A Cautionary Tale For Viral Wannabes

I torpedoed a buzz campaign. I feel really awful about it. Especially since it's a good campaign.

Arguably, it was nobody's fault -- though the PR guy is in flames right now because, I suppose, PR pros are supposed to foresee the potential hazards of discussing a sub-rosa campaign with a reporter.

Here's what happened. I wrote a story about an ad and web campaign for MTD Consumer Products Cadet Cub riding mowers. The campaign, via Blattner Brunner, Pittsburgh, includes a web effort based on a fiction about a kudzu-like strain of grass called -- well, I won't mention the name although, at this point the barn door has been blown off its hinges -- that has reportedly begun taking over various states. Per the story, this grass grows several inches per day and defies nearly every effort to cut it.

News about the strain of grass is arriving from disparate web locales: a blog by a scientist, an enraged stump clearer in Arkansas and a conspiracy theorist.

One was meant to stumble on these sites by hearing about the grass through the grapevine, so to speak, or through an e-mail blast. One might also Google the name of the grass.

Unfortunately, while the powers of search are great, they are also unsentimental and somewhat myopic. They see relationships between words and frequency of requests and other things I can only guess at. But they don't see, nor care about, context, back story or personal needs. Thus the aikido-like power of search to work against the guerrilla marketing it is employed to support.

You see, my story -- the one I wrote about the fictional grass and the fictional blogs about the grass -- shows up on the very top of the list of results you get when you type in ... the name of that fictional grass.

And right below my story, whose slug mentions the three fictional web sites, are those three fictional web sites. Therefore, the fiction is ruined by my story about the fiction. Yes, the company got buzz but not the kind it wanted.

The company, through the PR guy, would like me to remove from my story the name of the weed only. That way, when the term is spidered by Google next week, my story would presumably no longer come up first. Sorry, guys. While I would probably do just that, my editors pointed out that, unless a story is egregiously inaccurate it mustn't be changed. Why? Because the story is now widely disseminated about the web via direct e-mail push, and appears in subsequent and probably innumerable postings on different sites, which have sent it to other sites and so on.

Not to get too technical, but if I change my story now, even one word, the discrepancy between the new Marketing Daily story and all the other original versions out there will cause a tear in the fabric of the universe, and the world will implode. A more reasonable explanation is that it would be a dishonest editorial bit of Jiu Jitsu to remove that term.

A Google rep says an option would be for the company to pay for placement, but that would not guarantee top placement either. "Placement is determined by a combination of relevance of your text ad to the search, roughly multiplied by the cost you are willing to pay for click." Maybe the quantum theory makes more sense after all.

The media relations guy, who is now on hot coals for revealing the name of the grass -- I would have done the same thing -- said he's never had anything like this happen before. "The problem is you mentioned in the article that they have these three fake web sites about the strain of grass, and they are releasing the web sites now," he says. "They want people to see the web sites, but it's not to be known that the web site's a fake.

"What hits me over and over in my job about getting press for my various clients is all the places online that press shows up in," he says. "You can't tell where a story is going to show up." That, as at least one former member of Congress, a few celebritantes, a former marketer at Wal-Mart, and a person or two of the cloth would probably agree, is a vast understatement.

The Cub Cadet's rep says the mower company is still doing an e-mail blast to publicize the fictive-content web sites, and it is pushing the launch date up, hoping my story doesn't keep coming up on top of Google's search page when that weed's name is entered. And it is still planning a ceremony in a real town in Indiana named after the weed to unveil the truth about the fiction.

As for my story and the offending word, "They'd better take it up with Google," says my editor.

Google's search is based on its software called PageRank, which, per the company, relies on "the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value." In other words, the company explains in a technojargon-free info sheet, "Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B.

But, Google looks at considerably more than the sheer volume of votes, or links, a page receives; for example, it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves "important" weigh more heavily and help to make other pages "important." Using these and other factors, Google provides its views on pages' relative importance."

The fact that the above makes no sense to me probably explains why I was pre-med only for two weeks and failed when we had to identify cranial nerves in tree frogs. But, to go on:

"Google combines PageRank with sophisticated text-matching techniques to find pages that are both important and relevant to your search," but "Google's complex automated methods make human tampering with our search results extremely difficult."

How about un-deliberate human tampering? "And though we may run relevant ads above and next to our results, Google does not sell placement within the results themselves (i.e., no one can buy a particular or higher placement).

"A Google search provides an easy and effective way to find high-quality web sites that contain information relevant to your search." Google insists it is not launching a for-fee service to harass those whose content appears above yours.

But it should. It'd make a killing.

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