Recently, The New York Times, in bold headlines, reported the blindingly obvious: New York’s Times Square is a remarkable place. Of course, marketers have known this for years, which is why they invest millions in blinking billboards and lunatic street stunts. Consumers know it too, which is why so many of them flock there as tourists. But recently, our fascination with Times Square has begun to mutate. It’s not enough to have your advertisement seen in Times Square — there’s so much competition, after all.
Now, the ultimate goal is to have your advertisement photographed. That’s right: Charmin Toilet Paper set up clean and appealing porta-potties in Times Square as a promotion for their product. And they noticed that consumers weren’t just using them. They were photographing them. By the droves. With cameraphones and digital cameras, scores of tourists have been capturing Charmin’s visual message and taking it home with them to show family and friends, and even posting it on their blogs. Talk about viral marketing!
I personally noticed this phenomenon just a week or two ahead of the Times’s eagle-eyed reporters. Our agency had been helping Samsung with their own Times Square promotion to publicize the launch of the Blu-Ray DVD format. A billboard showed video clips of a character dressed in blue named Ray (get it, Blu-Ray) and consumers on the ground could vote on what sort of movie Ray should watch.
If they voted for “tearjerker” they saw him yanking out tissues; if they voted for “comedy” they saw him hysterically laughing, and so on. Neat stuff. The promotion had recently launched, and I wanted to see it in action for myself. I stumbled into Times Square not knowing exactly where the billboard was, and I was a little bit overstimulated and not sure where to look.
Then I noticed: lots of tourists were pointing their cameras in the same direction: uptown and 45 degrees skyward. Click click click! You couldn’t miss it. I traced back the line of sight to see what they were photographing and, sure enough, there was Blue Ray, bawling as he watched a tearjerker. Following that came the names that consumers had texted in when they voted: Alex. Franco. Monica. Click click click — more cameras! After all, who wouldn’t want a picture of their own name in lights in Times Square?
Samsung was surely benefiting from the very same phenomenon as Charmin. It wasn’t just the consumers in that Times Square that day that had experienced their promotion. It was all those people turbo charged by an amazing viral multiplier: by being unique, interesting and most of all personal, a fairly ordinary brand had unleashed what is sometimes known as a viral meme. Lots of marketers claim to be doing “viral marketing” but whether intended or not, this was the real deal.
There’s a lesson here for all marketers, but I believe it has particular resonance for mobile marketing. Mobile marketing is still a new discipline. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns here and here, one of the greatest benefits of mobile is that it is highly measurable and accountable. But because it is so new, mobile market still has the ability to dazzle otherwise jaded consumers. No one sends an urgent email to their friends alerting them to a super-cool ad banner or popup. Maybe in 1997, but not now. But, hey, if you can help consumers do something cool with their cellphones, that still gets talked about, and photographed, and forwarded to friends, and posted to blogs.