my God, they’re throwing guitars out there

So over the course of about two weeks, a Canadian folk singer has brought United Airlines to its knees with over 3 million views (and growing) of this viral video:

There’s been lots of talk online and in the MSM about how this is a great customer service lesson in the new economy. And it is. United has even said they will be using it in their internal training.

The customer service angle is the most important, but I think there are four other big lessons here:

Presentation counts.

There are thousands of consumer gripes at this very moment on twitter, facebook, youtube, individual blogs, and every other web thingy you can think of. What made this one stick and go national?

It’s because it’s well done.

The first time I watched the video, I watched the entire 4:36 (and then watched it again) and you probably did too. By comparison, see how long you can make it through another United Airlines consumer complaint video.

Unless they have no life and unlimited time, people will choose to spend their time with engaging online content instead of stuff they have to struggle to digest.

And the important part for online virility: they won’t pass it on unless it’s really good. Think about your other WOM recommendations to friends. “That restaurant is awful. You should go!”

You still need big media to make a big impact

The video got a response from United within a short time of being posted, but it didn’t really take off into the stratosphere until several new and old media like the Consumerist, LA Times, NY Times, CNN, and other “big guys” featured the video. It might have taken off itself, but these Digg/Oprah-type spotlights amplified the user-level passalong effect to make it go viral. It also helped that Sons of Maxwell already had a fanbase that could help spread the message.

You have to have a base to push off of — if you’re going to jump high.

Don’t back down

United has offered Dave compensation for his guitar and he refused, requesting that United give the money to charity (United is donating $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz). And he is going ahead with the other two songs of his promised United trilogy.

In the end, he is going to come out way ahead. Taylor guitars has offered him some new guitars, other airlines are offering seats, and he and his band now have tremendous publicity.

Learn from your mistakes

It seems that United has no choice except to assume the Duck and Cover position for now. They’ve made the donation. The other songs are coming. (I hope one of them explains the sombreros.) At the minimum, the upcoming second one will get publicity. And United has said they are going to learn from the experience

Rob Bradford, managing director of customer solutions at United, called Carroll Wednesday to apologize for the foul-up and to ask if the carrier could use the video internally to help change its culture.

(My first suggestion: eliminate stupid titles like “managing director of customer solutions”)

I’d love to see a case study or something come out of United on how they handled this. I think they actually have an opportunity to shine here if they don’t mess it up. The best thing they could do? Offer to help Dave to make the third video a happy ending.

UPDATE (7/17/09): I have thought of a fifth point. From my perspective, Dave Carroll seems like a nice, decent genuine guy. Being a good guy counts probably more than anything.

Smack them hard on the bottom

Companies haven’t figured out the whole user-created paradigm yet. They know it’s hot and they want to get in on it, but when they try it’s as awkward as someone’s mother trying to hang with her kids’ friends.

Take this example from Tim about Heinz Ketchup.

They asked customers to create ketchup commercials. The winner gets $57,000. — (bet it took 8 brainstorming sessions to turn out that brilliant number) — But it turns out that the commercials are awful (see some here) and there’s been a massive push back from consumers. And now Heinz has spent way too much money and time to get crap.

Here’s the deal. It’s not just letting people run free and do your advertising and marketing for you. The entire new world of marketing involves GUIDING THE CONVERSATION not just throwing something out there and hoping something comes back.

And as with most good marketing ideas these days, businesses are going to look at user-generated campaigns like this and the Chevy Tahoe SUV debacle and never get in on the game. But as with most things, when it’s done right, it will work.

Who’s in control?

First off, this is an a-political post. I have no horse in the race. I’m just looking at the marketing/media issues of this situation.

If you haven’t heard, there’s a web video circulating that uses footage from the classic 1984 Apple spot. However, in this version, Hillary Clinton takes the place of “Big Brother”. And the tagline sends people to the Obama campaign site. See the spot here…

There’s been quite a bit of speculation about if the ad came from the Barack Obama camp. It turns out the answer was “kinda” as someone who worked for an internet strategy firm hired by the Obama campaign did it on their own. (and has been fired for it)

There’s lots of big thoughts here, and I could expand on each of these points, but here are some quick ponderings…

1) Welcome to the Tipping Point for user-generated content and politics. If candidates thought that bloggers were trouble in the last election cycle, they haven’t seen anything yet. Sure, this ad was created by a “professional”, but it could have just as easily been done by anyone else. And the line between professional and homemade with viral web video is miniscule.

2) Wake up. Everyone is now able to create their own political ad (or any kind of ad, for that matter). If you have a message and an internet connection, you have the world’s attention. This has been clear for some time now, but the mainstream has just picked up on it.

3) If you think you can control your marketing mesage, you’re wrong. If two tightly controlled soundbite driven political campaigns can’t control their messaging, what makes you think you can?

4) The thing that I’ve seen no one mention about all this is the fact that Apple’s message was corrupted. I’m sure the iPod generation doesn’t really know the 1984 ad (actually, I could make the argument that not many people outside the advertising world know anything about it). But, it’s something to consider. Is someone going to re-format your focused marketing for their own purpose?

Bottom line: You no longer have dominant control over messages. The best you can hope for is to guide the conversation. If you’re just now figuring this out, you’re in trouble.

Prediction

Prediction: Time Magazine’s announcement of “You” as Person of the Year will be greeted this week in 2 ways…

1) Here in the blogosphere, on You Tube, in WikiPedia, etc…there will be great fanfare that social media has hit the tipping point.

2) The majority of the public will say…”What’s a blog?….”What’s a YouTube?”…”Wiki-what?”

Don’t believe me? Ask the lady behind you in line at the grocery if she’s ever edited a Wikipedia article.

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Names

I just wrapped up 2 exciting action-packed days of analyzing data from a survey. Between walking around bleary-eyed with Excel speadsheets imprinted on my retinas, I noticed something.

The concept of the survey was for people to answer (open-response) what their top preferences were in defined business categories in a certain geographic area.

While most respondants gave a clear answer, there were several of these…
–“that place over on main street”
–“that restaurant over on Samsville Road”
–etc

And even out of those respondants who could name a business…several were misspelled, not exactly the right name, or corrupted in some other way.

Remember, these people are saying this business is their “favorite”. They are self-professed “fans” of this establishment. And yet, some of them can’t properly tell me what it is.

These are the same people that are now being recruited by businesses to be “buzz marketers”, “viral marketers”, “citizen marketers” and whatever other name we can come up with.

Back in the day, if you hired a “spokesperson” and they couldn’t get your name right in the commercials, you’d have fired them. Now you’ve got people you’re encouraging to create marketing content about your business and to spread it. And you can’t fire them. How do you make sure they’re sending the message you want them to?

You can’t. Word of mouth has always been corruptable and always will be. Try to provide the tools that your self-professed fans need to spread the message. The best you can do is to have a strong brand strategy to make sure that your base knows “the story”….and that they at least get your name right.

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Diet Coke Says “Drop Dead” to CGC

In yet another example of companies that “just don’t get it”, Coke is giving a chilly response to some free publicity as some Diet Coke and Mentos fans have used the two products in tandem with some entertaining results. The video of this phenomenon is spreading virally across the internet.

Here’s what the Coke old spokes-fogey Susan McDermott said in the article…”It’s an entertaining phenomenon. We would hope people want to drink it more than try experiments with it.”…McDermott also said that the “craziness with Mentos … doesn’t fit with the brand personality” of Diet Coke.

Let’s see. Some of your loyal customer base is generating free publicity for your product and spreading it virally. Those people and others they inspire are buying OVER 100 2-LITERS each of your product to pull this stunt off. This CGC has reached over 800,000 people so far FOR FREE. But you’re acting like a strict mother at the dinner table saying “Quit playing with your food and drink it” If some of my customer base is helping me to sell over 100 bottles of my product at a pop AND generating free ad/PR value…..I wouldn’t care if they bathed in it.

And by the way…the “brand personality of Diet Coke” could use some freshness anyway. Yet another example of what I beat my head up against the wall saying everyday…You are not in charge of what the brand stands for. You can nurture and help shape the brand. But in the end, the consumer dicates the brand.

The WSJ article compares the actions of Coke to that of FedEx when they cease&desisted themselves out of the free publicity they were getting from the FedEx Furniture guy. The comparison is straight on. It looks like Coke would have learned from the bad PR that the FedEx incident generated. When will companies start learning the lessons of the new marketing framework from other companies’ mistakes?

Mentos is embracing this, encouraging it, and riding it for all it’s worth. Good for them. (The Fresh-maker!)

Coke is not it. (The Stale-maker!)

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UPDATE:: Sorry. I got so carried away with the rant that I forgot the fun part. You can view the original video here. It’s supposed to simulate the water fountain show in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Paving Cowpaths

AdJab reports that Chevy is having trouble with some consumer created content for the Chevy Tahoe.

Users were given some audio and video collateral to work with and given the opportunity to piece them together as they saw fit. Well I don’t think they quite anticipated what might result from giving the kids the keys to the car, so to speak. At least three examples have been found of ads that use the Tahoe as background for rants against the war in Iraq, the dependence of the U.S. on foreign oil and more.

Whoops.

Consumer generated content because people are fans is fabulous news for any company. As happens more often than not though is that the company tries to pull more golden eggs out of the goose than they should….and the goose bites back.

Corporate marketers are seeing what is happening now that the old media barriers are coming down. They’re trying to get in on it and shove it into the traditional forms. What comes out is stuff like Captain Morgan’s blog and this.

Don’t try to herd the cattle. Pave the cowpaths.

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