Here's how they work: you tweet your vote. Your tweet must contain certain elements: "I nominate @TwitterUser for a Shorty Award in #category because..." When you vote via the Shorty site, it tweets your vote automatically and includes a link back to the Shorty website. Each tweet, therefore, promotes the awards themselves and, more often than not, offers a direct mechanism to check them out further. Only one vote per account gets counted, meaning that if you're a contender you'll need to get as many different people to vote for you as possible -- each one with a different follower base, exposing the awards to a new community of tweeters with every vote.
The Shortys are obvious. They are transparent. They make us beg, cajole, and exchange favors in return for tweets nominating us. They are Twitter's version of blatant linkbait.
And we love them, as do luminaries like Grover from "Sesame Street." The dynamics at work are not dissimilar to those behind a laugh track: we see it for what it is, we know it exists solely to provide artificial social proof that the content we're watching is funny, and yet we laugh anyway. We laugh because we are human -- and our humanity explains why the following three rules drive success in online campaigns:
1. Cultivate empathy. At TEDxChCh last October, speaker John Marshall Roberts said that empathy is the single most important survival skill of our time. It is certainly the single most important driver of success in marketing: the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other end of this campaign. Why would they care? What would make it special for them? How can we make it both easy and rewarding for them to spread the word?
Bear in mind, of course, that the "reward" does not have to be explicit and tangible. With the Shortys, the reward is the prestige of winning, enhanced by a judging panel that includes David Pogue, Craig Newmark, and Jimmy Wales. Its organizers have enough empathy to realize that we're not tweeting about the Shorty Awards to promote them; we're tweeting about them to promote ourselves.
2. Make it personal. A year ago I wrote about the nature of virality, how in order for content to go viral online, it has to be compelling in the first instance (infectious), and there have to be mechanisms in place for us to spread it easily (contagious).
Of course, there's no way to guarantee infection by any online content, no way to be absolutely certain that the Web community will get hooked on your idea. But allowing your content to be personalized dramatically increases your chances of success. I still come back to OfficeMax's Elf Yourself as the best example of personalization; we would never pass on one of those cards with someone else's pictures in it, but we'll definitely pass it on with our own.
3. Think many levels deep. Really good online marketers are chess masters of empathy, thinking four and five moves ahead. If person A passes the content to person B, what would make person B pass it on further? How can you reward people for both disseminating and receiving content? Services like Groupon are a prime example of multi-level incentives. I'm more eager to share a smoking deal with my friend because we both win.
Ultimately, we are not consumers, customers, users or demographics; we are people, driven by the compulsions of our species. So what kind of behavior have you noticed online? Let me know, here or on Twitter (@kcolbin).