Meet the captain of the world’s first viral marketing success

 

Can you imagine being in charge of marketing and watch your product become the first-ever “viral” success story? 

It was just five years ago. YouTube was brand new.  Facebook was just being opened to the public.  And performance art with Mentos “geysers” became the world’s first video viral sensation.  If you haven’t seen some of this amazing fun, push play above!  Here’s an interview with Pete Healy, who saw it all happen on his watch as vice president of marketing for Perfetti Van Melle USA, makers and distributors of Mentos …

Mark: Pete, it’s hard to imagine a world without the social web. Tell us how the whole Mentos viral event evolved.

Pete:  It was something that could have come and gone in two weeks, but it ended up lasting nearly a year.  To be honest, we didn’t start the “Mentos Geyser Craze” of 2006, but I think we did a good job of inviting people everywhere to participate in the goofy fun. The fountain effect of dropping a Mentos into soda was already known and used by Steve Spangler and other science educators, but in 2006, the performance art duo “Eepybird” decided to make it theatrical by dropping Mentos into 100 bottles of soda simultaneously, with spectacular results.  They posted the video titled “Experiment #137″, an homage to the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas, and it immediately started getting attention–including ours.  By chance we had just re-evaluated the personality of our Mentos brand; and thinking metaphorically, we had decided that if Mentos were a celebrity, it would be Adam Sandler.  What better match than Adam Sandler and shooting off bottles of soda?!

 I’m passionate about building “brands that captivate,” and that means that every time a consumer is pleased by contact with a brand, they should have the chance for additional contact or “touchpoints.”   This approach led us beyond supporting an Eepybird sequel to a “DIY Mentos Geyser” video contest microsite, a chance to hang with the street team of the Mentos Roadshow tour, an opening video segment for a Blue Man Group national tour, and “Party with Mentos” photo uploads during Spring Break 2007.  The craze culminated in the first Guiness Book of World Records “Mentos Geyser” event at Fountain Square in Cincinnati, when 504 bottles of soda were “shot off” at once.  It was a hot day, so that soda splashing down on all the volunteers who turned out to help was kind of fun!

 When we talk about “viral” what did that really mean in terms of views or whatever?

The impact was amazing to us, especially since we were still figuring the social web out. Ultimately there were more than 7 million viewings of the first Mentos Geyser video and it took only five days to hit 1 million views of the sequel, “Experiment #214.”  From the standpoint of User Generated Content, there were more than 10,000 videos created and posted by people doing their own Mentos Geysers; the comic effect of the ones done indoors tended to offset any aesthetic shortcomings!  For our own “official” video contest, we had to pick a winner out of 200 entries.

While you facilitated the viral event, you mentioned to me that Coca Cola, the other piece of the geyser formula, reacted in a much different way.

Yes, the difference came out early on when the Wall Street Journal called me to ask our feelings about the spread of the first geyser video.  I could genuinely say that we were delighted by the creativity, fun, and whimsy of the effort. After all, Mentos is candy — fun by definition. The WSJ reporter told me that, in contrast, Coca Cola’s first reaction had been that this whole thing didn’t fit the Coke brand, although they later seemed to change their thinking.

It’s remarkable to me that you had the foresight back then to let the thing roll and disconnect it from a traditional marketing perspective.   What were the results?  Where you able to connect this event to sales in any way?

For better or worse, I guess my approach was the result of my own personality, along with my previous work at Jelly Belly, another fun brand with a lot of passion behind it.  My years launching and building Jelly Belly in international markets–including countries where people had no idea what a regular jelly bean was, much less a “gourmet jelly bean” selling at a crazy-high price, led me to a marketing approach that mixes a “why not?” attitude with some very carefully defined measures of progress.  In any case, the Mentos Geyser craze resulted in a year-over-year sales boost of 20%; this eventually dropped to a 15% y-o-y gain, but that’s still not too bad.

You’ve had a wonderful career in traditional marketing and are now at the forefront of the social web. What challenge do you see as these two worlds collide? 

Great question, and one I sometimes struggle with. There seems to be so much froth and frenzy over social media that I worry about marketers getting distracted by “bright shiny objects” to the detriment of making their brands truly more meaningful.  Until the day we’re all chained to computer screens 24/7,  consumers will continue to want contact with brands in many different ways and places, from in-store sampling to event marketing to fantastic customer service to active support for charitable causes. 

The social web clearly has the power to amplify the total brand experience; but brand marketers will be hurting themselves if they put all their eggs in that basket, either from infatuation or peer pressure.  

Pete, final question. In your career, you were also behind the amazing Jelly Belly marketing effort. If you had to describe me as a jelly bean candy flavor, what would it be?

Well, I’d have to go into the Jelly Belly flavor archives and say…Espresso!  Straight-ahead, high-octane, great balance … one of my all-time favorite flavors. 

Additional reading: Business Week article on how Coke finally embraced viral marketing.

Pete Healy is currently the director of Crowbar Marketing in Cincinnati, OH.

Is bigotry good for business?

The comment sections in some blogs, and many online community newspapers, is becoming a cesspool of bigotry, sexism and intolerance. Nobody has struggled more with the idea of online community than the American press.

I’ve wondered why newspapers, who have so staunchly defended the integrity of the published word, would suddenly open the floodgates of stupidity just because the forum has moved to the Internet.  My conclusion: Bigotry must be good for business.  My friend Jack Lail disagrees.  Jack is the much-respected News Director of Innovation for the Knoxville News Sentinel and a pioneer in online media.  He’s re-thinking the newsroom in the context of the digital era and dealing with these difficult issues every day.

Jack and I sparred on his blog recently and he has agreed to a point-counterpoint format for {grow}.

Mark’s point:

If I submit a letter to the editor of the newspaper and comment on a news story or issue, it has to come with clear proof of who I am, and even then might be subject to editing for appropriateness. Why then, would the same newspaper allow the public commentary in their online versions to turn into a virtual free-for-all of hate?  It just doesn’t make sense except that if the newspapers didn’t allow that liberal allowance for sensationalism, another media outlet or blog will — and there goes the readership and the page views that drive advertising revenues, just when traditional media need it most.

Nothing drives page views like controversy, and nothing drives controversy better than a redneck pissing match fueled by the anonymity of an online comment forum.

Some newspapers have justified this practice by explaining that our country has an important tradition of anonymous dissenters like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.  But the irony is, serious dissent found on an op-ed page would require editorial identification, while the ugliness in the comment section goes unabated.

I believe the press has applied their standards inconsistently for economic reasons. They fear the anonymous comments (and readership they generate) will go elsewhere if regulated online. True?

Jack’s counterpoint:

The short answer is Web site operators don’t have the same legal liability in online comments as print publishers have with printed letters to the editors.

Yes, I believe comments increase the “stickiness” and time on site and a sense of community that articles alone can’t achieve. Anecdotally, I often hear people say the comments were better than the story (maybe in an entertaining if not enlightening way).

But basically, I don’t view comments as “letters to the editor.” I often find them more akin to callers on talk radio, where people are identified as “Jim” or “caller from Knoxville.” (If you applied the “same rigorous identification standards” to radio call-in shows, they wouldn’t have any callers.) The dynamics of online story comments are similar to what happens in forums and fairly open mailing lists.

They are, I think, a participatory experience unique to the online medium and whose benefits outweigh its negatives. That said, we’re still grappling with ways to minimize the negatives without stifling the speech.

Do we have story comments merely to generate additional page views? Maybe, but I suspect the cost of managing comments negates nearly all of the additional revenue. A page view on a news story is worth at best just a couple cents.

As Google’s economist Hal Varian recently said: “The fact of the matter is that newspapers have never made much money from news.”

Where does the {grow} community come down on this issue?   Over to you …

This dialogue was inspired by a post that originally appeared on Jack’s excellent blog, Random Mumblings. His original post also contains many important references on this issue.  For another timely perspective on the subject of hateful comments, read Jeff Jarvis’ blog post this week.

Is your company built to blog?

Every company is getting into blogging it seems but somany people seem to be struggling with it   What would you guess the biggest problem is?

Not enough content?

Not enough budget and/or resources?

Poor writing skills?

No, not usually.  These are the obvious aspects of the care and feeding of a blog but many organizations overlook the ORGANIZATIONAL requirements to successfully execute a blogging strategy. Your company has to have the right culture to sustain a blog.

If your company blog is floundering, keep reading. You might see something familiar!  Some signs that you company may not be built to blog:

  • Corporate culture mis-match — You need to build your strategy around the realistic capabilities of your company culture.  As grandma used to say, you have to deal with what is, not what you wish for.  If your CEO simply is not going to blog, deal with it.  If he is not going to tweet, forget it.  Move on.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be successful, you just have to adjust. Your culture is your culture. Your blog isn’t going to change it.  But your blog can probably conform to your situation and still have an impact.
  • Lack of executive sponsorship– On a related topic, if you’re counting on a “grassroots” effort to establish a company blog, you’re setting yourself up for problems.  To be successful in the long-term, you must have support from the top. Why? That’s the person with the purse strings and resources. That’s the person setting the strategy.  And if a blog doesn’t fit in the picture, you’re vulnerable. If you need to sell your boss on the concept, you might start here.
  • Lack of executive engagement — To really build community, you need your executives to be involved in the planning of content and engagement of your audience.  Some executives will relish this opportunity. Others will hate it. If your boss is in the second group, you need to lower expectations. I’m not saying executives actually have to blog … but they have to be involved.
  • Unwieldy politics. Every organization has politics.  But when everybody is trying to own a piece of your blog, watch out. If you find that Legal, HR and the janitorial staff demands to approve your blog, it might be a sign that your company is just not built to blog. Remember, the beauty of the social web is an ability to react.  Pages and pages of blogging and content guidelines might be a sign of trouble.
  • Unrealistic expectations — … and her brother “impatience.”  It takes time to connect and build an audience.  If your boss is making your employment contingent on the number of blog comments you get, it might be time to leave : )

Any of this sound familiar?  What are your experiences with corporate culture and blogging success?

Illustration: toothpastefordinner.com

Exploding the “It’s all about the conversation” social media myth

One of the most pervasive mantras of the social media hype circus is that it’s “all about the conversation” with your customers.  But if you look at what’s really happening out there I think you can conclude this is a load of hooey.

To understand the shortcomings of “conversation” on the social web, let’s look at what happens in the old-school format of the focus group.  The focus group is one of the most popular qualitative methods for determining consumer wants and needs because it’s a relatively inexpensive and quick way to get feedback and ideas.  There are many formats, but generally you get a group of consumer volunteers together and, with the help of a skilled facilitator, conduct a “conversation” about the company, product, service, etc.

The biggest downfall of the focus group is that is nearly  impossible to get feedback that represents the true views of your target consumers. First, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in participating in these groups and second, the feedback tends to center around the most dominant members of the group. A real danger is that feedback of an entire group can be influenced by the forceful opinions of the brash few.

In most cases, the social web does not represent a true “conversation” with customers.  It is, at best, an un-moderated, non-representative focus group dominated by aggressive personalities likely to complain and force their view on others. Are you really having a “conversation” with your customers and prospects  if …

a) It’s only in English?

b) It’s only with people who have time to be active on the social web?

c) It’s with the minuscule percentage of people who are likely to engage on a subject?

d) It’s with people who may not even be the core users of your product?

e) It excludes people who are simply shy or quiet?

Experienced marketers can see this trap. We can also look at the wonderful opportunities of the social web and put them into proper context.  But I’m afraid the “social media conversation” is another over-hyped sound bite from the new age gurus eager to play on the fear of somehow being left out. If I hear “it’s all about the conversation” one more time I think I’ll lose my cookies.

Look, there are TREMENDOUS opportunities presented by the social web and there are lots of ways to have social conversations that are meaningful. The {grow} community on this blog is an example.  Tapping into real-time sentiment is another. Every marketer should be immersed in this channel to figure out what really makes sense for their company and brand. But don’t check your brain at the door because you’re afraid of being left out of this “conversation.”

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