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George Wright and Tom Dickson have managed to do two things on the Web that advertising execs worldwide have yet to achieve: launch a successful viral video campaign - and make money from it.
"We're Madison Avenue's biggest nightmare," says Wright, marketing manager at Orem-based Blendtec Inc.
That's because the Blendtec campaign contradicts the conventional wisdom of online viral marketing experts. For Blendtec, there was no long-term strategic plan, just a fun and happy accident, a measure of good humor, and lots of plain common sense.
Blendtec's off-the-charts success and Wright's "aw-shucks" approach flies in the face of trends in online video advertising. Upstart startups worldwide are attempting to bottle what makes an online video "go viral." "Virality" is the key ingredient in a recipe for return on investment.
A viral video is something you love, embrace, and want to share. Christine Beardsell, a leading analyst of online video at Incisive Media in New York says "it's something that gives people a good feeling or a sense of curiosity and they just have to talk about it."
Enter a new industry: a class of "seeders" and "trackers" promising to virality as a concrete deliverable and dismissing amateur or "organic" self-launches like Wright's.
"The Wild West days of [early viral hits] Lonely Girl and 'Ask a Ninja' are over. You simply can't expect to post great videos on YouTube and have them go viral on their own," says Dan Ackerman Greenberg, co-founder of the West Coast-based video marketing company Comotion Group, which aims to help guide online video virgins to big bucks.
There's no shortage of new middle men. "ViralTracker.com" offers to "track the reach and response of your viral campaign with the accuracy of a Swiss watch." ViralVideoCompany.com claims companies can achieve significant market penetration "without spending a pretty penny," something Beardsell says "is just plain naive."
Blendtec's Wright is fond of a phrase coined in 2007 by Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens: "Advertising is a tax you pay for being unremarkable."
Orem-based Blendtec manufactures industrial-strength blenders for use in the food service industry. The company experienced growth in the '90s during the so-called "Smoothie Revolution."
By the time Wright came on the scene two years ago, Blendtec was doing decent business but had no money for marketing.
"I remember I used to call the Food Network but they would say, 'You know what, call our advertising department.' "
That's when Wright blended up one of the internet's most viral marketing campaigns of all time.
It was November of 2006. "I was walking past our demo room," Wright explains, "and there's sawdust coming out of it and I go in thinking it's a construction project but no, it's Tom [Dickson] testing blenders. I mean he's got this two-by-four and he's shoving it in the blender and it's turning to sawdust."
Wright had never seen anything like it. It cracked him up. And it was visual proof that Blendtec made an "awesome" product. "So I says, 'Tom, the next time you do this, I want to watch, OK?"
Wright went out and spent $50 on "a white lab coat, a MacDonalds' Value Meal, a supermarket rotisserie chicken, a rake, and a 12-pack of Coke." Then with the help of a videographer named Kels Goodman, Wright filmed Dickson wearing safety glasses and blending the heck out of just about anything.
"Kels went off, edited the stuff, came back to me and we just laughed and laughed and laughed," Wright says. "I figured if we thought the spots were funny, then probably other people would think they were funny, too."
Wright and Goodman uploaded the first video to YouTube, and in one week the first "Will it Blend?" had over 6 million views, with many to follow.
Dixon blended golfballs. Barbies. An IPhone, which he pulverized into a black cloud of nothingness. Blendtec challenged YouTube viewers to challenge the company to blend anything and everything. In the course of a year, Dickson was a viral video hero and his company's sales had increased by 500 percent.
"Soon," says Wright, "instead of me paying money to get on the Food Network, they were literally calling us up. All of a sudden, Willitblend was a profit center," says Wright, because other companies paid Blendtec to put Blendtec's campy videos on their Web sites.
Mark Rotblat, vice president of sales and marketing for Tubemogul, a site that "deploys" fledgling videos, offers potential Blendtecs all the help he thinks they need to go viral. Tubemogul provides specific information on the number of "clicks" that video receives and where. "Clicks," Rotblat says, are impressions, and "impressions are still the gold standard" in advertising.
U.K.-based Viralvideochart has has built software that seeks out information about where, when, and how videos are embedded in other sites. The software "crawls" blogs and social networks and measures not only the number of embeds but the nature of "the conversation about the videos," says Sarah Wood, the company's VP of publisher services. Wood says that her company also offers more sophisticated "metrics and analytics" to big-ticket customers like Dell, Nike, and MTV.
As for worrying much about content, "The quality of the art," Wood says, "needn't be an issue as long as [the video] gets to the right people."
"Content is [only] 50 percent," Rotblat says. The other 50 percent is "methodical seeding."
But George Wright couldn't disagree more.
Wright and Dickson are now constantly on the road, Willitblend is an award-winning viral video series, the 24th most subscribed YouTube channel and the 38th most viewed set of videos in YouTube history.
"I believe when you brand something that you do it for life," Wright says. "If you've seen the videos, then whenever you're using a blender you're always going to remember some crazy guy in a lab coat."
Recently, Wright and Dickson returned from New York where the "crazy guy in the lab coat" addressed YouTube's annual national convention and pulverized on stage a bevy of show-stopping items.
"Here's the thing," George Wright says, of the current state of the viral video market. "Look. The barrier to entry is low. Success is hooking your people, getting your product right in front of customers.
As for paying advertising middlemen to seed videos or analyze data, don't bother, he advises.
"If you have an awesome product, roll your sleeves up and make an awesome video."
And Wright's take on the "clicks" and "engagement" debate is as straightforward as it comes, echoing, ironically enough, what expert Christine Beardsell.
"If there's something out there worth watching," he says, "people are going to watch it. And then they're going love it and want to share it with someone else."