The Making of a Global Viral Sensation
In the world of marketing, a viral hit is an elusive phenomenon. But over the years of talking dogs and Charlie biting a finger, digital marketers come to identify a few of the features of a news story that seem to work in favour of a meme event. I’ve discussed these points in the videography classes I teach where we touch on viral videos, but no local news event has hit so many of the right buttons so efficiently, along with one very unexpected and risky addition.
If you, like me, are interested in how a story goes from an innocent Facebook post to a global sensation, read on.
It’s important to state two things a the onset. First, this was never intended to be a global news story. Second, as a Digital Director, it’s my job to look out for and hopefully create viral events for the web. This story is a textbook example without even trying, which makes it very interesting to me.
What started earlier today as an innocent post from his mother to her friends exploded in a matter of hours into a classic viral news story, possibly reaching the highest office in Canada. A child’s mother posted on Facebook a casual invite to join her and her son for poutine, then maybe a bit of bowling. What ended up was nothing short of a global sensation in just a few hours.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 20, 2015
Seems the story is the perfect mix of good natured fun, with the underdog winning. But how did this local story shared with a dozen or so friends get the attention of the federal Liberal leader of Canada, along with thousands of well wishes from across the globe? As I write this, this viral story is developing. In essence, a young 13 year old Peterborough, Ontario boy Odin was shut out by his school mates and nobody came to his birthday party. You can read the story, here. [@ptbo_canada]
The lede of any story, viral or traditional, is the heart of the story. It’s got to be easy to explain, easy to remember, and easy to share. In this case, we have a young boy, with Aspergers, bullied by other children, ignored on his birthday, then celebrated with birthday messages from friends, family, the community, then the entire world. Anyone with a child, or from Peterborough Ontario, or Canada, or with a unique name like Odin (the story trended early and strong in Norway) will have an emotional engagement with this story. The fact that it was swiftly put online with all the right functionality set it up for a viral news event.
Ease of Sharing
For a news story to go viral, the original story must be easy to share. Right now, the two most effective ways to share a story are Facebook and Twitter. The original story came from Odin’s mom, Melissa’s Facebook account, then was picked up on Twitter.
The original count was 38 Likes. This core group of shares made its way to the local online news site Ptbo Canada. From there is was posted to their Twitter feed, and @ptbo_canada has a very large and active Twitter following. The foundation was clearly set by @ptbo_canada, who has over the years curated a feed of relevant and local news and advertising stories. Stories that appear on this feed are hyper-local and generally of very high quality.
So when a story like this hits, it has the potential to reach tens of thousands of followers very quickly, and the story is self-authenticated by crowd sourcing. Basically that means you and your friends and your friends of friends are seeing the news event at about the same time, and you have an easy way of acknowledging the story (liking it) and sharing it (retweeting).
Community / Know Your Audience
The city of Peterborough has been recognized as being highly engaged in social media. In fact, in 2012 and 2013 local writer and event promoter Donald Fraser @ptbo_skeptic organized a gala night called Petertweeter Awards, recognizing the work done by hundreds of enthusiastic and energetic tweeters. While having a large, recognized community of online social media participants isn’t required for a news story to go viral, it definitely helps. The interesting thing about community is you can’t create it while an event is going viral. The community needs to be created, identified, and supported in advance. You don’t know what you’re curating when creating a community, that’s what makes something like Petertweeter so perfect. It’s built around a real, proper city. A viral story cannot be controlled. Once a reader self identifies with it, the story takes on a life of its own becoming viral.
This story had just the perfect mix of sadness, happiness, and hope. The original post touched on the fact that Odin put out a call for classmates to come to ‘hang out’, but that nobody came. This is a heartbreaking story for any parent. The fact that Odin has been identified as being on a spectrum brings it well into even darker territory. The story takes a turn for the better with a hint of a trip for a poutine dinner, followed by bowling.
But there are two elements that took the story safely into internet meme territory.
First was a unique name for the hashtag. I’m not sure of the origin of #odinbirthday but it’s perfect. (EDIT: thank you Neil Morton, well done on the hashtag). The name Odin is very unique, short, two syllables, and easy to remember. This promotes ease of ownership when it comes to Twitter.
The other social phenomenon that’s definitely risky but caused the story to jump off the page, was the inclusion of the child’s cel phone number, with a genuinely sincere request from the mom to the 37 or so followers, to send a birthday greeting via text message.
… the perfect breakthrough moment of a meme …
Including a cel phone for a text message greeting is something that every marketer would love to do, but would be talked out of in a heartbeat. That breaks all social norms and certainly caused the first wave of enthusiasm for the birthday greeting effort. But knowing that the invite came from the mother, and that in Canada incoming text messages are free (or we certainly hope so), created the perfect breakthrough moment of a meme. In terms of ownership, we had permission to play, and we knew that it would probably not cost us anything, and not cost Odin either.
Scarcity of Time
When selling or marketing a good or service, you have to take into consideration distribution and shelf life. You need to bring a product to market, which has a cost and element of scarcity. When it’s gone, it’s gone. That’s the way we used to market goods and services, and the way to do it traditionally.
On the internet, there are no costs or feeling that something will be gone. It’s a huge problem with internet advertising vs traditional media: with the internet there is no sharing of time like a 30 second commercial or half page of a magazine. There’s no sense that something will be gone. It’s called Long Tail marketing, where there’s hopefully an original fabricated demand, but then the good or service can live on forever.
In the case of this event, the original post happened on Odin’s birthday. The party was just a few hours later. It’s a huge risk to an advertiser to try to market something with such tight deadlines, but that’s exactly what happened here. The scarcity or exclusivity was real: the birthday party was just a few hours away. It created something rarely seen online: urgency.
Without knowing for sure, I suspect if the birthday was a few days away, the viral effect or sense of urgency would not have had any traction, and the event would not have happened.
Moral/Social Self Licensing
With ‘permission’ from the parent, and a vocal community standing up for the bullied young student, we have a textbook example of a relatively new phenomenon, Social Self Licensing, based on Moral Self Licensing. This interesting new segment of society is facilitated by the quick, easy and free ability to (a) share a news story, and (b) support the cause. Here we have the story of a local young man with Aspergers bullied by his school mates, ignored on his birthday, then through a simple click is redeemed and celebrated. This has been documented in depth a number of times online, and discussed in depth on a number of episodes of the No Agenda Show.
Much in the same way, we have Text to Donate for Haiti earthquake relief, or other global fundraising issues, but rarely do we have a local story that, as we say in the industry, ‘hits the right buttons’. Without even donating money (although some did) you can show support by simply wishing a child happy birthday. You have a story to tell your children, and you feel you’ve helped make the world a better place.
The dark side of this sharing phenomenon is a sit-back morality. People are quick to turn their Facebook avatars black to signify their support of a cause-du-jour, but can’t be convinced to get out of their chairs to actually do anything. Of interest, though, is the bowling event created on Facebook as over 2,000 attendees. Even the news showed up. I’m sure if this number is even close to accurate that it’s the most people this bowling alley has seen in one night, ever.
— Joelle Kovach (@JoelleKovach) March 21, 2015
Know Your Audience
Obviously, Odin’s mother had no idea this would become the global social phenomena it became. But at it’s core, it was spawned by a sincere and pure desire to share a birthday and invite friends or family to come along.
In online marketing, we talk of this in terms of sincerity and integrity. Online customers or followers and quick to smell a rat, and will declare an insincere effort to sell us something of questionable quality as highly objectionable.
This story was not fake, it was very sincere, and the happy ending continues to unfold even as I transcribe my notes.
The Perfect Storm
This story could not have been more pure and well intentioned. I can assure you corporate entities are going to be analyzing this event for some time.
With a combination of ownership, lede hook, community, a savvy core audience of Twitter users, and above all scarcity, this became the holy grail of marketers everywhere. It remains to be seen if the story reached the Prime Minister’s office, [EDIT] but time will tell.
#odinbirthday Tomorrow and the days after that, remember to be kind to all the Odin’s out there. Thank you Odin & Mom for sharing your day
— Mark Davenport (@markdavenport) March 21, 2015
– This article is based on my class notes from a videography course I teach at a local college, with references taken from local news sources regarding this event.