I have this issue with stuff being described as spreading “organically” because the implication is that there was no outside interference or paid advertising. That the content spread magically from person to person, the way everyone wants to think viral marketing works, even though it’s not true 99% of the time.
99% of the time, you’ll see that, in every story of “viral success”, there’s always some qualifier. “Sure, it went viral, but we bought two million YouTube views to make it happen”. “Sure, our thing went viral, but we wrote a script to auto-follow EVERYONE on Tumblr to grow our customer database”. “Sure, our thing went viral, but what we did was spam Craigslist. “Sure, our thing went viral, but that’s only because Buzzfeed and other blogs made it viral to suit their own business agenda.”
There’s almost always a qualifier. And those qualifiers are important to talk about. Because without mention of the qualifiers, we creates this knowledge gap. “How did that thing spread? Can I see similar results? Who can show me how to do that?” And like with social media marketing, that knowledge gap leads to some pretty terrible people taking advantage of small businesses, big brands, fellow marketers, others in the advertising world, the media, and the rest of us.
I’m not cool with that. You shouldn’t be either. Especially because the media isn’t inclined to do any sort of fact checking when it comes to stuff on the Internet. What I’m about to tell you about is a great example of what happens when a company stretches the truth about their “viral” success and nobody says anything about it.
Let me tell you about Blendtec and their Will It Blend? campaign. Blendtec is a 40-million dollar company based in Orem, Utah. When interviewed about the success of the campaign, former CEO Tom Dickson said the Will It Blend? videos opened “new avenues that have actually brought in somewhere close to six-figures.” (via INC Magazine.) Those avenues include speaking engagements on viral marketing. In 2008, Blendtec actually received a CLIO award for their skillful viral marketing.
The thing is, Blendtec isn’t exactly being honest about its viral marketing success. And judging from the history of all the interviews and reports done on the company since Will It Blend? began, nobody ever questioned the “Six Million Views in the first week” narrative they often push. It’s just chocked up to viral marketing. There’s an implication that people were passing there stuff around organically and without the qualifiers. Whoever runs Blendtec’s Twitter feed told me the following:
Here’s the thing: That’s a total and complete lie as others in the company have stated they used Google Adwords and other forms of paid online advertising to promote their videos. Early on, the Will It Blend? videos also received the same boost as Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager, and Lonelygirl15. All three were featured on the YouTube front page by YouTube editors, and the placement on the front page lead to massive mainstream media coverage which caused their videos to spread. That’s a corporation intervening and making stuff spread, not people spreading things to people organically. Without that placement on the YouTube front page, all three of these video series would have gotten hot briefly, if at all, and then died off forever, the way any meme does.
I’m not too big on companies lying to me, or to anyone, and the Blendtec myth of organic, “viral” success is often repeated in books about word of mouth marketing, “growth hacking”, and viral marketing. So I decided to look into the Blendtec story. At this point, what I found about Blendtec stretching the truth shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s a similar story to the one I documented in Social Media Is Bullshit about Dell bragging to the press about all their Twitter followers, and alleged sales success that came through it, without them mentioning that they were on the Twitter Suggested User List and that’s where the followers were coming from.
Blendtec’s social media manager proceeded to not divulge sales data, which has been par for the course with them since the beginning of the Will It Blend? campaign in 2006. No media report anywhere has actual sales data, only vague statements of “300% increases”, “700% increases”, and “1000% increases”. Well, which is it? Was it a 300% increase? Or a 1000% increase? There are also inconsistencies about what will and won’t blend. Is it just the crowbar that’s always mentioned, or is it bic lighters? Or magnets?
In a feature The New York Times did back in August of 2008, the company’s marketing director, Jeff Robe, conceded a couple of years after the Will It Blend videos first went “viral”, “that commercial buyers still make up the lion’s share of Blendtec’s revenue.” In 2010, during a legal battle between Vitamix and Blendtec, although no sales data has ever been released, Lee Benson of DesertNews.com alluded to the fact that some of the money being used to battle Vitamix came from the successful Will It Blend? campaign. Interestingly enough, the legal battle between Vitamix and Blendtec started the same month the Will It Blend videos wound up online.
It’s also worth noting, if you’re wondering how much a Blendtec blender costs, that they don’t go south of $400. Not exactly a consumer friendly price for the majority of people who share YouTube videos to begin with: Young men and women 18-29 according to PEW. And this is before we get into the whole “80% of YouTube views come from outside the United States” thing that Google has right on YouTube’s press page.
The social media manager then repeated the claim that their stuff was spreading organically without outside interference. As it turns out, they had outside interference literally from Day 1.
The other funny thing about their claim of a totally organic spread is that I conducted an interview with Mr. Nathan Hirst, Global Marketing Analyst at BlendTec. He first joined the company in November of 2006 as a Customer Service Representative (more on that below) and is now the Marketing Manager at Blendtec. This interview was done on September 7th, 2011, while I was working on the manuscript for Social Media Is Bullshit.
So here we have a brand’s social media manager regurgitating the company line to a guy who already spoke to someone higher up in the organization, and knows that the company line of totally organic viral success isn’t true. I guess when you repeat a lie enough times …
But before we get into that, let me share with you one quick thing. I spoke to a few different YouTube employees about the effects on videos when they were featured on YouTube’s front page, back before Google decided to let an algorithm make that decision. The effects can not be understated. A video featured on the front page of YouTube back then resulted in one and three million views for a video placed on the front page within a three day timespan.
Now, nobody is going to argue that the Will It Blend? videos were bad videos. They were interesting and worth sharing, but they claim the videos were spreading on their own successfully is pretty vague and its not clear if they would have stopped spreading on their own without outside interference from YouTube the way any meme typically does. That YouTube front page, back then, was the gateway to mainstream media coverage. It got Chad Vader’s crew to premier an episode on national television, and LonelyGirl on the cover of Wired.
The way stuff organically spreads tends to end pretty abruptly once the content being shared reaches the end of that person’s network. And despite popular belief, most stuff fails to spread beyond a few people that you know. So in all likelihood, the Blendtec videos would have died off if the videos had continued to be spread organically because our own networks are limited.
That means the content has to keep getting inserted into new networks, and that simply would not have happened without some kind of boost. The boost is what makes the “totally organic” argument void.
(That’s not to say that stuff can’t spread organically, or that there are no actual organic success stories, but they’re incredibly rare, and so we have to be really careful as to what we describe as organic and not because that’s where that knowledge gap gets created.)
The boost for Blendtec came when they were featured on YouTube’s front page and exposed to between one million and three million viewers, introducing the content to MANY networks, which also lead to numerous press appearances, which brought the content into many MORE networks. So, the “organic viral success story” they’re using doesn’t fly. Left to its own devices, their videos would have been passed around, cooled off, and then forgotten, just like anything else that’s passed on between people.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad product. And that doesn’t mean they’re bad, unsuccessful videos. But there’s an exaggeration being made that’s extremely shitty and deceptive to consumers and the media.
Here’s what Nathan said to me when I spoke with him for the book:
Blendtec’s Nathan Hirst On The Spread Of Their “Will It Blend?” Videos
B.J.: When was the first “Will It Blend?” video uploaded to Youtube?
Nathan: The first WIB was uploaded to youtube October 29, 2006. It went live on November 1st, 2006.
[Editor's Note: Other sources online state that the video went live on October 30th. Around this time, Google announced their purchase of YouTube in October of 2006. They also entered into a distribution deal with Verizon in November of 2006. Both bits of news were covered breathlessly, so it's reasonable to suggest that the spike in interest in YouTube during that timeframe may have also aided the spread of the Blendtec videos.
As a frame of reference, Blendtec's parent company, K-Tec, was founded in 1975 by Tom Dickson, so for those of you who had asked, Blendtec had been around for a long, long time before YouTube.]
B.J.: What was the idea behind the campaign and what lead you to Youtube?
Nathan: The idea came from our marketing director at the time George Wright. He walked into our demo room and saw wood chips strewn all over the floor. He came to find out that this is how Tom Dickson, owner and CEO of Blendtec, had been testing his blenders since the mid ninety’s. George put together a proposal for the first 5 blends and asked for a budget…Tom gave him $50.00. $50.00 is what led us to YouTube, we couldn’t afford anything else at the time.
[Editor's Note: I don't buy, as a lot of people do, the $50 story. Because someone had to edit and produce those videos, and clearly someone was seeding the content to others once the videos went live. Someone's gotta pay for that manpower, even if the videos themselves only cost $50 to produce.
Also of note: Revver paid Blendtec $15,000 in 2007 for allowing the Will It Blend? videos to be posted on Revver. Before you go thinking Revver brough Will It Blend? a lot of views, Dan Grover, national sales manager at Blendtec, told USA Today: "We're on YouTube to get the audience and Revver to get the money." As the USA Today article pointed out, at the time YouTube had 66 million users in August of 2007, Revver had 2.2 million. So whether or not the campaign itself sold blenders, the ads themselves became profitable if you want to believe the $50 story.]
B.J.: Was the “Will It Blend?” channel and videos featured on the Youtube front page by the Youtube staff?
Nathan: Yes, we were featured on their front page. Any video that is getting a lot of views gets placed on the front page of YouTube.
[Editor's note: A former YouTube editor told me this wasn't always the case. Especially back then when Will It Blend? first uploaded their videos. YouTube today uses an algorithm. YouTube back then used human editors. Sometimes a video was featured because those editors simply liked it, not necessarily because of the number of views it had.
It's not clear how many views Will It Blend? was getting before the boost, although I don't dispute the video was being shared. I do dispute the claim that the video got on the front page entirely because of the views though since the process didn't always work that way back then. And it's hard for Blendtec to say the feature was due to the views because ...]
B.J.: If so, did they contact you about this, and what was the impact this had on your views?
Nathan: No, we were not contacted.[Emphasis added] I would assume that they have some sort of algorithm to determine the videos that should go on the front page. Our views we rapidly increasing at this point and it definitely made the view count go up.
B.J.: For the first video that broke a thousand views, how did that happen? Was it organic or did it come about from other sources like Digg or the Youtube front page?
Nathan: It was organic. People love showing our videos to their friends and family so they spread incredibly fast.
[Editor's Note: Keep reading, the organic claim here isn't true.]
B.J.: What was the campaign’s most successful video and why?
Nathan: The Apple iPad has been our most viewed Will it Blend? The iPad was one of the most anticipated products to hit the market in years. When you destroy something everyone wants, it will definitely evoke sharing. [Emphasis added.]
[Editor's Note: This video went live on April 5th, 2010. YouTube at this point is almost all algorithm based, so there's a lot of factors here, and Blendtec at this point is also on the record as saying they were paying for online ads for their videos. So sure, destroying something everyone wants may "evoke sharing" but people, in part, came across the video through clever SEO marketing and a paid advertising campaign too.
The way YouTube works now is that if a video featuring something that's hot, that people are searching for, it's going to surface higher in the results. So an iPad video is pretty brilliant for that reason alone ... but the other important point here is that, the original video went up in 2006, and then they were featured on the front page, giving them loads of subscribers and viewers. This means that by the time of the iPad video, or the iPhone video that was featured heavily on Digg, they now had, thanks to the front page placement, a ready made audience to share their stuff. And the way the algorithm works now is that if you have a lot of people watching and commenting on the video, the system will trigger and surface the video higher in the search results, bringing it more viewers.
It's interesting to consider how successful that iPad video would have been without the initial front page page exposure that lead to those subscribers and the algorithm's rewarding of the channel having all those subscribers watching the video.
The New York Times also pointed out in the 2008 feature, through comments from Robe, that Blendtec was actively using search terms and riding off them for video views. This casts some doubt on the organic claim because now you have people finding the videos through good SEO marketing, not necessarily because they're being passed around organically.]
B.J.: How long was it between when the campaign started and when the campaign was featured on The Tonight Show?
Nathan: I don’t know the exact date of the tonight show, but it was within the first 3 months. [Emphasis Added]
B.J.: How did The Tonight Show appearance come about? What other mainstream media activities did the campaign appear in?
Nathan: The Tonight Show contacted us about being featured. We were on the Discovery Channel, History Channel, Today Show and many other shows. Every one of them reached out to us first.
[Editor's Note: There was a bit of a fight over whether or not the "Will It Blend?" Wikipedia page should stay or go. Of interest to us is that, in the Talk section on January 8th, 2007, Nathan provided a list of dates and media mentions that include: The Today Show (11/22/06), VH1's Web Junk 20 (11/17/06), a mention in Forbes on 11/3/06, and a blog post on AdAge.com in 11/14/06). Not mentioned? YouTube's front page placement.
If Nathan timeline is accurate, that the first video went live on November 1st, 2006, Seth Godin's popular blog talked about it on November 2nd, 2006, and Forbes mentioned in on November 3rd. Advertising Age then covered it on November 14th. It was then featured on television on VH1 on November 17th and again on The Today Show on November 22nd. If you're wondering how their initial video gained traction and how their original videos first started to spread, now you know. It was good PR. This is great marketing, sure, but that's not exactly "organic" in terms of viral growth, especially because so many external factors were at work here, including the front page placement that may have occurred in this timeframe, meaning the results can't be replicated the way an organic spread potentially could. I'm working to track down the exact day of the front page placement.
Seth Godin mentioned in his original post that he had received a Blendtec Blender from Michael Cader, a former book packager who worked with Godin before founding Publishers Lunch and Publishers Marketplace. Godin confirmed to me that he had received the Blendtec Blender before his original post on November 2nd.
According to his post, Seth was tipped off about the campaign from Michael Chwastiak. I asked Michael if he recalled how he first encountered the Will It Blend? video. He told me, "I remember enjoying Seth's list, and looking for examples to help him & his list as many of his readers did. I probably came across this on Reddit or digg. Neat series, amazed they did so well with it. Never did buy one, no call for it."
Godin, for what it's worth, would later appear in an episode of the show to promote one of his books in 2008. When asked for his perspective as a marketer as to whether or not his awareness of the product prior to being set the video lead to his sharing of it, Godin declined to comment.]
B.J.: What impact, if any, would you say The Tonight Show and your appearances in other media had on views?
Nathan: The media events were all happening so fast that we can’t pinpoint what impact each of them had, but we definitely grew our fan base be being exposed to new people. [Emphasis added]
[Editor's Note: So, you can argue that the sales increase Blendtec always brags, or more likely, the commercial products that make up the "lionshare" of sales, may actually have come from all the mainstream media exposure and not their viral videos...]
B.J.: It’s often reported that there was an increase in sales from the campaign, but would you be able to provide me with any specifics as to what that increase in sales from the campaign was?
Nathan: To date the sales of the product you see in the videos is up 1000%.
[Editor's Note: My Dad has this saying, "1000% of nothing is still nothing", so take that for what it's worth when you don't have any sales data to measure.]
Here’s Why Blendtec’s Will It Blend? Video Really Took Off
1. Early PR coming within days of the first video’s launch. Someone (likely Hirst while he was a Customer Service Rep) was very clearly seeding the video to blogs and outlets like Digg and Reddit. If you take the front page placement on YouTube out of the equation, here’s where you would have seen the video get hot on its own and then fall off like any other meme.
What lends credence to the seeding theory is that on November 17th, 2006, under the username of “Blendtec”, someone at the company made edits to a Will It Blend? Wikipedia page. Sixteen days after the first video went live. There are also numerous edits from IP addresses whose only edits made on Wikipedia were for the Will it Blend? page. December 21st is the first confirmed day that Nathan Hirst made edits to the Wikipedia page. In fact, Hirst was actively policing the Wikipedia page, even going as far to start a new section called “Stop Marking For Deletion” where he stated, “No matter what the cause, “Will It Blend” has become a proven case studied and respected viral marketing campaign. Any further attempts to mark this article for deletion will be promptly removed unless a viable argument is made other that “It’s not notable”. Keep in mind, he’s saying this just over a month after the first video went live and it was featured on YouTube’s front page. So “proven case study” and “respected viral marketing campaign” is a real stretch.
He later backed off with a follow-up note when he stated “After further research about standards on wikipedia, I have come across the guideline that it is considered a conflict of interest for a representative of Blendtec or any of its competitors to participate in any discussion on deletion. I will discontinue my postings, and let the community finish this work. As a side note, any edits I have made were completely by my personal choice and do not reflect the direct opinions of Blendtec.”
That last comment though is pretty shady given how early and actively he was policing the page, going so far as to demand that the community stop marking the page for deletion. Curiously, Hirst is the only one left at Blendtec as Robe and Wright are no longer with the company. Even Tom Dickson stepped down as CEO, so it seems like the history of this campaign today is being re-written by Hirst and others at the company whose involvement in the original campaign were limited or nonexistent. This could explain the social media manager insisting Blendtec didn’t pay for YouTube views while the people who created and worked on the campaign said they had.
Other factors …
2. Good timing given YouTube’s heavy media coverage in October and November of 2006. Also: At the time YouTube wasn’t overwhelmed with people uploading quality, original content. So there was less noise for the videos to compete with for user attention.
3. A front page feature on YouTube.com lead to more mainstream publcity which fueled views and subscriber growth. This allowed the videos to continue to spread to new networks and for the videos to even survive past the initial meme phase caused by Godin’s post.
4. The role of Digg.com is important. If you remember the story of Shit My Dad Says from Social Media Is Bullshit, you’ll remember Digg.com played a major role in spreading that Twitter feed once it was promoted by Fake Michael Bay, Kristen Bell, and Rob Corrdry. It appears it played some role here, although it’s hard to say because Digg today isn’t what it is now and there’s no way of scanning the original Digg’s archive. It’s not even under the same ownership. Reddit likewise is not the same, because back at the time Will It Blend? came out, it wasn’t the powerhouse that it was now. It was much smaller and geekier.
The other key here is that stuff used to spread on Digg (and now Reddit) because it was seen in the news (Egypt) or if a celebrity plugged it (Shit My Dad Says), not the otherway around. So the early coverage in the news is likely what prompted people to digg, or upvote, the videos.
5. There’s an economic argument to be made about higher income / more affluent people being better connected and more likely to be able to spread a video. I’m not the guy to make that argument, but it’s worth considering how well the videos would have spread had Godin not blogged about it or if his familiarity with an expensive product ($400+) had made him more inclined to blog about it.
I think that he was already familiar with the product prior to the Will It Blend? video’s launch is a key piece of information that shouldn’t be overlooked.
So in short: There was A LOT of stuff going on that made these videos successful. It wasn’t the organic success story Blendtec has tried to make it out to be. It’s a story of a corporation picking winners and losers, the media using YouTube’s front page as a source at the time, and since the content was vouched by the media (social proof) it made people more inclined to pass it on / upvote it / digg it. Not to mention, good SEO marketing and paid advertising. Things you rarely hear mentioned in the rush to declare the videos a viral marketing success story.