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Go Viral
Go Viral

Not content with your content? Discover how Oreo cookies, a flying albino squirrel, and an Australian comedy duo (in the strangest college commercial you’ll ever see) earned huge views online.

By Cameron Pegg


Art credit: DraftFCB New York, 360i, Weber Shandwick, and MediaVest for Oreo Daily Twist

If you want to revamp your institution's content marketing strategy, look to the cookie. Higher education communications and marketing professionals can learn some valuable storytelling lessons from Oreo.

Marketers for the iconic brand induce cookie cravings through clever visual messages on Facebook; Twitter; and more recently, Instagram. To celebrate its 100th birthday, Oreo launched its "Daily Twist" social media campaign in June 2012. Playing on the well-known technique of twisting off the top of the sandwich cookie, designers treated its parts as a palette for reinterpreting current events, holidays, and commemorations—generating tons of buzz in the process. (Mashable called it "sort of a Google Doodle for the brand.") On June 25, Oreo posted the campaign's first image on Facebook: a cookie stuffed with rainbow-colored cream layers above the comment "Proudly support love!" in honor of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. The message inspired both goodwill and outrage; some customers vowed to boycott the product. But whether positive or negative, consumers engaged with the brand. The post collected more than 295,000 likes, nearly 60,000 comments, and over 90,000 shares. (Bonus: The company publicly stated its values and support for diversity and inclusiveness in media interviews about the controversy.)

Other fun and successful examples from the campaign include an Oreo likeness of the giant panda Shin Shin, who gave birth at a Tokyo zoo in July 2012; one month later, a tribute to the landing of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover featured tire tracks running through the cookie's red filling. In February 2013, when the Superdome in New Orleans lost power during Super Bowl XLVII, the brand's marketing team reminded the football game's more than 108 million viewers that they could still dunk their cookies in the dark. The timely tweet "Power out? No problem," accompanied by a picture of a dimly lit Oreo, earned nearly 16,000 retweets. On Facebook, the post received more than 21,000 likes and almost 7,000 shares.

Oreo's marketers are skilled at newsjacking, the act of intercepting and interpreting news or current events to benefit a brand. It's a tactic that can help your institution achieve the exponential peer-to-peer social sharing that is the holy grail of content marketing.

Some college and university leaders may consider a viral content strategy to be too risky, frivolous, or unpredictable for the important work of recruiting students, reaching out to alumni, and securing financial support for research priorities, but institutions that are savvy enough to experiment are reaping the rewards. Their successful strategies provide a compelling blueprint for engaging audiences.

Listen up

Most educational institutions are guilty of broadcasting. Slick home page banners that trumpet the latest rankings success or urge prospective students to start an application may align with your institution's messages and goals, but do they resonate with your target audiences? Does your website stay fresh by promoting trending content?

Reddit, a sprawling online community that's often called the front page of the Internet, is a place where people can discuss just about anything via a list of growing topics, known as subreddits. Last July, a group of astronomy graduate students at New York's Cornell University hosted an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, a moderated Q-and-A interview that's a hallmark of the popular site. The forum and format, which are open to anyone, have attracted high-profile participants such as U.S. President Barack Obama, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, Korean pop star PSY, and members of Monty Python. After noticing an uptick in questions when users post popular astronomy articles to Reddit, volunteer members of Cornell's Ask An Astronomer team used the platform to answer questions about supernovas, aliens, the planetary status of Pluto, and more. The conversation snowballed, producing nearly 1,200 questions and comments in an eight-hour period. The volunteers reached thousands of potential students and supporters, and demonstrated the value and expertise of the university's astronomy program. The team also provided a masterful example of audience engagement with a tool that is curiously underused by educational institutions.

Reddit is a powerful incubator of viral content. Its simple voting mechanism, where users promote or demote content by voting it up or down, dictates what rises to the top, thereby gaining exposure among the site's millions of users. Make it to the Reddit home page and your social media metrics will explode.

"Reddit as an online force is something we all need to be aware of. It thrives on the weird and wonderful, which is important when it comes to making something go viral," says Ma'ayan Plaut, manager of social strategy and projects at Oberlin College in Ohio. "For something to go viral on Reddit, it's rarely self-promotion. It's people noticing something online and bringing it back to a community that trusts them."

A reason the Cornell graduate students' Reddit session was successful is that it wasn't all about them, which is one of Scott Donaton's "10 Commandments of Content." As Donaton, global chief content officer at media agency Universal McCann in New York, wrote in a post on Fast Company's Co.Create blog: "Content must provide entertainment, education, or utility. Stop focusing on what you want to say, and start listening to what your audiences want to talk about."

Lighten up

In early 2012, Australian comedians Henry Inglis and Aaron McCann demolished the boundaries of college web advertising by creating a two-minute video for the Central Institute of Technology that was part thank you, part repayment for their alma mater's investment in their successful 2011 web series, Henry & Aaron's 7 Steps to Superstardom. Aware of the pair's popularity among students, the only condition that Kenley Gordon, head of marketing at Central, placed on the dark-humored duo was that the final product should align with the Australian institution's brand campaign "You learn more in the city."
It's a Snap video

In It's a Snap, McCann snaps his fingers to teleport the pair to different campus locations, where he touts Central's latest technology, course offerings, and learning labs. Unfortunately, their mode of travel leads to impalement and severed limbs—gruesome sights that don't typically appear in institutionally approved ads. Yet within a week of appearing on Central's YouTube channel, the gross-out video garnered more than a million views and a record number of visits to the institution's home page.

As executive producer, Gordon saw the script in advance and had no desire to change it. "It wasn't like a regular TV commercial where you change this word here and put a logo here. If you did that it would change the whole essence of the video."

With 3 million YouTube views and counting, the video has encouraged Gordon's team members to increase their social media output and approach content creation differently.

"We take ourselves a lot less seriously now," he says. "You realize that if you're doing something, it should have an entertainment value."

For Gordon, the unprecedented brand awareness generated by the video is the key outcome. Converting the buzz into greater student numbers will occur later. Based on this experience, he says the lesson for institutions is clear: Experiment with viral content or miss out.

"If [institutions] say, ‘We can't take the risk,' they are cutting off a real opportunity," Gordon says. "Every brand wants to touch people's hearts, and the only way you're going to do that online is if you make them laugh or cry."

Be creative

On April Fools' Day in 2012, Oberlin's web team gave a nod to the college's unofficial mascot by letting a flying albino squirrel take over its home page. Capitalizing on the popular Nyan Cat meme—a flying cat with a cherry Pop-Tart body that became a YouTube sensation in 2011—Oberlin's home page wished visitors a "Happy April First" with a nonstop Nyan squirrel, complete with the clunky 8-bit animation graphics of a 1980s video game and the Japanese pop song that Nyan Cat made world famous on YouTube. The squirrel soared across the screen for as long as the viewer would allow (or could stand it). Clicking "tweet score" automatically populated a Twitter message displaying the amount of time that someone "nyaned at," which alerted the person's followers to what was happening on the college's website. (Visitors could also bypass the animation and go to the regular Oberlin home page or click on the "Confused?" link to learn about the web team's high jinks.) On average, people spent 43 seconds "nyaning."
Oberlin College's April Fools' Day joke

News of the prank spread via social media soon after midnight on Sunday, April 1, with dozens of students and alumni tweeting their love for the institution and prospective students stating their intention to apply for admission. Typical home page traffic on a Sunday totals about 5,000 daily views, but this particular day saw more than 42,000 views—with 84 percent coming from new visitors. More than half the traffic came from Reddit, demonstrating the social bookmarking site's ability to generate buzz.

Not content with its squirrel success, Oberlin's web team upped the ante (but turned down the noise) for April Fools' Day 2013 by transporting visitors to "Meowberlin"—a feline version of the home page featuring a slider with images of local kittens and unaltered institutional messaging. The site logged more than 48,000 unique visitors during the 24-hour period, with Facebook driving 30 percent of traffic to the site.

Creating Meowberlin, which debuted two weeks after the launch of the college's newly redesigned home page, led the web team to think differently about the site's existing content, wrote Plaut in a blog post. "How do we show off what we do here? What we care about? The people who make things? Convey our story? … For me, it becomes a three-part chant: Make [content] fun, make it beautiful, make it shareable."

Implementations like Meowberlin encourage not only creativity, Plaut says, but also a better understanding of the people whom you want to engage with and the content that makes them click.

"It's a reflection of listening to and reacting accordingly to your audience," she says. "To me, that's the part that's worth it—doing the right thing by you and your audience. That's the viral that matters."

Understanding the content that attracts your online supporters and ambassadors is crucial to reaching critical mass, agrees Justin Ware, director of interactive communication at consulting firm Bentz Whaley Flessner in Minneapolis.

"Content has the opportunity to go viral when it fulfills a common need or desire of your audience," he says. "If you know the profiles of your supporters, especially your ambassadors, you can create content that anticipates their online activity and has a higher likelihood of going viral."

Think visually

Infographics are one of the most effective yet overlooked types of viral content. Visual content reigns supreme on social media, but graphic representations of information and data are often missing from the mix of materials advancement shops use to tell stories about institutional priorities and successes. Infographics can distill an issue or a call to action in a compelling, more easily understood manner, allowing complex, esoteric statistics to speak to a global audience.
Sample of McMaster University's infographic news releases

In 2012, McMaster University in Canada traded the traditional news release, where possible, for infographic news releases. The goal: Cut through the deluge of informational clutter reporters receive with timely visual storytelling. As the Summer Olympics in London approached, McMaster released "The Science Behind an Elite Athlete," a simple infographic highlighting the athletic and event-related topics that university experts could address. The innovative effort earned positive feedback from journalists around the world as well as a 2013 CASE Circle of Excellence award.

Since then, McMaster has used the technique to generate news coverage on topics such as the National Hockey League's labor dispute and the effort required to burn off Thanksgiving dinner calories. With a diverse and growing portfolio of research projects that require fundraising support, the potential impact of infographics in higher education is immense.

Create a new content culture

What social media platforms will complement your institution's current approach to providing content? Who should be involved in brainstorming and distributing content?

This infographic offering tips for devising and sharing content

The infographic on the left offers tips for devising and sharing content that's more likely to go viral and suggests ways to encourage people to think in terms of viral content. For instnce, conversations about viral stategy should be a part of every meeting and a starting point for planning campaigns and projects.

If the results of a survey I conducted on viral marketing last fall are any indication, your biggest challenge may be convincing your boss that it's worth the effort. (See the sidebar below.) But integrating viral content into your daily work will unlock opportunities that outweigh the risks. Who knows? Your institution might even become a trending topic during the next Super Bowl.

About the Author Cameron Pegg

Cameron Pegg is the executive officer for the deputy vice chancellor and provost at Griffith University in Australia. He contributes to the CASE blog and The Australian newspaper.




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