How Sesame Street Revolutionized Product Development

In 2009, Sesame Street aired a short segment that starred buttoned-up muppets in grey suits and spread collars.

The first words kids hear in this piece are from the group’s fearless leader:

“So where are we with the Happy Honey Bear account?”

Over the next couple minutes, the muppets review some designs, trying to find the one that will make them feel happy about honey. One illustration enrages them, while another reduces them to tears. Finally, the last image elicits broad smiles.

This scene is gold for educational programming. Young children learning how to express their emotions see muppets getting angry, sad, and happy just like they do. The vocabulary for these expressions gets repeated over and over so that it sticks.

“Mad, mad mad … Sad, sad, sad … Happy, happy, happy!!”

While this educational framing is definitely important, it isn’t the true genius of Sesame Street.

The real genius is that the producers wrote the scene for two audiences — not just kids, but also their parents. The scene described above is a parody of the popular Matthew Weiner drama Mad Men:

Yes, this entire sketch aims to entertain and educate its primary audience (young children). But it also keeps its secondary audience (parents and caregivers) firmly in mind. All of the small details, from the dramatic intro music to the snappy dialogue (“Good work, sycophants!”), are winks at the adults watching Sesame Street with their children.

Executive producer Carol-Lyn Parente described this phenomenon when she spoke with Fast Company:

“The show has to be furry, heartfelt, educational, funny, and clever for both adults and children.”

This practice stems from the important insight that the needs of all key decision makers need to be considered during product development.

So while a show for young children absolutely needs to be furry and funny for the kids, it also needs to consider the parent looking after them and possibly recommending things to other parents. The show’s head writer Joseph Mazzarino put it this way:

“As a parent myself, I can say that if you’re sitting down for a lot of kids’ shows, you kind of tune it out a little bit or get bored, but if all of a sudden there’s a Sookie muppet up there [from True Blood], you might think, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. That looks just like her.'”

Over the 40+ years that the show’s been on air, the slapstick humor that kids love has been sprinkled with a healthy dose of subtle jokes and references that the adults in the room would also enjoy. The result is a show widely held as the gold standard for children’s television.

Two-Level Product Development

This type of development is very similar to the type seen across many successful products in the tech world. Companies like Mixpanel and RelateIQ have baked things into their platforms that serve the needs of not just the daily users, but also the people that they report to and work with.

Source: Illuminant Partners

For example, Balsamiq, a mockup tool, serves the purposes of two “users.” The primary user is the designer, who needs to build quick prototypes. The secondary user is the executive, the potential customer, or the product team that will approve or nix potential designs. Balsamiq’s product allows the designer to convey ideas very quickly and clearly to other stakeholders. Without investing weeks upon weeks of time into a version one that might get shot down immediately.

It appears that developing for the needs of multiple decision makers is a key component of the most popular tech products used today (not just Balsamiq).

A few months ago, we dug through StackShare’s publicly-available data to see which tools were being used most frequently, and why. From the 9,000+ votes filed for over 30 of the most widely-used products, we noticed specific types of feedback appearing over and over again.

Almost 55% of all reasons why people used a particular tool were because of either its 1) simple, intuitive design; 2) plentiful free allowances; or 3) third-party integrations:

stackshare-graph In terms of two-level development, these top three reasons make a lot of sense.

First, the primary user often requires an intuitive, well-designed tool — people are busy and need to be able to understand how to use it quickly, right out of the box.

Second, most startups and small businesses are cash-strapped and can’t liberally throw money at new tools, so free allowances provide the runway to try things out without upsetting the COO (a potential secondary “user”).

Third, a product that handles third-party integrations well means that a primary user can seamlessly integrate the product into the suite of tools being used by everyone else in the company.

This all culminates in a happy harmony between the needs of the primary and secondary users.

The Effects of Considering Key Decision Makers

The result of building in close alignment with the needs of vital stakeholders (and not just the primary user) is a product that spreads like wildfire through word-of-mouth — via mailing lists, Quora reviews, water cooler talk, and everything else in between.

In the case of Sesame Street, this meant being called by TIME Magazine “not only the best children’s show in history, but also one of the best parent’s shows ever.” This accolade came after the show’s very first year on air.

But there’s another great side effect to this two-level style of product development. Sesame Street’s Mazzarino had a great script pitched to him a couple years ago. It was a parody of those goofy Old Spice “The Man That You Could Smell Like” commercials. Mazzarino knew the script didn’t fit into the schema of the actual show, but thought it was great and that it would be a hit.

“So I started calling around and interactive scraped together some money somehow with the help of PR, and they shot it and put it up and that was maybe three weeks altogether. That was way different than anything we’ve ever done … I said that maybe it could be a promo. […] And that’s what happened, it became a thing to try to drive people to the show.”

The “Smell Like a Monster” clip got posted up on YouTube and proceeded to go viral. It worked because, after doing two-level product development for years, the Sesame Street team had built a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t. This freed them to take risks that other shows and products probably can’t take.



Four Concepts from 150 Years of Marketing

Back in 2013, Thomas Piketty published a controversial tome of a book called Capital in the 21st Century (if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it). Early on in Capital, Piketty makes a provocative claim that goes as follows:

“To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves.”

While reading this quote, I wondered if all words related to “economics” could be replaced with words associated with other disciplines known for having wonky practitioners. Would the conclusion still apply? Maybe this could be a litmus test for bullshit.

Because our day-to-day work at SocialRank revolves around marketing, my Piketty Mad Lib looks like this:

“To put it bluntly, the discipline of marketing has yet to get over its childish passion for brand-building and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Marketers are all too often preoccupied with petty “brand equity” problems of interest only to themselves.”

With this re-imagining of the Piketty quote, economics doesn’t appear to be the only “dismal science.” Through our work with brands and our observations on the marketing industry (not to mention our own missteps and delusions), we’ve noticed a couple things.

  1. There are a lot of smart people doing hard work.
  2. No one fully knows what’s working and what isn’t.
  3. In the desperation to figure out what works, the entire industry chases trends. Great ideas become misused, ubiquitous memes.

Racing for Answers to the Wrong Questions

There’s a great work of graphic art by Kosta Kiriakakis that spells out the incredibly important difference between seeking out questions and seeking out answers.




Marketers, much like economists, are often sprinting to find answers.

They want answers to questions like: How can we increase engagement across all our social media channels? What’s the lifetime value of customers acquired through TV ads? What stunt can we pull to get our brand in front of as many people as possible?

But what if these questions themselves are half-hashed or not fully thought-through? There is a natural tendency for ambitious organizations and individuals to be “solutions-oriented,” the side effect of which is perhaps to jump into problem-solving before having a solid understanding of the problem itself.

We make these mistakes at SocialRank almost every day. Our product, marketing, and organizational decisions frequently veer away from constantly asking “Why are we doing this, really?” or “What is our desired effect, and how does that actually help us?” or “Are we only doing this because everyone else seems to be?”

Four Timeless Concepts for Marketers

So we figured we needed something to look back on to ground us. We scoured through a lot of literature written over the past 150 years by playwrights, copywriters, creative directors, marketers, and designers. Through this process, four concepts emerged that appear worthy of inking for posterity.

Hopefully some of you will find them useful in your line of work.


  1. The Madness of the Crowd
  2. The Strange Lust for Innovation
  3. The Horrible Inconvenience of Results
  4. The Problem of Thoughtless Rigor


1. The Madness of the Crowd

From Charles Mackay (Scottish journalist), Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841:

“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

From Ryan Holiday (former marketing director at American Apparel), Trust Me, I’m Lying, 2012:

“Blogs criticize companies, politicians, and personalities for being artificial but mock them ruthlessly for engaging in media stunts, and blame them for even the slightest mistake. Nuance is a weakness. As a result, politicians must stick even more closely to their prepared remarks. Companies bury their essence in even more convoluted marketing-speak […] Everyone limits their exposure to risk by being fake.”

Takeaway: If trying to game or “hack” a system, realize that its gaze is probably fixated in a particular direction; make sure you’re positioned noticeably within that gaze. In the right hands, this strategy can lead to huge, important changes in the way society is arranged. At a smaller scale, this strategy could lead to big bucks for you and your company.

However, playing this game is risky business if you want to build something truly valuable and sustainable. The things that attract buzz and hype are often the first things to be abused and tossed aside (mostly because the things themselves become reliant on their own hype).

Example: Product launches at SXSW (Foursquare, Twitter, Meerkat).


2. The Strange Lust for Innovation

From G.K. Chesterton (English poet and dramatist), The Thing, 1929:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

From Bob Hoffman (The Ad Contrarian), Quantum Advertising, 2014:

“Digital has changed delivery systems pipes but it hasn’t changed what’s going through the pipes. Digital advertising looks very much like it did when it was analog.”

Takeaway: Innovation isn’t innovation if you’re just changing the outer appearance of things. Before adding a new feature, or revamping your marketing, or “streamlining” a process, try to understand why the current solution came to be.

Example: The diminishing effectiveness of banner ads.


3. The Horrible Inconvenience of Results

From Rosser Reeves (Don Draper’s inspiration), Reality in Advertising, 1961:

“(Of a new commercial starring a stunning actress) Men noticed her beauty. Women noticed her clothes. Only in the back room of a Copy Laboratory did a fact emerge which must be as old as Ur of the Chaldees. Most people could not remember what the lady had to say.”

From Jonathan Salem Baskin (brand strategist), Branding Only Works on Cattle, 2008:

“Branding is based on an outdated and invalid desire to manipulate and control consumers’ unconscious. It looks good and feels good to the people who produce it, but it has little to no effect on the consumer behavior.”

Takeaway: It really does suck when our most clever work ends up not leading to any real results. It sucks even more when we convince ourselves that our work’s positive results are intangible and immeasurable. Sure, that may be true. But it’s probably not.

Example: DirecTV’s new commercial with the bikini-clad woman and the talking horse.


4. The Problem of Thoughtless Rigor

From Claude Hopkins (pioneering advertiser), My Life in Advertising, 1923:

“We must never judge humanity by ourselves. The things we want, the things we like, may appeal to a small minority. The losses occasioned in advertising by venturing on personal preference would easily pay the national debt.”

From David Kadavy (hacker, designer), A/A Testing: How I Increased Conversions 300% By Doing Absolutely Nothing, 2015:

“Our world needs entrepreneurs with vision, and if they’re busy second-guessing and testing everything (and often making the incorrect decisions based upon these tests), that’s a sad thing for humanity.”

Takeaway: Creative industries often need more rigor and reason in their approaches to solving business problems. However, that doesn’t mean imagination goes out the window or that we begin over-relying on data instead of training our intuitions to become stronger. Leaning on data while not understanding what the numbers are actually saying is more dangerous than not using data at all.

Example: Evony’s sexist display ads for its video game.

These four concepts are by no means conclusive, but together they appear to cover most of the pitfalls of marketing and selling product. We’d like to keep this list updated, so if you have any suggestions on anything else worth adding, please let us know.



Bonzi Buddy: Riding the Hype Cycle of Targeted Advertising

Back in 2000, right around when a slew of fancy-pants startups followed each other off the dot-com cliff, an endearing purple gorilla began making his way onto the desktops of countless Internet users.

If you’re old enough to remember Bonzi Buddy, you’ll recall that he was one of the Internet’s early virtual assistants (think Microsoft’s Clippy, except for browsing around the web). Upon logging in to your computer, Bonzi would swing onto the screen. For the time, his interaction capabilities were pretty impressive, especially from a free piece of software. He was part-search engine, part-email client, part-encyclopedia, part-downloads manager, part-deals finder (sound familiar?).

Bonzi was your loyal guide to the confusing jungle that was the World Wide Web. Or that was the thought, at least.

Source: Youtube

Today, if you search for “Bonzi Buddy” on Google, just from the first page of results, you get: “trojan adware,” “stupid spyware program,” and “not as cuddly as he seems.” Starting from its humble beginnings in 1999, the BonziBuddy software promised us a better Web experience. But its memory-intensive arrival onto our desktops slowed our computers down. What more, it tracked browsing activity, awkwardly recommended other sites to check out, and threw pop-up ads that mimicked actual Windows alerts. Bonzi was in cahoots with the world of online advertising. By 2003, media backlash and a class action lawsuit relegated Bonzi to the fringes of

Adware from the Early Aughts

The early 2000s saw a significant rise in these types of “trojan adware” apps. It became a relatively common practice at the time for “free” apps like Kazaa or Limewire to nonchalantly bundle their installation with adware that tracked your browsing behavior and fed you ads. The idea of tracking user behavior online and using that data for targeted ads was still in relative infancy back then, which can partially explain the awkwardness (and creepiness) of the software that tried to do it.

Remember that this was right at the turn of the century. Monetizing attention and eyeballs online just as the Internet started to go mainstream got advertisers, brands, and the media industry pretty pumped up.

But as Bonzi Buddy and his merry band of friends began pissing users off with pop-ups and other unwanted nuisances, the idea of “adware” disappeared from the public eye. According to Google Trends, it looks like this term hit its peak around 2004 and only recently has started its slow climb back to relevance. Meanwhile, adtech’s been rebranded as the sexier-sounding “targeted advertising” :

Source: Google Trends

Of course, these days you don’t have to go too far to experience or hear about targeted ads. A single visit to might yield a relative barrage of grooming-related ads on Twitter. Facebook itself plans on drawing from a wider range of user data to make its targeted advertising more effective. These all seem to be doing what BonziBuddy so clumsily tried to do back in the early 2000s.

What’s Hype?

A few months ago, entrepreneur and investor Hiten Shah wrote a brief post on the technology hype cycle. In it, he touches upon how quickly things gain steam, lose steam, then begin their slow climb back to relevance. “Agile development, lean startup, SaaS and so many more are the norm now,” he wrote, “In just a few short years each of these ideas went from concept to becoming the norm.” To illustrate this concept, Hiten shared a Gartner graph that has become pretty popular in some circles:

Source: Gartner

Through this lens, some splashy new technologies might inevitably march into the mainstream — from early promise to ugly adolescence and to eventual quiet, tacit acceptance. Every new tech startup (sure, we can call BonziBuddy a startup) is merely a small player in the larger narrative surrounding the underlying technology trying to make it big.

This reality is difficult to sense on the day-to-day, but when viewing new ideas with this historical perspective, you can’t help but think BonziBuddy was a case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Its targeted advertising product was just too early and too primitive. But it paved the way for the AdSense, cookies-tracking, social data mining world of today. The very technologies that users hated 15 years ago are now common practice.

Whether or not this is at all a good thing is an entirely different discussion.


Source: South Park's Twitter account

The Startup T-Shirt Phenomenon: Branding and Conway’s Law

In 1967, programmer Mel Conway wrote a paper called “How Do Committees Invent?” and submitted it to the Harvard Business Review, who promptly rejected it. Luckily for us, the paper eventually ended up getting published the following year in a tech magazine that was popular at the time.

Hidden in this paper was a pretty big idea that gained a lot of fame in the engineering community. This big idea is called Conway’s Law, which goes like this:

“Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

Put in other words, a product will mirror the communications structure in which it arose. To reduce it even further: product and culture end up looking a lot like each other. In 2007, research by management theorists at Harvard Business School found strong evidence in support of this.

GitHub: A Case Study

Source: WIRED

One classic illustration of Conway’s Law resides in the very fabric of tech startup GitHub. In a series of posts, longtime employee Zach Holman summed up GitHub’s culture in three guidelines (paraphrased below):

1. Set your own hours.

2. Avoid meetings.

3. To get creative, get in the zone.

At GitHub, a $100mm+ company, this means that much of the non-essential communication takes place in chat rooms so as to keep distractions minimal. It means that the company hosts happy hours, sponsors gym memberships, and organizes teaching workshops. In fact, for its first two years, GitHub didn’t even have an office — employees worked remotely (and many still do).

Why is this important, and what type of culture, exactly, is GitHub trying to build? Holman puts it this way:

“We want employees to be in the zone as often as possible. Mandating specific times they need to be in the office hurts the chances of that. Forcing me in the office at 9am will never, ever get me in the zone, but half of GitHub may very well work best in the morning.”

Or, in the words of Ryan Tomayko, another early GitHub employee, “Your team should work like an open-source project.” Funny, because a lot of open source projects are powered by GitHub. GitHub is a lightweight, cloud-based tool that programmers use to work on code together. Software for collaboration and open-source projects. Just like the culture and communications structure it has built, GitHub the product is asynchronous and distributed — that is, teamwork anywhere, anytime. 

If you want a slightly more tongue-in-cheek exploration of Conway’s Law in action, observe the sketch below, courtesy of Manuel Cornet: 


According to Cornet’s very data-driven graphs above, Amazon the company is culturally as hierarchical as the product (which is essentially a hierarchy of categories and subcategories containing things you totally need to buy). Google the company is culturally just as structured yet cross-dependent and cross-referencing as Google’s products. And Microsoft, well, yeah.

However, while Conway’s Law explains in some ways the relationship between culture and product, it’s missing a crucial piece: How does this alignment between product and culture get cemented? How does it become formalized, reinforced, and calcified?

Through branding. Namely, through monopolizing language and imagery.

The Startup T-Shirt Phenomenon

A couple years ago, Owen Thomas wrote a profile on Palo Alto, the “small California town where billion-dollar dreams are made.” This is the prototypical startup town, where companies like Google, PayPal, and Facebook got their start, and where many notable tech bigwigs call home. In what is pretty typical of the tech scene these days, you’ll see a lot of branded t-shirts. Thomas makes special note of this fact:

“You’ll often see Palantir employees walking around in polo shirts with the company logo.”

But startup t-shirts on their own aren’t evidence of any reinforcement of Conway’s Law. They are just the tip of the iceberg. In his essay The Anthropology of Mid-Sized Startups, Kevin Simler points to the t-shirts as a small piece of “the many rituals I’ve seen startups use to reinforce trust, solidarity, and company (or team) pride.” He lists out a handful of other ways in which this team-building ritualization happens: team sports, themed dress-up days, wall art, shared meals, and other activities.

We can break these reinforcing rituals down into two categories: images and language. Many successful businesses use these two levers to reinforce both internally and externally their culture as well as their product. One company in particular does a great job of this: Dropbox.

Dropbox and Freedom

Dropbox allows you to save, store, and access your files from anywhere you want. Wherever you go, all your documents, files, songs, and videos are with you. When Dropbox first came out back in 2007, this was freedom for people who had previously been tethered to their floppy disks, CDs, USB drives, and other easily-lost and easily-damaged storage devices.

The images Dropbox uses to represent itself entirely embody this idea of freedom. The company is renowned for its artful, humanistic use of illustrations, instead of the pseudo-industrial aesthetic common with other startups. Even their Error 404 page keeps with the “freedom” branding — you land on the design team’s interpretation of MC Escher’s impossible cube.

The language and copy the startup employs also reinforces the idea of freedom: from the landing page’s “Your Stuff, Anywhere” to the “Keep your stuff safe and accessible wherever you are” located in various locations on the website.

(If you want to nerd out further, more examples here, here, and here).

This “freedom” ethic definitely extends down into the culture of the company. The organizational structure is largely flat and engineering-driven. Dropbox is renowned for its “You’re smart, figure it out” mentality, its wildly creative hack weeks, and its recruitment videos starring muppets with MacBooks.

To some extent, CEO Drew Houston seems to have deliberately designed for this:

“One of the biggest challenges to growth has been something banal– inter-office communication. When the team was small enough to fit in one room, information just spreads naturally. But as we grew larger we had to start deliberately trying to figure out how to get the right info in the right people’s’ hands.” 

Dropbox’s product is all about freeing users; Dropbox’s communications structure is all about freeing employees; and Dropbox’s branding simply reinforces all of this to employees, users, investors, and journalists through imagery and language.

Branding Blind Spots

But all cohesive systems have blind spots; the very strengths they are designed to highlight can create glaring weaknesses. Organizations are no exception.

For example, Uber has gotten itself in trouble countless times in the past year. Perhaps by necessity, a company challenging a highly entrenched incumbent (taxi industry) has a highly efficiency-oriented product, a by-any-means-necessary culture, and sleek corporate branding. The blind side of this product and organizational design might be the reports of sabotaging competitors and naysayers. GitHub and Dropbox have also recently had to respond to their own cultural “blind spots” (GitHub’s institutionalized hostility towards women; Dropbox’s fortification of “frat boy culture”).

The lesson for businesses? Be very deliberate and rigorous about the culture you want to build, because it will show in the product. Then reinforce through authentic branding. In the oft-quoted words of Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, “Your culture is your brand.” In this case, your culture might be your product, too.

We now leave you with an illustration of what SocialRank is all about — feel free to overanalyze it in the comments section:



Courtesy of FIFA Infinity

The FIFA Bump: How a Video Game Makes Music Go Viral

As our productivity begins to wane around 6pm on most evenings at the SocialRank office, we turn to FIFA 15 for a break. If addictiveness is an indicator of a great product, the world’s most popular sports video game might also be its most well-designed. While mashing buttons on our XBOX controllers and waxing poetic on the new season of South Park, we become the unsuspecting targets of some of the most shrewd marketing ever: the game’s soundtrack.

At almost every possible stopping point in the game (pressing pause, navigating to the main menu, waiting for the game to load), a new track from some unknown British band begins to play. While mostly unrecognizable at first, these songs gain familiarity the more we play the game. Months later, these same songs begin magically appearing on our favorite indie radio stations and music blogs.

We suspected that there was something of a “FIFA Bump” going on. The artists appearing on the game’s famously awesome soundtrack were going on to make it big. In an interview with Pitchfork, EA’s music exec Steve Schnur seems to agree with this theory:

“ […] FIFA has introduced the Black Keys, K’naan, Chromeo, Datarock, MGMT, Lykke Li, Bloc Party, The Ting Tings, Franz Ferdinand, Foster The People, Ladytron, Robyn, Shiny Toy Guns, Damian Marley, Airborne Toxic Event, Matt & Kim, the Temper Trap, Two Door Cinema Club, Grouplove, Imagine Dragons, Crystal Fighters, Kimbra and plenty more […] Their labels, publishers and the artists themselves believe that their appearance in our soundtrack was key.

The FIFA Bump

Courtesy of Butteryobread
Courtesy of Butteryobread

In late 2011, a young Los Angeles-based pop band with only one album to their name blew up out of seemingly nowhere. By October of that year, Foster the People had played a set on Saturday Night Live, signed a record deal, and got some love from Sirius XM. They also had a song prominently featured on FIFA 12, which was released on September 27, 2011.

We wanted to see what shape this rise in popularity took, so we looked at Youtube search trends for “Foster the People” between 2008 and 2014. It turns out that the band’s popularity peaked in the immediate aftermath of FIFA 12’s release, and then waned at the start of the new year:

Data via Google Trends
Data via Google Trends

Correlating one band’s popularity with the release of a FIFA game, though, is not very convincing evidence.

So we looked at the aggregated popularity levels of every artist featured in the FIFA 12 game (as determined by Youtube search trends). The peak in this graph fell on the exact week following the release of FIFA 12:

Data via Google Trends
Data via Google Trends

The FIFA 12 soundtrack featured other up-and-coming artists such as Grouplove, Kasabian, and Spank Rock. These artists also saw a bump in their popularity during this time. We observed a similar pattern when viewing the same data for artists from all subsequent versions of the FIFA video game: on average, an artist’s popularity hit its high point during the week of FIFA’s release date.

Explaining the Virality of FIFA’s Soundtrack

What should we make of the phenomenon of the “FIFA Bump?” As Schnur suggests, maybe the video game’s wide appeal and distribution do much of the legwork; artists appearing on the soundtrack simply get brought along for the ride.

Intuitively, this makes sense. Under normal circumstances, a song has a 35% likelihood of being skipped within its first 30 seconds of play (according to a Music Machinery analysis of Spotify data). However, in FIFA, the same twenty-some tracks play in the background repeatedly, and so they receive more opportunities to grow on listeners. If someone really doesn’t like a particular song, he has to go into the game’s settings and manually disable it.

The Zimmerman Effect

Courtesy of Gawker/Youtube
“Cuddly Cat Gives Owner a Heart-Warming Hug” (Gawker/Youtube)

But there’s another explanation that involves a legend in the world of viral content.

Neetzan Zimmerman gained acclaim during his time at Gawker for developing a comprehensive system to track the flow of content as it moved up from small blog to slightly bigger blog and teetered on the cusp of going viral. The idea was to take content that had already demonstrated strong appeal to a smaller audience, and then to give that content the right “push” (packaging and distribution) for it to go viral. Zimmerman easily and consistently topped Gawker’s leaderboard for getting the most page views on his posts.

Through this perspective, Foster the People’s success looks a bit different. The band didn’t explode because of appearing on FIFA’s soundtrack. Rather, the band’s popularity was a runaway train gaining steam. Foster the People had already seen one of its songs go viral in the music blog world, was featured in Nylon magazine’s online advertising campaign, and played a set at Coachella.

Schnur and his staff certainly knew this: his team brings with it decades of experience in music marketing and album launches. They very shrewdly picked up on Foster the People (as well as other up-and-comers), capitalizing on and extending momentum that already existed. We could also call this the BuzzFeed/HuffPo Effect, but using someone’s last name sounds more legitimate.

(Of course, there remains the possibility that the FIFA game franchise itself rides the annual boom-bust cycle of album releases and artist launches.)

Building for Simplicity & Depth

FIFA Gives You Wings (

At first glance, we might think that Schnur and the music team only filter artists by viral factor. But the type of music that makes it onto the game is actually quite predictable and appears to optimize for a pretty specific profile. Over 65% of the artists on FIFA soundtracks from the past 4 years are UK/USA-based, and over 70% are labeled by Wikipedia as “pop,” “synthpop,” or “indie rock.” The rest is an eclectic mix of everything ranging from Brazilian funk to German hip-hop.

The FIFA soundtrack is just a microcosm for everything the FIFA video game franchise has been doing right over the past several years. Product development steers away from lowest-common-denominator gimmicks and instead caters to the game’s biggest fans. In an interview with Polygon, producer Santiago Jaramillo put it this way:

“I think the main thing that keeps us ahead of the curve is focusing on the right thing. So, staying away from gimmicky features that sound marketable, are costly and at the end of the day, our end fans — it’s not what they want […] What people want more than anything is a solid, good fabric of gameplay experience that focuses on the fundamentals. […] It’s a simple, simple game, but when you add depth to that simplicity, that’s when you create the gameplay experience that FIFA has been able to do.”

And one of the many ways the game’s developers have added depth is to relentlessly pursue a product-market fit for every touch point within the game, from gameplay to presentation to music. What you get as a result is a deep product with growth and marketing built-in: a vocal fanbase, a catchy soundtrack that isn’t just Nicki Minaj remixes, and simple design with subcutaneous complexity. This is what really allows the “FIFA Bump” to work as well as it does. The product “markets itself.”

Case in point — a goals compilation video (pulling from user-submitted content) gets shared on Facebook 2,150 times and liked 22,000+ times in less than 2 hours:


With the FIFA video game, everything is set up to make it impossibly easy for fans to do all the marketing. Like spending 10+ hours writing a blog post about it.

Courtesy of SoFreshAndSoGreen

How Drinking Bottled Water Became a Thing

From 2003 to 2010, the famously skeptical magician duo Penn & Teller hosted a Showtime series called Penn & Teller: Bullshit. During each 30-minute episode, the two magicians sought to “hunt down as many purveyors of bullshit” as possible. Since the series aired during the rapid rise of Dasani and Aquafina, Penn & Teller decided to run several blind taste tests taking aim at overpriced bottled water.

Their hypothesis: that, at best, we can’t tell the difference between tap water and bottled water; at worst, we like tap water more than bottled water.

The duo took their experiment to a trendy Southern California restaurant, where they enlisted a (fake) water sommelier. The sommelier brought guests a water tasting menu, listing luxury bottled waters such as “L’Eau de Robinet” and “Agua de Culo.” After sampling them, most patrons were wow-ed by how good the water tasted:

“Definitely better than tap water […] It’s got a flavor that, it almost feels like a beverage other than water, but without sugar or any additives.”

“Seems smoother than tap water.”

“Better than LA County water!”

In actuality, all this luxury water was sourced from a garden hose out back behind the restaurant. And L’Eau de Robinet and Agua de Culo weren’t real designer waters: one is the French word for “tap water” and the other the Spanish for “ass water.”

Patrons placed a high value on the water simply because it was bottled and packaged to appear fancy.

In another blind experiment run by ABC’s Good Morning America in 2001, the show’s producers pitted tap water against water giants Poland Spring, 0-2, and Evian. The results: New York City tap water won out by a comfortable margin.

Data via Good Morning America
Data via Good Morning America

This is the state of the bizarre multibillion-a-year bottled water market. The evidence is inconclusive as to whether bottled water actually tastes better or is healthier than tap water. Yet designer water brands have been able to, through clever marketing and distribution, transform a public good into a product sold at a thousand-percent markup.

All of this is pretty astounding stuff when you consider that, in 1975, the bottled water industry was almost non-existent. Back then, the average American consumed 1.2 gallons of bottled water:

Data via Beverage Marketing Association
Data via Beverage Marketing Association

35 years later, Americans have come to drink 28.3 gallons of bottled water per capita, which is now second only to carbonated soft drinks.

There are many variables at play that have contributed to the phenomenon of half-finished bottles of water strewn across office space (see: drinking more water, eating organic, simple convenience). But to limit the discussion to just these would be to overly simplify a trend that has a pretty intriguing back story.

Disruptive Marketing

In the mid-1970s, French mineral water brand Perrier launched a massive marketing campaign in the United States to bring the company’s signature bubbly water to American shores. Soda sales were slowing down, and Americans were becoming more and more health-conscious. As previously mentioned, though, people didn’t really drink much bottled water in 1975. While Deer Park and Poland Spring were around back then, their sales numbers weren’t great (Poland Spring was actually on the verge of bankruptcy).

So the marketers and copywriters at Perrier came up with a genius angle for selling water: they called it “Earth’s First Soft Drink”:

Future Perrier ads would tout how natural, pure, youthful, and straight-from-the-earth their bubbly water was. Other bottled water brands followed suit, and this positioning is still pretty common — just search for “bottled water ad” on Google Images and you’ll see bottles of water wrapped in leaves or overlooking a valley or something to that effect. Other “growth hacks” used by bottled water brands: rousing public fear of tap water with ads calling it poisonous; and creating/sponsoring national campaigns to urge people to drink more water.

To be fair, tap water is an easy target because a) it’s had a dubious reputation in the past, b) it’s overseen by the government, and c) it’s the antagonist of the “poison the water supplies to bring the Second Coming quickerconspiracy theory.

Clever marketing and brand positioning played a large role in the emergence of bottled water in the United States. However, the industry would not have reached the heights that it had without “Big Bev” and the scale of distribution at its disposal.

Economies of Scale

Around the turn of the century, big food & beverage companies made their splashy entrance. In 1994, PepsiCo introduced their own bottled water brand, Aquafina. Then Coca-Cola launched Dasani in 1999. These two brands stood to compete with Perrier, Deer Park, and Poland Spring (all of which had been acquired by Nestle by then). In part due to massive food & beverage corporations now entering the space, bottled water has become even more lucrative. Between 2000 and 2010, bottled water consumption per capita grew by an average of 11% per year.

The bottled water market is now dominated by the same people who sell us fizzy sugar water and ovaltine:

Data via Statista
Data via Statista

The economies of scale available to these giant corporations have allowed them to achieve relatively easily a level of distribution that smaller companies haven’t been able to replicate. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle have wisely leveraged their existing distribution contracts with airports, convenience stores, and the like to make their bottled water ubiquitous. And when you have the ability to distribute and market widely, who cares if the product isn’t mind-blowing?

Cultural Imprinting

Courtesy of Melting Asphalt
Courtesy of Melting Asphalt

Disruptive marketing combined with economies of scale have created a feedback loop that has imprinted on our cultural consciousness the idea that it is normal, healthy, and convenient to treat bottled water like it’s a “lifestyle” drink. Over at his brilliant blog Melting Asphalt, Kevin Simler explains the concept of cultural imprinting:

“Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser “says” something about you. But you aren’t in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It’s then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a “chill” person? Then bring Corona to a party.”

This is particularly important to keep in mind when thinking about how all these bottled waters have branded, packaged, and sold themselves. Fiji Water is an “artesian aquifer water” that is “untouched” by human waste. Poland Spring is “green”. Smartwater is sexy. Dasani and Aquafina are pure, splashy fun. Which personality do you want to be associated with?

But, as Penn & Teller showed us, when we’re primed to think a certain way about something in fancy packaging, we tend to fall for the sleight-of-hand. So what if Fiji Water was found to have more arsenic in it than Cleveland tap water? Or that Poland Spring was sued for using groundwater instead of water coming from a natural spring? Or that Dasani and Aquafina were both found to be sourced from tap water?

What a weird concept indeed. However convenient bottled water is, the demand for it has been largely manufactured by the people selling it.

But don’t mind us at the SocialRank office as we continue to stock our fridges with Fiji. That shit is great.

Courtesy of Social News Daily

Customer Service as Reality Distortion

While studying the psychology of waiting in line at grocery stores, David H. Maister of Harvard Business School came up with something called the Satisfaction Equation. According to this very complicated calculus, a customer’s satisfaction is equal to the difference between her perceptions and her expectations, or:

S = P − E

In the sluggish and often frustrating world of air travel, this equation might as well be called the JetBlue Equation. JetBlue’s well-known customer service efforts (especially on social media) deliver high-quality experiences when passengers are expecting the worst.

For example, last week, traveler Rebecca Joffrey was irked by the loud music playing over the P.A. system near her gate at JFK Airport. She turned to Twitter to vent; a few minutes and five tweets later, JetBlue got the airport crew to turn the volume down. (You can see the full interaction below.)

 Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 3.12.03 PM

This type of organic (and immediate) response is what JetBlue strives for — approximating “people talking to people,” as their head of social media Laura Meacham puts it. It comes as no surprise, then, that the airline consistently scores highly in Consumer Reports’ annual airline satisfaction ratings.


Where is this customer satisfaction coming from? If Maister’s equation holds, the best airlines are those whose service can most dramatically outpace travelers’ expectations. And when expectations are routinely exceeded, we can expect there to be fewer people grumbling in the corner about how miserable their experience was.

This common sense seems to be confirmed by the data. After plotting customer satisfaction ratings against how often complaints were filed to the DoT, we got a fairly strong correlation– the lower the complaint rate, the higher the airline’s customer satisfaction:

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 3.55.34 PM

As expected, Southwest and JetBlue (as well as Alaska Air) are the cream of the crop, while legacy carriers Delta, US Airways, American, and United reek of mediocrity. Meanwhile, way out by its lonesome on the bottom right is Spirit Airlines.

Perception vs. Reality

But this is where things start to get very interesting. While crunching the complaints and satisfaction data to see which airlines migrated to the top-and-left of the graph, we realized there was a fairly large assumption being made– that if customers aren’t complaining, then surely we must be treating them right.

But what if that’s not true? What if the perception of good service is overpowering the reality? Just because passengers aren’t complaining doesn’t mean that an airline is actually delivering on that specific service.

Take a look now at mishandled baggage rate v. baggage complaint rate. As many of us can attest to, losing a checked bag is one of the most annoying experiences any traveler can have. So we expect to see the worst baggage handlers to have the highest complaint rates:


As it turns out, there is no significant correlation between how often bags are actually mishandled and how often baggage complaints are filed. Which makes us wonder if there are certain airlines being unfairly complained about (or not complained about enough). So let’s break it down by airline:


Poor Frontier Airlines. It has the highest baggage complaint rate (in blue), but it actually handles bags pretty damn well (in black). Only Virgin America has a better mishandled baggage rate.

Notice something else that’s bizarre?

Southwest Airlines has the highest rate of mishandled bags. And also the lowest baggage complaint rate. How does that work? Southwest has been known for years for its high levels of engagement with its customers, a poster child for extremely strong customer service.

At least with respect to bags, though, Southwest’s customer service is a reality distortion. Its low complaint rates (and high customer satisfaction ratings) don’t reflect the reality that they aren’t so great at handling your bags.

The Halo Effect & Reality Distortion

Why is there no significant link between how much people complain about an airline mishandling a bag and how often that airline actually mishandles a bag?

One theory is that customer service is very subject to the Halo Effect. Psychologist Solomon Asch defines it as “a tendency of certain personality traits to have an overwhelming effect in impression formation, even influencing the interpretation of other traits associated with the person being judged.”

As it applies to airlines, the Halo Effect seems to be at play when it comes to front-line customer service. As Martin Lariviere of the Kellogg School of Management puts it:

“When your bag doesn’t show up, your immediate recourse is not calling the FAA; it is speaking with an airline employee. If that employee can show a little empathy and try to help, no one will be rushing to call the Feds. Said another way, well designed recovery processes matter and that is true independent of niches the firm targets or how it prices.”

So if Southwest is treating us well at the help desk after they lost our bag, we might think they’re doing whatever they can to retrieve it. And we don’t bother to file an official complaint. Even if they’re playing hacky sack with our luggage. Weird.

Another theory is a bit more sober: that we love discounts more than we love good service. Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly lays it out like this:

“I don’t want to accuse people of lying, but sometimes they say one thing and their actions suggest something else. Consciously they might really believe they hate Spirit, but a lot of them on some level have decided that they actually do like Spirit because they don’t like paying a lot of money and they are willing to put up with the things they don’t like about Spirit in exchange for low fares.”

So customer service (especially on social media) might amplify great all-around service for some airlines. Or it might blur reality and make people think an airline is doing a better job than it actually is. Or, in the case of Spirit Airlines, customer service takes a “zero f*cks given” approach: outsource social media management to a robot.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 5.21.40 PM

Whatever way you cut it, though, how a company chooses to connect social media to in-real-life customer service can have large effects on its brand.

How Twitter Can Solve Its Onboarding Problem (Republished)


Before working at SocialRank, I was a bit confused as to how Twitter worked. I knew it was a place for celebrities, politicians, musicians, brands, every day people and others to discuss issues, events, and breaking news, and converse with hashtags and @ mentions. I kept seeing tweet #XYZ during TV shows or #brand on advertisements while walking down the street. When I logged on, I honestly had no idea what the trending topics meant or how to place hashtags and @ mentions in a post. One of my first days here, Alex taught me the ropes of Twitter and now I check it at least 5 times a day (probably more). So for this week’s post, we decided to point you in the direction of Alex’s article “How Twitter Can Solve Its Onboarding Problem.”

Surprise and Delight: What it is and Why marketers love it

Brands have been surprising and delighting their customers for centuries. Some better than others. But there’s no better way to turn customers into lifelong superfans than by catching them off-guard (surprise) in a positive manner (delight).

What is it?

Surprise and Delight is a marketing strategy in which companies randomly select an individual or group to receive a gift or experience. It can be a very effective marketing tactic for companies, especially in an age where customers are just one tweet away from brands and vice-versa.

Surprise and Delight campaigns help forge a strong emotional connection between brands and consumers (check out this article by Harvard Business Review that details why surprise is still the #1 marketing tool).

There are several critical elements of a successful Surprise and Delight campaign. It must be authentic and not an attention-seeking mechanism for a brand. That will immediately rub consumers the wrong way.

Most importantly, there must be an unexpected “wow” factor coupled with a personal touch that makes the campaign memorable and relatable. Also, the campaign should naturally spark discussion on social media and through word of mouth.

People who are delighted by the surprise will be excited to spread the word.

Why marketers love it?

There is a ripple effect from this marketing strategy– each recipient of the gift or reward will likely tell his/her network about the experience (sometimes accompanied by a photo). The idea is that the news will spread, especially through the use of social media channels like Twitter or Instagram.

When brands publicly (and randomly) reward their customers, they demonstrate that they genuinely care about their customers, and are offering a new and exciting product/experience. This in turn creates buzz and excitement around the topic.


So, how exactly do you run a Surprise and Delight campaign?


Surprise and Delight Examples


One of the best examples of Surprise and Delight (in a non-social media setting) is the WestJet Christmas Miracle: real-time giving. It’s a very heartwarming video and demonstrates this type of marketing well. In this campaign, WestJet selected a flight on Christmas Eve and rewarded random customers of all age groups with gifts, ranging from a big screen TV to Android tablets.

The video shows Santa Claus on a screen asking the pre-selected group of passengers what their dreams for Christmas are, and as he was doing this, WestJet volunteers noted the responses. 150 WestJet volunteers then went to go purchase some of these items, wrap them, and ship them to the plane’s destination. The reaction of the passengers at the baggage carousel demonstrates the effectiveness of a well-designed Surprise and Delight campaign. This video got 36 million views and arguably, social media saved WestJet.

This also demonstrates that it is important to not only determine who you are going to Surprise and Delight, but also to choose carefully what you will give them and the ideal time frame in which to do so.


MasterCard has also added an element of Surprise and Delight to its 17-year-old Priceless campaign. Justin Timberlake surprised a fan with a jam session at her house–it was unscripted and definitely added that personal touch, which in turn led MasterCard holders to believe they too could have a similar experience.

There’s an emotional element to watching a fan connect with a star and Mastercard #PricelessSuprises campaign captured that. The #PricelessSurprises campaign has also brought pro-golfer Tom Watson riding up to his fans on a golf cart.  So far, MasterCard has surprised 48,133 cardholders.

MasterCard’s chief marketing officer, Raja Rajamannar has been quoted saying that “the success of Priceless is driven by the campaign’s ability to create emotion, influence behavior, unite people and touch upon consumer passions.”

House Of Cards

The second season of House of Cards was released on Netflix on February 14th, 2014. In an effort to engage with fans of the show, The House Of Cards team hosted a Twitter Q&A with some of the actors of the show dubbed #AskHOC. We know this because our very own, Alex Taub, participated in it.

Alex got retweeted by @Houseofcards and even some of the castmates. Then a day later he received a direct message from the @Houseofcards handle asking what his address was. Alex gave it to them and a week or so later Alex received a House Of Cards poster and a pack of House of Cards Against Humanity in the mail. We’re not sure if more people received House of Cards gifts, but this is another example of Surprise and Delight.   GoPro Since we started SocialRank, we noticed that a lot of brands started using our tool to find out who their most engaged, most valuable or best followers are for Surprise and Delight campaigns. Using the data that the SocialRank tool provides, these brands are able to more accurately find these loyal customers to reward. For example, when we launched on February 25th, GoPro used us to figure out who, out of all their followers, would be the best candidate to surprise and delight.

GoPro found @DavidDiFrance, an avid @GoPro fan and rewarded him with a new GoPro camera. Without any requests, when David received the camera in the mail he posted a photo on Instagram, inciting tremendous authentic brand engagement: 800+ likes and 30+ comments on Instagram in less than 48 hours.

GoPro is no slouch on their own. They also have an amazing campaign called “Everything We Make Giveaway.” One person wins everything they make, every day. All you need to do is enter your first name, last name, email address, twitter handle and location and you have a shot at winning everything GoPro makes. Pretty rad. The company announces the winner on Twitter every day.

Go Out And Do Good

As you can see, these brands are doing something right by their customers. Whether you are an airline and decide (just because) to upgrade one person a day. Or you are a sports team and surprise a fan by inviting him to the locker room to meet the players. Surprise and Delight works. It helps turn fans of your brand into superfans and evangelists of your brand. There are very affordable ways for brands to start today and make customer service/support a top priority. So what are you waiting for? Surprise and Delight your customers, followers, and fans today!