What Kanye & Taylor Swift Taught Us About Going Viral

September 14, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Online Marketing

fakeWe don’t trust marketing. We’ve been lied to and taken advantage of so many times that we don’t know what’s true, what’s manufactured or even who it is that’s trying to get something from us. To protect ourselves, we question everything and everyone.

Unless you spent last night in the same bubble Rae apparently did, you heard about Kanye. You heard about it, you yelled out about what a freakin’ douchebag he is, and then you started questioning its legitimacy. I mean, surely it was planned, right? Even if Taylor didn’t know about it (did you see that poor child’s face?), Kanye knew it was going to happen. MTV must have known. Kanye got on that stage far too easily. Reports of what happened were made public too quickly, complete with real video.

Even if everyone didn’t know, someone did. Which is why it failed.

But, of course, MTV is known for the drama, especially at its award shows.

  • In 1984, Madonna rolled around the floor singing about virgins.
  • In 1992, Nirvana guitarist Krist Novoselic made headlines when he threw his guitar over this head…and then watched it hit him in the face.
  • In 1994, Michael Jackson appeared on stage with new wife Lisa Marie Presley…and then made out with her. #birthcontrol
  • In 1995, a-not-all-there Courtney Love hijacked Madonna’s live interview with Kurt Loder and caused a scene.
  • In 2000, Tim Commerford of Rage Against The Machine forgot to take his crazy pills and began scaling the scenery, with Fred Durst daring him to jump.
  • In 2007, the Britney train wreck continued with her half-asleep performance of “Gimme More”.

We are a culture that loves drama. But all of that was real drama. It was very different from this summer’s VMAs Bruno/Emimen stunt. That wasn’t real. That was a gimmick. And it backfired. It made people angry.

Gimmicks hurt brands. The more you try to get attention by stealing it, the more consumers will resent you and lose trust in what you’re offering. No one likes being tricked. When you overly plan viral, you end up insulting your audience’s intelligence. You alienate them. You offend them.

You fail.

As a brand, you need to find a way to create GENUINE viral content on a regular basis. You do that by being unexpected and by taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

When Katrina hit, Walmart reacted fast and put themselves at the forefront of the disaster. They earned the title of “hero” by stepping in to donate supplies to those affected and lending a hand wherever they could. Walmart, a hero. A company usually attacked for stealing jobs and hurting our economy. Suddenly, in that moment, they’re loved. Imagine how the story would have changed had it been discovered 24 hours later that Walmart actually caused Katrina with the help of a huge weather machine and some good lighting. It wouldn’t have been quite the same. It would have been a gimmick and manufactured. We would have shunned it.

There are opportunities to be great and viral within your grasp every day. All you need do is take them. Look for those natural opportunities and find ways to tie your brand to great things.

Beyonce did. Sitting in the audience, minding her own business, Beyonce was thrown into what would be THE story of the night. And she used it.

When Beyonce won the award for Video of the Year, she called Taylor Swift back up on stage, gave her the spotlight, and let her finish her speech. And do you know what happened the moment she did that? The crowd roared and I STARTED BAWLING. No, I did. Like a moron, right there in my living room. Because that moment wasn’t staged. It was real and it was authentic. There was an opportunity for Beyonce to change the morning’s headlines and she took it. And as a result, she’s now credited with having one of the Best Ever Moments Of The VMAs.

That’s how you become viral. You do it the right away by keeping your eyes open and taking advantage of the very natural opportunities that present themselves. And because she did viral in a real way, today, we adore her. The trust metrics associated with her brand have soared. When we think of Beyonce, we think of greatness, of class, and our own mentors that helped us along the way. She’s a brand we love. In this moment, we would buy whatever Beyonce was selling. Her moment from last night is the best kind of viral because it wasn’t staged. It just happened.

You can only be Kanye so many times before you blow enough holes in your brand to destroy it. Before people stop trusting you, before they lose respect for you, before they simply stop listening and tune you and your bullshit out. As marketers, we need to evolve beyond that.  We need to be honest. We need to stop staging situations and start looking for the  real ones staring us in our face. That’s what our customers want. Those are the moments they’re drawn to and will sit crying in their living room over.

That’s what Kanye and Taylor taught us about viral marketing last night – that we’re done being tricked.

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