If a marketing executive didn't know any better - and let's face it, many don't - he might be tempted to try his luck seeding viral content on 4chan.org, the bare-bones collection of message boards that's launched notable Internet memes from Lolcats to Rickrolling. If the site can produce such resonant content spontaneously, then surely someone with the force of an ad agency and an actual budget can make it work for him, right?
Probably not, and according to social media consultants, you're better off not trying.
In insurance terms, 4chan would be described as an "attractive nuisance" - the rusty swing set across from the schoolyard, or the half-filled swimming pool behind the abandoned home. Something most children would be tempted to play with, despite the obvious risk of danger.
"A lot of memes have started there over the years, but it is regarded as one of the most brand-unsafe areas around," says David Smith, CEO of San Francisco-based digital agency Mediasmith. "It is not corporate friendly."
4chan is best described as the Craigslist of Internet chatter. Members post images, videos or audio tracks, inviting others to share their thoughts or create new variations on the content. It was launched about seven years ago by a then-15-year-old named Christopher Poole, who is now known simply as "moot." Discussion threads range from "What does this error message on my PC mean?" to "Pictures of hot cheerleaders" to "If I get 300 replies to this post I'll commit suicide on my Webcam." 4chan receives nearly 5 million visitors a month and about half a million posts each day.
All that anonymous spit-balling sometimes leads to inspiration - the site produced dozens of hilarious send-ups of Kanye West within hours of his September Video Music Awards outbursts, for example, that were soon being shared globally on Twitter and Facebook. And by now, who hasn't been Rickrolled once or twice?
"You'll find funnier commentary on breaking news there than you could on Gawker," said an executive at a social media PR firm and 4chan regular who asked not to be identified, citing fear of harassment from other 4chan members. "It's definitely not going to be more sophisticated - not that Gawker is the height of sophistication - but it [is] going to be entertaining."
But more often, 4chan's content represents the Internet at its anonymous, bottom-scraping worst, and that includes its treatment of corporate brands. For a nauseating time, check out what users have done to pictures of Pokémon characters, or poor SpongeBob Squarepants. 4chan is also a notorious hangout for Internet "trolls," tech-savvy troublemakers looking to disrupt online discussions or, worse, torment people for sport, using social security or phone numbers they find online.
It doesn't take much imagination to guess what they would do to marketers they found wandering in their midst.
"I would, from a marketer's perspective, avoid it as a destination like the plague," says Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us, a Sausalito, Calif.-based consultancy that specializes in virtual worlds.
It probably wouldn't be a very efficient channel for seeding content anyway, says Smith: "It doesn't have the distribution aspects of a TubeMogul or a Gigya that could permit someone to not only distribute content but measure it afterwards."
But that doesn't mean 4chan should be ignored. For one thing, with all the fun 4chan users are having with brands, it's important for marketers to monitor the boards to see what is being done to their intellectual property, if only to get an idea of what can be done to their intellectual property.
More important, 4chan should be watched because it shows what works.
"I think it's an environment that should be studied by marketers really closely, because the principles of what goes viral from there are really, in some cases, more revealing than clean communities like Twitter," Steiger says.
The lessons he's learned from keeping an eye on 4chan? "The biggest one is that 'funny' works on the Internet, and the second one is that controversy leads to virality," he says. Just ask Kanye West.