Copywriter and video producer Sonja Jacob is the force behind the clever “Entrepreneurs Can Change the World” video, which has gotten nearly 500,000 views on YouTube [March 2015 update: over 1.2 million views!]. The campaign for virtual phone provider Grasshopper received the “Viral Hall of Fame” award in 2009.
- why going viral requires more than just a good video
- how she’s reinterpreting the agency model on a small scale
- the career benefits to being a marketing outsider
Making the Viral Video
Sonja wrote and produced the “Entrepreneurs Can Change the World” video in May 2009 for virtual phone system provider Grasshopper and the National Entrepreneurs’ Day petition. The video went viral, with nearly 500,000 views on YouTube as of August 2010. The campaign got coverage from the Wall Street Journal, Mashable, and more. Marketing Sherpa named the overall campaign to its Viral Hall of Fame in 2009.
I love how the video’s words flow perfectly, with music and kinetic typography. I asked Sonja how the project unfolded. She elaborated:
The Grasshopper “Entrepreneurs Can Change the World” project was the first video I ever produced, but in many ways, I’d been preparing for a creative project like it for a long time beforehand — I’d been writing for eighteen years, and started out writing poetry, so I understood timing and rhythm very well. I was also fascinated by the sheer power generated when you have a beautiful marriage of visuals and music.
Just like any other creative person, I have a zillion stories floating around in my head at any given time, so for the Grasshopper piece, it was just a matter of tapping into the right one. The other crucial factor in producing the video was that the Grasshopper folks wanted to take a risk. They didn’t want to blast out the same old hollow marketing message or “play it safe.” They gave me a license to be creative, maybe even stray slightly “off message,” and into an area that was emotional and real. In the end, their risk paid off and I had the creative flexibility to bring together something very honest and relatable.
I’d been writing website copy here and there for Grasshopper for about five years when one of the startup’s co-founders, Siamak Taghaddos, approached me about taking on a new kind of project — scriptwriting and direction for a short video advertisement. Neither Siamak nor I knew how this video would turn out, but when I completed it, we all knew we had something special on our hands.
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Advice: Creating and Promoting a Video to Go Viral
Based on her experience with the Grasshopper project, I asked Sonja for her advice about creating or promoting a video that’s likely to viral — as much as it’s possible to replicate, or to “make” something go viral. She explained:
I hate the term “go viral” because it implies that somehow “virality” is out of your hands as a marketer, and that’s a fallacy. The funny part about it is that I think it’s a fallacy some creatives and marketers actually propagate so that when you look at their work, you think it’s greater than it is; that somehow, among the detritus of the web, your creative work was shining through like a diamond in the rough. News flash: it’s not as romantic as that.
Getting noticed takes work, so the advice I would give to people about producing a video is not to be naïve about what it takes; to not just create a video, but then promote the hell out of it. Too many folks out there still believe that the proliferation of “viral videos” is because there are just so many ingenious videos out there — total garbage!
Most of the videos we all become aware of — the ones we say have “gone viral” — have massive promotional campaigns behind them, propelling them to social media sites and getting them to the front page of video sharing sites, and on Mashable, TechCrunch and so on.
That is to say that when you want a video to go viral, it’s irresponsible to imagine that all you have to produce an awesome video. In addition to creating inspired and provocative work, you have to pursue the right marketing channels to spread the word about it and get it in front of the right people.
No one’s going to see your video if they don’t know it exists. That’s the bottom line. In the case of the Grasshopper video, people often don’t realize that it was a part of a massive guerilla marketing campaign the company executed brilliantly — they sent 5,000 chocolate covered grasshoppers in a custom-designed package (I wrote the copy on the packaging) and attached a tag to the wrapper with a URL to the video I produced. When the recipient received the FedEx package of grasshoppers, there was no note, no indication of why they received the parcel, so they were forced to go to the URL on the tag and watch the video I made. Brilliant! In addition to that effort, they had a variety of other promotional and seeding components.
Yes, it’s true the video was moving and spoke to a ton of people on a visceral level, but you always have to combine great creative work with outstanding strategy and execution.
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Creating Her Own Path: Launching a New Company
I asked Sonja how she got to where she is today. She shared:
I’ve been writing since I was ten years old: poetry, short stories, articles, newspapers I “published” myself using my used Apple II and a dot matrix printer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been “creative,” and I’ve loved words and ideas.
I always thought I’d be a writer, but when I got to college and took a sociology course, I fell in love with the subject. I was fascinated by sociological trends, movements and the world in general. I went to graduate school and got a master’s degree in sociology, but at the same time, I was also doing freelance website copywriting while working as a research assistant.
When I got my graduate degree, I went to work for a non-profit, which ironically, turned out to be pretty resistant to change. While the experience was a less than gratifying one, I continued freelancing while working there, and eventually decided I would leave to launch my own company. So, in May 2008, I launched The Cultivated Word.
Striking out on my own was scary at first. I had maybe two clients in total. But I started reaching out to business owners, networking, putting myself and my work out there, and finally, I started to gain momentum, referrals, and more work. The turning point for me was taking a huge risk and writing and producing the Grasshopper video, “Entrepreneurs Can Change the World.”
I loved the video medium and have always been fairly obsessed with what it takes to create a beautiful marriage of visuals and music. I’d never produced a video before and had to harness all of the moving parts, but since I’d been freelancing for Grasshopper since before their re-brand, they had a lot of faith in me and let me just source and produce the entire video.
Other than leaving my job to start my own small business, taking that calibrated risk was the best business decision I’ve made because it helped me expand my offerings as a creative services firm and proved to people I could walk the walk.
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Keeping Up with Trends: Cutting Through the Flood of Information
I asked Sonja about some of the biggest trends she’d seen since she started working. She replied:
I think everyone knows that the biggest trends we’ve seen in recent years have centered on social media and its explosive ability to engage huge online audiences in a short amount of time. However, I’m not as interested the biggest trends, but rather, the common themes uniting all of them, which are engagement and connection.
I think there are a lot of interesting trends that emerge from the rise of social media, but if you’re looking for the next big product or innovative concept, don’t look at the big trends, but instead, what’s driving them. Watch how people actually use products, not how they should use products.
I asked Sonja what she reads or follows to keep up with the latest trends. She responded:
It can be really hard to figure out what to read in a time where we’re all inundated with feeds from so many awesome blogs and websites. Before you start making a huge list of blogs you have to read on a daily basis, get on Twitter and start finding people you have something in common with. It doesn’t necessarily have to be people in your own industry — in fact, I’d warn against only following people from your own industry — but individuals with whom you share something, anything, in common. Follow the people that make you think, that engage with others, who are responsive, who stand for something.
Here are some of the blogs, site, and people I really enjoy following*:
*I read a little of everything, and so if I listed all of them here, the list would be ridiculously long! So this is a select group.
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Emerging Trends: Approachableness, Storytelling, and Bandwagons
I asked Sonja what she saw as some of the big trends in the next 5-10 years. She cited three:
Smaller is better. People really are starting to realize that massive, impersonal service can be a huge downfall for almost any kind of company. Instead of the smaller people trying to look big, it seems like we’re all starting to feel a bit more comfortable with having the tools the big guns have, but maintaining a much smaller (but much more loyal) customer base.
Stories over sales pitches. I think people are more aware of the hollow sales pitch now more than ever. People are trying to do more with less these days, and unless your work is spectacular, there just isn’t any room in the budget for fluff. So, people want to hear your story — as simply as possible — and not some ridiculous and empty sales pitch. That goes for the in-person sales meeting to the copy on your website. Be real, be honest, but be strategic.
Jumping on the bandwagon. This is a bad trend that may never go away, but it’s important to avoid it if you can. The perfect example of this is when companies big or small start listening to someone who tells them they “have to be on social media” and then they go and simultaneously create a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a blog, and a channel on YouTube all in the same morning in the hopes that if they just start blasting information out there, someone will hear it. The truth is, not everyone needs a beefy social media presence. If you don’t have the time to write blog posts, then there’s no point in having a blog. If you don’t want to engage with others on Twitter, don’t sign up for it. Focus on doing what you do well, and if you have any resources left over, then consider social media. It’s not for everyone.
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Reinterpreting the Agency Model
Sonja shared that one of her goals is to reinterpret the agency model on a super-small scale. I asked her to elaborate. She explained:
I come at my creative and marketing work from a different perspective than most because I never wanted to be a marketer, and I still don’t think that I am one.
When I started The Cultivated Word, I wanted to take the best parts of the collaborative process, something that usually occurs only within an agency’s creative team, and bring it directly to the client, let them participate in it. That is to say that I wanted to strip away some of the façade that big agencies maintain so that I could interact more directly with clients and ultimately produce more authentic work.
This doesn’t mean we all sit around singing Kumbaya — I’m not here to coddle people — but it does mean that my clients get more direct interaction and a lot more influence on the creative work, which I think is ideal. After all, companies that want to communicate an authentic message about their product or service don’t want to sequester a creative team in a room and have them come up with a strategy that is so far removed from reality that it doesn’t speak to their customers.
My approach doesn’t always work with every client, which I’ve learned along the way. Sometimes clients want you to come up with an amazing concept without any input or direction at all — they send you some old copy decks and refer you to their website for “inspiration,” but don’t take the project seriously or provide you with any background information. This is usually a disappointing experience for everyone involved.
Instead, what I’m looking for in a project is a client who is enthusiastic and involved, excited about the creative work they produce and balancing it with clear cut objectives and goals. This is probably why I prefer working with entrepreneurs, start-ups and smaller businesses as a whole; they’re still connected enough to their product and service that they get excited about their offerings and transfer that excitement to you.
One of the things I set out to do when I started my company was find a way to get people thinking, questioning, and wrestling with issues. I don’t always get to do that with my work, but when I can, I really enjoy it. It doesn’t mean aligning yourself with a political agenda (I certainly do not), it’s just about getting people to think about something they’ve always taken for granted or get fired up about an issue, and then go do something about it.
We spend too much time playing it safe with our marketing, and the truly great campaigns are the ones that strip away the artifice and get us thinking about what we’re really doing (or not doing) to make our mark on the world.
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Career Advice: Stay an Outsider from Marketing
I asked Sonja about her career advice for someone who’s new to marketing. She replied:
My advice to someone who’s new to marketing would be to remain an outsider to the industry as long as you can. Don’t entrench yourself too deeply if you can help it. It’s important to know what’s going on in your field, but don’t lose yourself in the process because your perspective as an outsider is extremely valuable.
I read a great post about problem solving and creativity from Edward Boches the other day and it reaffirmed my strong belief that creativity is rampant only when you deconstruct the boundaries a little, and stay outside of your comfort zone. Problem-solving only happens when you open yourself up to as many different paradigms as possible.
Unfortunately, we live in a world of binaries and boundaries, but if you can avoid them and stay curious about a variety of different subjects, you’ll end up with a keener ability to identify the threads connecting so much of the social world.
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Beyond Writing and Producing
I asked if there’s something most people might not know about her. Sonja responded:
Besides culture, writing, and making videos, I’m truly passionate about music. I wish I could play an instrument and start a band to rock out with. It would be a band comprised of misfits and we would likely not fit into any one genre of music, but I would have to play the guitar. Other than that, I’m an open book.
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Life Advice: No One’s Going to Hand You the Keys
I asked Sonja if there’s anything she wanted to add. She replied:
I think I went overboard with the length of a few of my responses, so I’ll keep it simple here and offer some advice. George Bernard Shaw said that life isn’t about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself. That doesn’t mean becoming something you’re not. It means you’ve got to stop thinking about the day when someone hands you the keys to the kingdom and go out there and make your life happen.
When it comes to fulfilling your goals, don’t play by the rules. Articulate your dreams to others and let them help you achieve your goals. In return, be a good person and do good things to help others reach their dreams, too.
I think we’re all raised to expect that one day, sometime after college, there will be a day when someone or thing welcomes you to adulthood and you suddenly get the job of your dreams/get famous/rule the world/whatever your goal is. But I’ve found that for most people, these big achievements require small steps, and a lot of hard work. So stop waiting for someone to hand you the keys to kingdom and go out there and unlock the door yourself. Sounds cheesy, but it is true.
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Thanks for sharing your experience and insights, Sonja!
Marketing strategist and account manager Karl Sakas uses research, insights, and relationships to help companies quickly find new ways to make more money. He’s available for hire on a full-time or consulting basis from Raleigh, North Carolina. This is the 14th in his regular series of interviews with marketing experts and business leaders in N.C. and beyond.
Photo courtesy of Sonja Jacob