OK Go has a new Video: Cue the Marketers Drawing the Wrong Conclusions About its Popularity

Every time OK Go releases another “viral” video, a new crop of marketers sets to work reverse-engineering it and trying to identify the magical keys to producing the same type of success for breakfast pastries or real estate services.  This phenomena happens with alarming regularity, and I’ve already commented on it (Be Careful of Broad Strokes).  It’s the wrong approach, and it’s the reason there are so many “also-ran” campaigns (like Orbitz attempt to repeat Old Spice’s success).

The idea of “viral videos” and trying to understand works of art and culture that the masses embrace highlights the problem I have with marketing as a discipline.

My beef with marketers is that they’re all about doing anything to avoid the real work of engaging people one-to-one and instead trying to game the system.  Marketing has its place (and always will), but in the era of social media it’s on the decline because it doesn’t suit the medium (which grew, in part, out of a rejection of the advertising-saturated, over-marketed traditional media).

Videos don’t go viral; ideas do.

If you don’t have an idea worth sharing, you can’t have a viral video (or a viral anything).  Marketers ignore the videos OK Go has produced that haven’t been wildly-popular.  “Here it Goes Again” notched nearly 54 million views, but “Do What You Want”? – 2.6 million.  “WTF”? – 808k.  Even “Last Leaf” has only hit 215k views this far.

OK Go produces music for themselves and their core fans – so they’re not worried about pleasing everyone.  That’s what gives them the intangible and invaluable quality of AUTHENTICITY.

OK Go Pink EP
OK Go Pink EP


I should disclose that I feel a certain overprotective obligation to OK Go; I’ve been a fan since I blundered up to their merch table at a show in Ann Arbor and asked to buy both of their three-song EPs by mispronouncing the band name as “Ock-go” as a result of their logo smashing the words together.

They hooked me by choosing an obscure B-side (“Kiss me, Son of God”) from They Might be Giants “Lincoln” album to play as a cover tribute when opening for TMBG at that first show.  Since then, I’ve seen them spontaneously break out into an a Capella Les Miserables performance, invite the entire audience up on stage to dance with them, and publish a kampy boy-band dance video.

In the space between those performances, they kept me hooked by staying in contact with me online and hitting the pavement (I was at a Tenacious D show in Grand Rapids and Tim Nordwind, bassist for OK Go, handed me a flyer for an after-show performance at a local bar).

The success OK Go has experienced is primarily because they’ve rejected the traditional marketing dogma:

  • They labored for years creating interpersonal relationships with fans centered on their unique, catchy alt-pop and the performance art that goes along with it.  The creativity in their videos is the same creativity they bring to live shows (fortunately now they have more resources with which to express themselves).  Their videos are spread so quickly because their rabid fan base forms a strong platform of TRUSTED NETWORKS who share them.
  • They left EMI Records because the company (among other things) refused to allow their videos to be posted to YouTube so that they could be embedded anywhere (ie easily-shared).  The company thought it was more important to drive traffic to the band website. (Sound familiar?)
  • When their album “Oh No” was released, part of the promotional campaign included a racing video game where players retrieve kidnapped members of the bands amid references to lingonberries (a nod to Sweden where the band had recorded the album).  They’re not afraid of aiming small with the audience.  They don’t want ALL the ears to hear their music – they want the RIGHT ONES.

Here’s a perfect metaphor for where marketers usually get things wrong:

The Rube Goldberg-esque video for “This Too Shall Pass” STARTED with the idea for the video, and the sponsorship by State Farm Insurance came after the idea (as a means of realizing the idea).

If you START with the advertisement or the money and try to add the idea after – you’re bound to fail.

It’s the same with creating an audience for anything; you have to do the hard work of earning trust one-on-one before you can expect financial returns from that trust.  Since when is anything “worth doing” easy?

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