By nickjohnson - January 29th, 2014
Our weekly interview this week features Ben Huh. Ben is an American internet entrepreneur, and the founder and CEO of the Cheezburger Network. Cheezburger is a network of sites, including I Can Haz Cheezburger (where the 'LOLCats' come from), FAIL Blog and Know Your Meme. The sites get over 375m views per month, and the content is user-generated.
Ben is one of the keynote speakers in the Incite Summit:West session on brands as publishers.
He'll be sharing his considerable expertise on virality, user-generated content, and how companies can make the transition from a "Box" approach to brand management towards a "Flagpole" approach. We touch on this, and a lot more, below.
Can you introduce yourself and the Cheezburger network to the Incite Community?
Of course. I founded the Cheezburger network in 2007, and I’m the CEO of the company.
My role is to understand the behavior of internet users - and then use this insight to help navigate the company to find the right opportunities to entertain those users.
This drive to understand consumers and customers better is a central theme in many discussions we have with CMOs.
What tools and metrics, and systems and processes do you use to get closer to those consumers?
The company overall is quite data driven. There is quantitative data (votes, sharing information, social data, traffic) and then there is the qualitative data, which is where we do really well. We use the research that we do from our site “KnowYourMeme” (where we look at why certain viral phenomenons occurred, and why certain memes are the way they are).
virality is not actually what these brands want
We’ve been doing that for a considerable period of time, so we probably have the best experience in the world for understanding memes and internet culture.
If you were to sit down with a large brand whose first question was “I want to go viral - how do I do that?”, how would you respond?
Not only is it not as simple as that, but virality is not actually what these brands want. People have confused ‘virality’ with ‘social sharing’.
Virality is about taking things out of context, having people twist your message away from the original and making it their own, and then sharing that modification within their social circles.
So in the brand context, virality is about consumers takes over your message - meaning your original message becomes obscured. The new ‘viral’ version is no longer focused on the core marketing message you wanted to have - it’s a series of (often playful) re-interpretations and remixes.
So if the corporate goal is to send across a very clear message about the brand/ the product, it’s simply not going to happen when there’s true virality involved.
What you don’t want is a game of telephone, and virality is essentially a game of telephone. The message gets muddied.
So let’s assume you convince a brand that virality is not the way to go. What advice would you give them to help them leverage the capabilities of social sharing to ensure their marketing does reach a broader audience?
It’s absolutely possible. We would drive them towards engagement around a specific campaign or message.
What you want to do is get high engagement, high recall, and a high amount of positive interactions with the campaign that you’re creating.
Whether it’s deep engagement or something more lightweight - that depends on the campaign you’re running - but engagement is what drives people to remember your brand and your message during a period of time where many different things are trying to catch their attention.
That engagement can be social, it can be participation in user generated content, or it can be simply sharing a message. But it is absolutely possible to engineer a very high engagement level with high social impact.
What characteristics do those campaigns with high engagement and high social impact share?
It’s not uniform, but there are certainly patterns and trends. There are two main characteristics we see again and again:
ONE: CLEAR RULES
At Cheezburger, we have obviously seen a lot of content that has been socially shared well, and equally, a lot of content that has gone viral. ‘Virality’ is about users taking control of, and re-creating a message over and over again. As I’ve said, oftentimes that’s not something a brand is entirely comfortable with.
So what we try to do when we have a User Generated Content or Social Campaign on Cheezburger, something where re-making the content is inherent, is ensure they do so in a rather more controlled way. We give them a set of rules - a competition or a contest where the rules are very clear on what to do and what not to do.
If you want people to socially share a campaign and videos, then a great punchline or some humor is highly effective.
Humor on the internet has become an increasingly dominant part of the conversation. That’s partly because if you’re in the real world, you only have about 3 seconds to respond to something in a funny way before a conversation moves on. Unless you’re quick on your feet, you won’t be a funny person.
But on the internet, you can go and visit someone’s wall, and you can reply with something funny three days later, and that’s still ok. That amount of asynchronicity - the amount of time you have to share, to reply, to comment - allows people to be much funnier on the internet. That means humor is far more common.
There are numerous studies on social media and video on the internet that clearly indicate humor is the number one type of content that people share and consume online.
Isn’t humor a dangerous area for brands, considering it is inherently subjective? Going for one particular form of humor will perhaps limit an audience, or perhaps there will be a mis-step by a brand that will lead to a PR disaster?
No-one’s asking the brand to be Louis CK or Chris Rock. That’s a high bar!
Consumers don’t have that expectation.
But they do have some expectations. I remember one brand who was advertising on our site. They had one creative. A single piece.
So by day 7 of their campaign, I began to get emails from our users. They said something along the lines of “Look, I get it that you have to sell ads on videos. I’m willing to watch them. Just please don’t repeat the same thing a thousand times! Give me variety!”
"There is a generational shift happening, where brands are realizing that in order to compete online, they must allow users to participate"
This is the big mistake brands are making. What we’re doing wrong right now is that we’re still pouring the idea of television into the internet, and it just isn’t appropriate.
On the internet, people have a very different idea about what constitutes entertaining content. And they’re willing to watch ads - as long as they’re mildly funny! They don’t have to push the boundaries - they just have to nod to the idea that in the next 15-30 seconds, we’re going to have some kind of a payoff. And please ensure you produce more than one of them!
This is a brave new world for brands. We’re expecting them to use humor, we’re expecting them to cede control of their message to users who will twist it to their own ends. They’re pretty risky moves for the more conservative-minded businesses out there.
Are you seeing that the brands that work with you are making progress - and getting more confident about negotiating this new world?
I think there is a generational shift happening, where brands are realizing that in order to compete online, they must allow users to participate - and actually have a hand in the message.
We’re moving from what I call the ‘Box’ approach to brand management towards the ‘Flagpole’ approach.
The ‘Box’ approach is a structure and set of conditions that effectively say “Here are your limits, do not go outside them. This is our brand message and you will stick to it.”
The “Flagpole Approach” is rather more flexible. “This is what we aspire to, and we will always try to be close to that flagpole, but if the message goes a little bit off, we’re ok with that. We’re going to let our customers play with the brand”
Do you have any particular examples that come to mind of companies that have already made that shift?
The prime example that comes to mind is Old Spice - a brand that before Wieden + Kennedy came up with the videos we all know and love - wasn’t particularly prevalent in popular culture.
But all of a sudden, with that first video, and then by interacting with the audience - letting them ask questions and responding to those questions in real time via YouTube they were able to capture the popular imagination online. They let people remix the message, turn it into animated GIFs, and really embrace that culture.
Brands should bear in mind that whether they like it or not - and even if they have a ‘Box’ strategy - they can’t stop people from ‘remixing’ their brand.
To succeed, you have to roll with the punches - and that’s an art. Learning how to have a good sense of humor, and let people remix your brand, is really a form of art.
You mentioned Old Spice’s success in part being because they were able to respond quickly to user comments. Of course, marketers having the autonomy to be able to leave a relatively humorous response to user comments, is currently a rarity.
From your own interactions with brands do you find that’s changing? Are they becoming more able to work at pace?
It’s perhaps rather easier than brands expect.
The critical difference between the traditional definition of humor - which is more along the lines of ‘comedy’ - and what we’ve seen that has been successful on the internet, is that when we talk of ‘internet humor’ we also include what we call happiness, and positivity.
That’s a critical distinction when one considers managing real time conversations online. If you as a brand attempt to ‘be funny’ in response to something real time, your risk is heightened. But if you shift focus slightly, and incorporate the idea of “just make them happy”, then it’s a rather easier challenge.
I’ll give you an example. If someone has a negative experience and says something negative about your product over Twitter, your response doesn’t have to crack a joke or make light of that problem. You can focus on answering the question “How do I make this person happy?”.
Something along the lines of “I’m sorry you’ve had that problem - let me forward you to my friend in Customer Service who I know is going to be excellent at taking care of you” is totally appropriate.
Another big shift for marketers over the last few years is the increasing prevalence of mobile.
How have you found that mobile devices change how people consume content? How should brands inform their marketing decisions based on that?
With mobile, you’re in an environment where people can actually flow through distractions very easily, because they’re scanning things. They’re literally walking down the street, or on a bus, where they can look away and focus on something else that’s shiny and new very quickly.
More so than desktop, mobile is an environment that is filled with distractions.
It’s also a short form. The average video over mobile is somewhere between one to two minutes of watching time. There are times when people watch longer form videos, but it’s more the exception than the rule.
So when you have a thirty-second pre-roll advertisement on a video, it’s a problem.
And it is a problem that people are learning to deal with. I’ve seen people who seem to have internal timers, where they’ll look at a pre-roll, put their phone down, have a conversation, and 30 seconds later pick up the phone and watch the video, having completely ignored the advertising.
So the question the question brands must ask is “How do we add value? How do we ensure viewers find the advertising around a video engaging and useful?”
More so than desktop, mobile is an environment that is filled with distractions.
We have an entirely new environment here where people are sitting very close to a device, so close their fingers are touching it. What can we do in a touchscreen environment? What can we do with all these things that we can make their lives so much more interesting?
And all we’ve done so far is “We know your geo-location, maybe we can send you a coupon”. That’s not good enough.
Again, that’s old world thinking. It’s a transactional mentality and it simply won’t work.
We must begin to re-think a lot of these engagement models, things that take into account the device itself. The goal is to determine a native format for the device. SitComs work brilliantly on TV. But they don’t work on mobile. SitComs were a native format for television. We need to work out the native format for phones and other mobile devices.
Let’s sum up with our traditional final question: What do you see as the biggest opportunity or challenge for brand marketers over the course of the next year?
The art of creating, launching and running a campaign needs to become more nimble.
Running marketing campaigns needs to become more like running early-stage Startups. Campaigns need to be iterative, they need to learn to pivot mid-campaign - essentially move towards a ‘Lean Campaign’ model.
That would be similar to the ‘Lean Startup’ philosophy, where pivoting campaigns along the way isn’t a chaotic experience, but something more structured. Brands need to be able to spot areas of underperformance, and then change campaigns based on those observations.
This concludes our interview with Ben Huh, CEO and founder of the Cheezburger Network. To learn more from Ben, and other leading marketing experts, check out the Incite Summit:West, taking place on May 13-14 in San Francisco.
Featuring CMOs and SVPs from companies like Old Navy, Kaiser Permanente, HP, Xerox, AT&T, Wells Fargo and more, it's an unrivaled opportunity to work with peers to do better marketing. And if you buy a ticket by February 14th, you'll save $400!