For all the time Americans spend consuming sports media, seldom does a story cross over and become a cultural phenomenon. When they do, it usually involves a crime or a tragedy.
Recently, two crossover sports stories have dominated mainstream media like nothing in recent memory: Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow.
Lin, a Taiwanese-American Harvard graduate from Palo Alto, Calif., has captivated the nation by leading the Knicks to eight wins in nine games.
As Pablo Torre writes in a recent Sports Illustrated article
about Lin’s success:
“Nothing, anywhere, has ever resembled the ascendance of Jeremy Shu-How Lin, a legend seemingly pulled from the imagination of a goosefleshed [NBA commissioner] David Stern, if not Disney’s most hyperbolic global marketing exec.”
But before Lin, we were (and still are, actually) infatuated with Tim Tebow, the good-natured Florida native and unevenly talented quarterback who led the NFL’s Denver Broncos to an improbable succession of regular-season victories and an equally unlikely win in the first round of the playoffs.
But it’s the unrelenting hype surrounding both athletes that should intrigue PR pros, marketers, and communicators.
These stories have much to teach us about the nature of viral marketing. The athletes involved have catapulted from benchwarmers to team marketers’ dreams—all in a short time. It’s indicative of how our culture latches onto fads and phenomena through social media. These athletes aren’t the first to rise to sudden popularity, but the hype around both of them has been magnified through Twitter and Facebook lenses.
The following are viral marketing lessons that these athletes’ meteoric rise to fame has taught us:
Circumstance begets opportunity
Before Jeremy Lin or Tim Tebow entered the starting lineups of their respective teams, a few things had to happen. In Tebow’s case, the quarterback who preceded him played so terribly that fans leased a billboard
to urge the Broncos’ coach to put Tebow in.
Lin, on the other hand, was cut by two NBA teams and made appearances on four minor league teams before the Knicks gave him a chance. The chance came only because (1) Knicks starting guard Baron Davis was injured, and (2) the team’s star, Carmelo Anthony, urged the coach to give Lin a shot.
Circumstance begets opportunity. It’s an athlete’s job to make the most of that opportunity, which these guys did.
Recognizing when you’ve got something worthwhile and capitalizing on that opportunity is key to viral marketing. In these athletes’ cases, fans voiced their opinions rather loudly. In a previous column
, I noted that one of the most important aspects of writing and planning great marketing content is listening to what your fans are saying. Your audience (or your consumer base, etc.) will let you know when something is particularly exciting; you just have to be there to listen.
America loves an anomaly
Professional athletes have reputations for being dumb, egotistical, overpaid jerks. Lin and Tebow are anything but that. Seldom do you read an article about Lin without the phrase “Harvard grad” mentioned, and he’s one of only a few Asians to ever play in the NBA. His popularity has reached to Taiwan, where he’s front-page news.
Tebow, meanwhile, thanks Jesus every chance he gets and is never shy about sharing his religious views with whoever is holding a microphone.
They’re both anomalies, and anomaly sells.
By definition, an anomaly is something that goes against what is normal or expected. This is a wonderful lesson for marketers and PR pros. So often in meetings, we rely on precedent to determine how we’ll approach a particular campaign or launch.
If you truly believe that what you’re pushing deviates from the norm, your approach should as well.
A flair for the dramatic sure helps
Tebow’s mystique was elevated this past season in the form of fourth-quarter comebacks and dramatic finishes. In Lin’s short stint, he has already made some game-winning shots that have endeared him to his fan base.
In sports and marketing, a flair for the dramatic can boost your virality.
Think of the most memorable viral marketing campaigns, and what do they have in common? A touch of drama.
Good things happen when you have nothing to lose
Perhaps the most important thing Lin and Tebow have in common is the notion that neither had anything to lose. If Tebow failed, he might spend his career as a backup QB, a hero at his alma mater, and a wealthy man. If Lin failed, he had an economics degree from Harvard to fall back on.
Obviously, PR pros and marketers have plenty to lose—namely, the clients or companies who pay them. But there’s a shift in mindset when you truly feel like you have nothing to lose. The gambling set calls it “playing with house money.” The next time you’re assigned to come up with new ideas for a client, ask yourself: What would I do if I there were nothing to lose in this situation?
I’ve seen instances in which the underlying mindset in brainstorming sessions is, “How do we keep this client?” You might as well put out a call for the safest, most conservative ideas that other people have already executed. The coaches of these respective teams had no idea what would result from their inserting these players in the game. They took a leap of faith with an anomaly, and success came swiftly.
Are you brave enough to make these calls with your clients?
The promoted hashtag will always be a terrible idea
has covered the phenomenon of hashtag hijacking in recent weeks, and there was another instance of it surrounding the Lin story
. When Sports Illustrated
featured him on its cover, Lin’s photo was accompanied by the hashtag #SILINSANITY.
It was clearly a marketing ploy to get people who read the content to discuss it on Twitter. In theory, this is an OK idea. In practice—not so much.
Twitter users used the #SILINSANITY hashtag primarily to talk about how stupid an idea it was on Sports Illustrated
’s part. Sports blog Deadspin
was quick to lampoon. Fans clamored that the SI
cover is hallowed ground and that introducing a Twitter hashtag was blasphemous.
Forget the hallowed-ground argument. If you think the space is hallowed ground, check the covers during baseball’s Steroids Era, which featured cover after cover featuring known cheaters. The SI
hashtag was a bad idea because hashtag marketing is a bad idea—period.
Bottom line: Your promoted hashtag will be an avenue for people to make fun of your promoted hashtag and—by proxy—your brand.