This is a guest post from Mitch Joel — President, Mirum and author of “Six Pixels of Separation.” His new book “CTRL ALT Delete” was released in May 2013. See the original post this is adapted from and more like it on his blog.

Make them cry.

When speaking to marketers about what kind of advertising works, the answer still remains the same: Brands must leave a true impression. How is this done? You have to tug at the consumer’s heart, by eliciting a deep and emotion pull from within. Most brands try to do this through laughter (we share and remember the things that make us laugh). Getting consumers to think is much harder (people always want to think, but the stuff that we all find interesting and stimulating — at that level — is a challenge). Getting them to cry can work, but it can be a slippery slope. Crying can also connect a consumer to the emotions of sadness or loss. Getting a consumer to cry out of happiness is a tall order.

In the past year, we have seen a sharp rise in brands creating viral videos (also known as stuntvertising) where they help people in need, or randomly surprise your average human being (mostly those that are less fortunate) by giving them free/great things. They happen mostly around the holiday season (for obvious reasons). The advertising “win” comes in filming the recipients’ reactions and sharing them on YouTube with the same narrative format as those Hallmark movies on TV. It tugs at your heartstrings (there must be some dust in my eyes…).

When done well, these videos have worked. They have raked in millions upon millions of views on YouTube, while generating an unprecedented amount of earned media through new reports in all of the mass media channels (which gives the story much more lift). Canadian airline, WestJet, nailed this last year with their, WestJet Christmas Miracle (over 40 million views on YouTube), and brands have followed suit — at a relentless pace — to replicate this success. Many media pundits see this as a much more enjoyable format than the standard thirty-second spot fare. Others, find it somewhat exploitation and inauthentic.

Either way, this trend reached a frenetic pace as brands raced towards this past year’s holiday season. It seemed like everyone was hunting for the next WestJet viral video sensation. Some achieved a semblance of success, others failed to capture the audience’s attention. Still, the desire for brands to look good, while giving to those less fortunate became a much bigger trend in advertising.

This is how you do it.

Regardless of your musical preferences, Taylor Swift did something fairly similar to the videos mentioned above, and it’s hard to deny how much more powerful the outcomes are.

Watch this: Taylor Swift’s Gift Giving of 2014

She published the video on YouTube this past New Year’s Eve. Now, she’s at 16.6 million views and counting. It started off as something that became known as #TayLurking. Every detail of a fan’s likes, job, and whereabouts were studied intently by Swift, and then she would put a single Santa emoji on some of her fan’s social spaces. What happened next, is documented in the video above. For all of the brands wondering why their “viral videos” didn’t crack through, there are some tremendously powerful learnable moments from this initiative that are worth thinking about when it comes to marketing in the social era (as Nilofer Merchant likes to call it):

1. Fans first.

Brands try to make videos like this so that consumers will consider them in the future. Swift’s video works, because she is connecting with people who are already fans. They don’t want to hear from her… they’re dying to hear from her.

2. Personalize.

She took the time to get to know them… personally. Each gift — even the notes/cards — were deeply personal. She just didn’t give them all the same flat-screen.

3. Take the time.

Swift spent time. Real time. Real time in her fans’ social spaces getting to know them. She chose gifts for them, that she felt would matter… she didn’t ask them what they wanted (and she probably ignored fans who were busy listing off the things that they wanted for the holidays). The only way to give something meaningful, is to spend the time getting to know the person, obviously.

4. I see you.

People want to be seen. They want to know that they matter. The people who received gifts were surprised not only by the gifts, but by the acknowledgement that Swift knows them by name. You could tell, that having Swift know their names was worth more than the gifts. Know your customers.

5. Be thankful.

Swift demonstrated the power of “thank you” coupled with care. It wasn’t just a handshake, autograph, and selfie moment, where the celebrity looks like they’re being pulled through a conveyer belt into a blur. The video is authentic, because Swift is authentic in being thankful to those that appreciate her work. She took these moments to not only thank them for being fans, but to be thankful for having fans. How many brands have ever done that last part?

6. Be real.

There has been many media reporting about how “manufactured” Swift actually is. If this is the case, she is a very good actor… and she fooled me (and others). This video was a real moment. And, even if it wasn’t, I’m sure it felt very real to her fans. The point is this: you can’t fake being real (and, if you can, good on you for being skilled enough to pull it off).

7. Regular people.

It doesn’t always have to be someone in need (but don’t forget about those people, either). This wasn’t about every fan that is also a pity case. She chose regular fans. People who are working hard to get by. The people we all like to be around. It wasn’t about a sob story and a moment to exploit it. It was about the people in her community.

There are probably many more lessons that you have come up with, so… what are they?


About Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel is President of Mirum — an award-winning Digital Marketing and Communications agency. He is also a blogger, podcaster, journalist, speaker, and the author of "Six Pixels of Separation" and "CTRL ALT Delete." Mitch is frequently called upon to be a subject matter expert for BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Marketing Magazine, Profit, Strategy, Money, The Globe & Mail, and many other media outlets.

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