Influence Project). In "The New Influentials," on page 124, senior editor Mark Borden identifies six archetypes of emerging Internet players. Some of the individuals he cites participated in the project, others did not. We recognize that there are many kinds of influence that our six-week project did not address.
We hope you'll conclude that this experiment was worthwhile. In fact, we hope you'll suggest other experiments that we might try. How might we engage these 30,000-odd participants again, for another purpose? Send your input to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or add your comments in the discussion area on our site. Or just tweet about it. We'll be watching.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.