I distinctly remember the first time that I heard of the internet doing something crazy was back in 2007. Dawn Meeham, an ordinary mom from Illinois sold an ordinary box of Pokémon cards on eBay and titled the auction:“LOT OF POKEMON CARDS THAT MY KIDS TRIED TO SNEAK BY ME.” She included an equally humorous story as her product description which narrated her angst of grocery shopping with her children. The result? The pack sold for over $140. At the time, I was entirely surprised because I had no idea what the internet was capable of these sort of outcomes.
Image courtesy of Kemp Edmonds via Flickr
To top that, this month Zack Brown in decided he was going to make potato salad. For some reason unbeknownst to us, he decided to create a Kickstarter campaign eloquently describing the campaign as, “Basically I’m just making potato salad.” Currently, the campaign has raised approximately $55,000.
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why certain things go viral on the internet while others don’t, there are some innovative marketing principles which any business can implement into their own business.
1. Provide Amusement
In today’s age of short attention spans, why did so many viewers read (and share) Dawn’s 1800+ word description of a box of cards? Answer:because it kept on giving in the form of amusement and entertainment. The sarcasm, exaggeration, and commentary keeps the reader wanting more. If it weren’t for the lengthy amusement provided by the description, the box of cards may not have even sold at all.
According to Forbes, “[Zack Brown] walks a fine line between total sarcasm, which would have led to few contributions, and a serious intention to actually make a batch of potato salad.” Fundraising for potato salad is quirky, entertaining, and keeps people watching to see the progress made. Not only is the Kickstarter amusing de facto, but the pledge rewards add another layer of entertainment. These rewards range from having your name said out loud while the potato salad is made, to receiving a “I love potato salad” trucker hat, to receiving a jar of signed mayonnaise.
2. Unite a Group
In the instance of the Pokémon cards, the eBay listing united moms and their mutual grievances. Almost every mom understood what it feels like to be in a grocery store with nagging children, so Dawn’s story resonated well with a plethora of different people. Resonation allowed this group of people to unite, and entertainment inspired them to share the auction with their friends.
Image courtesy of Denni Schnapp via Flickr
Potato salad perfectly fit the quirky sense of humor found within the tribe known as “the internet.” The campaign also instigates some of the top three emotions for viral content:amusement, interest, and surprise. As Zack noted on Reddit, “I think the thing people are responding to is the opportunity to come together around something equal parts absurd and mundane. Potato Salad isn’t controversial, but it seems to unite us all.” On top of that, the very medium of Kickstarter requires unity among a group of people in order to be successful. In other words, this campaign took off because maintaining fundraising momentum sustained the amusement of the internet world.
3. Use Honesty
The mom was pretty honest about her life, which was so appealing. She admitted that she didn’t have things all together, and that shopping with children is, well… difficult. It was as refreshing perspective which many readers could relate to, and inspired growing bids on the box of cards. As noted in her description, “There comes a time…when you’re peering into your fridge and thinking, ‘Hmmm, what can I make with ketchup, Italian dressing, and half an onion,’ that you decide you cannot avoid going to the grocery store any longer.” Most of us have all related to this at one point in our lives. Honestly is often a breath of fresh air in an age of advertising.
I doubt Zack Brown expected his campaign to become as big of a deal as it did. CNET quoted his interview with Crave, “I realized that I really liked potato salad, but had never made it. Then I wanted to make potato salad.” That’s it. Nothing special. What ended up being something for personal entertainment turned into a story and an experiment. At this point, it could take weeks to say everyone’s name out loud while making the salad. Plus, as Zack admits, “It might not be that good. It’s my first potato salad.” We commend him for his honesty.
4. Explain Not What, but Why
People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. I’m serious. Readers might be tired of hearing the not-what-but-why mantra, but it’s still incredibly accurate and important to note — especially in these contexts. There’s nothing special about a box of gaming cards or a potluck staple. What’s important is why they were sold. This is innovative marketing at its finest.
Did people really spend $140 on a box of ordinary Pokémon cards because they thought it was worth that much? Of course not. Anyone could have walked into a store and bought a similar pack for around $20. Instead, people cared why she put the cards up on eBay. In fact, Dawn answered this question on her own in her auction description, “Why [am I selling these cards]? Because my kids sneaked them into my shopping cart while at the grocery store and I ended up buying them because I didn’t notice they were there until we got home.“ She finishes up the description with, “I just know that I’m not letting my kids keep these as a reward for their sneakiness.” This description earned Dawn a national mom stamp of approval, and increased the virality of her auction.
Why back up potato salad? To provide (and be provided with) entertainment. That’s essentially it. The stretch goals kept the entertainment flowing as it tacked on benefits such as live streaming the making of the salad and inviting the internet to a potato salad party. We’ll be amused to see how many people will actually attend.
Yes, in many ways, these “innovative” marketing techniques are common sense. Many marketers try to find quick-fix strategies to make their content reach virality. But striking gold is more of a matter of luck rather than an innovative formula. For example, while many viral videos received a sharp uptake in view at the beginning of the campaign, it quickly begins to fizzle out until it is mostly forgotten. ChannelMeter’s CEO, Eugene Lee noted, “Most videos we track see about 75% or 80% of views in the first 3 to 5 days.”
So what’s a marketer to do? Instead of constantly racking your brains on how to strike gold, try to reach consumers using the tactics that can provide long-term credibility and loyalty. Humor is great in proper doses, and honesty is always welcomed. And most importantly, always communicate why you do what you do. This unites your target market, and provides a steady upward growth which will be more valuable than a short-term spike.
And who knows? Maybe someday you’ll accidentally create your own kind of “potato salad.”