(This article is co-written w/ Ana Milicevic. Ana is the co-founder of Sparrow Advisers, a management & strategy consultancy that works with companies of various stages of maturity on strategy, product, go-to-market positioning, new market launches, innovation, services, and global field enablement.)
It's been a couple of weeks since the world went crazy over a tweet about a burger emoji which happened to be posted by yours truly.
At the time, several of my readers urged me to write an article about it, but I wanted to wait until I had some data to work with. Now that I do have some data, let's take a look at this whole thing from the perspective of a media analyst.
There was a lot to unpack here, and perhaps somewhat ironically a single tweet among friends will now result in two deep-dive articles.
In this first article, we will take a look at the tweet itself, what actually happened, how the Twitterverse responded to it, and why it worked and spread as quickly as it did.
Then, in the second article, we will look at this from a media perspective. How did the media react to it? How was it covered? What were some common mistakes? And what can we learn from the perspective of media analysis?
But first, let's talk about the tweet itself.
For those of you who have no clue what this is about, let me very quickly summarize.
On the evening of October 28th, I was having a small discussion about emojis with a friend of mine, Ana Milicevic. She started the whole thing by tweeting about a recent design revamp of WhatsApp's emoji to which I replied"If only they could agree on how an emoji should look instead of everyone creating their own", linking to Emojipedia as an example.
The strange thing about emoji is that, while the concept has been standardized, the way an emoji actually looks is up to each platform to decide.
This has led to many really weird variations. Take the 'crocodile emoji'.
Apple's emoji looks like almost photorealistic clipart (or what we would call skeuomorphic). Google's emoji looks like something you would find in Microsoft Word's clipart library... but then look at Samsung and Twitter, which look more like cute dinosaurs, or maybe they've been designed by someone who has only heard of crocodiles but never seen one.
This is the crazy reality of emoji.
So, while I was having a very run-of-the-mill conversation with Ana, I happened to come across the burger emoji. And here I noticed that Apple's burger emoji placed cheese on the top of the patty, while Google places it underneath.
So, I tweeted this:
Then I went on with my evening, had dinner, watched some Netflix, and went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up to a world that had gone positively mad.
About a million people had seen my tweet thanks to several very high-profile retweets, like when the actor Stephen Fry (with 12.5M followers) retweeted it, and thousands of people kept amplifying it during the day.
This alone was pretty spectacular, but then the burger tweet somehow made its way to the Twitter feed of Google's CEO Sundar Pichai who joined in on the fun by tweeting this:
These amplifications from high-profile accounts pushed our burger tweets into a whole new category of engagement. Here is a short video of what my Twitter notification stream looked like.
24 hours after I had initially posted and thought nothing of it, the tweet, had reached 2 million views, 14,200 likes, 7,600 retweets, and 830 people had posted a reply to me. 12 hours after that, it had gone up to 4.4 million views.
And today, as I'm writing this two weeks later, we have reached 8.5 million views, 50,000 likes, 25,000 retweets, and a staggering 2,200 replies.
It has also boosted my Twitter followers by 15%: from about 9,900 before the tweet to 11,400 followers today.
This was just remarkable.
And, one of the most interesting virtual-to-real world effects came a couple of days later, when Google's cafeteria employees created the Android 'emoji' burger in real life.
But why did it work so well?
The interesting thing about viral content is that there are basically three kinds of viral posts.
The first type is focused on a specific, well-defined topic, like cute baby animals. You will often come across this type on Facebook, where you focus your editorial attention around a specific topic that is already primed for low-intent snacking. You then optimize it to give people a type of emotional response (usually a positive one, but creating outrage works too - either way a strong emotion will do the trick). And then you do this at scale (eg by publishing 10s of highly targeted posts per day).
A good example of this is the Facebook page The Dodo, which publishes a 'feel good animal video' once every hour of every day.
This has all the elements of an engineered viral effect.
The second type are social backlashes (or in rarer occasions 'social love'), where something that's deemed controversial happens and makes a lot of people react to it. There are many examples every year: from incidents like those with United Airlines; or when brands portray white as being pure while black isn't; or when brands post something monumentally stupid, like when Adidas posted "Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon."
The reason why these become a viral phenomenon is rarely because of the content itself, but because of the behavior of the people behind it.
The third type of viral posts are the 'gimmicks'. These are posts that go viral because they happen at the right moment. These types of viral events happen because they're new and fun. But when you try to repeat them, they almost always fail - mostly because the specific moment, context, and initial set of reactions (like in the case of the burger emoji, the first amplification by a super-account) are nearly impossible to engineer.
A perfect example of this was the massively popular Old Spice viral campaign with a guy on a horse:
This video got 54 million views on YouTube, but then when other brands tried to copy it later, they all failed.
You can't copy a viral gimmick event. You have to create a new and different one each time.
My tweet was of the third kind. It was purely a viral gimmick. It worked because it was a new thing that people hadn't really thought about before, but it's not something you could do more with.
For instance, if I had tried to tweet another emoji comparison the following week, that tweet wouldn't have worked at all.
Mind you, I wasn't planning for any of this. But there were a number of things that, in hindsight, made my tweet more likely to go viral than others.
First of all, the tweet was posted on a lazy weekend, making discussing an emoji far more enjoyable than if I had posted it on a busy Tuesday morning.
Secondly, my tweet didn't judge the problem, but left it up to people's own imaginations and opinions to decide the 'right way'. This was a big part of creating the discussion that happened on Twitter, which probably wouldn't have happened if I had been more specific.
Remember, my tweet said:
I think we need to have a discussion about how Google's burger emoji is placing the cheese underneath the burger, while Apple puts it on top.
This meant that everyone could participate in the discussion, making the viral effect that much bigger. I hinted that there might be a problem worthy of discussion, but I didn't direct your decision of what to think.
In comparison, take a look at a tweet like this one that tried to copy the same cross-platform comparison but with a different starter emoji:
The tone is different here, too: it's antagonistic towards Google, meaning that the author is not allowing people to form their own opinions. As such, this tweet doesn't encourage discussion or participation.
I think it also helped that my tweet was about a burger. There are plenty of examples of weird variations of emojis, but a burger is a very innocent focus, yet also something that many people care about very passionately.
I mean, everyone loves a good burger (even the vegans).
And because it was about a burger, it was easy to extend the discussion in many other directions, like should the bun be firm or soggy? Do you prefer the lettuce to be crisp? What about the lack of bacon? Why would you even want to put tomatoes in it? What about the mayo?... Or the lack of beetroot (which was a big topic for those from Australia).
A burger emoji might just be one thing, but there are 100s of ways you can make one. So it was the perfect thing to discuss.
A toilet seat on the other hand (or a crocodile) doesn't provide for that many variations and doesn't command nearly the same levels of passion among the general tweeting population.
And the combination of these things is what made it all happen. We had the right moment, with the right focus, with the right type of content. Content that encouraged people to do more than just like or react to something, but also to participate and contribute with their take on it.
This is really what viral is all about.
But again, I didn't plan for any of this. And, as a viral gimmick, I wouldn't be able to reproduce the effect even if I tried.
But what about the potential impact on things like my business? Well, let's talk about the practical value of this increased exposure.
One of the most important things to understand about the effectiveness of content is that the context defines the effect. This is especially true for viral phenomena.
For instance, if a company is faced with a social backlash because they did something wrong, having 8.5 million views can be quite damaging.
However, if you have a lot of people talking about how amazing your new product is, having 8.5 million views can generate quite a lot of new sales.
But the reason they both have an effect is because they are related to something you did.
If, however, you post something that has nothing to do with you, or your product, and that gets 8.5 million views... the effect of that is close to zero. And sadly for me, burgers and professional media analysis don't seem to have much in common.
While my tweet had 8.5 million views, the context of the tweet was not related to me in any way. It didn't relate to me as a person. It doesn't focus on any of my articles. It didn't channel people towards my business, not did it encourage people to subscribe to Baekdal Plus.
The tweet was only about a burger emoji, with the focus being on Apple and Google.
So, the effect of this tweet was almost zero for me, but it did have an effect (in some way) on Google.
Specifically, when I look at my website analytics, this was the result of the past several weeks.
Notice how I had a spike in traffic starting a whole week before I posted the tweet, and that the tweet itself didn't really change things.
All in all, out of the 8.5 million who saw the tweet, only about 0.008% then went on to visit my website.
That's not a big number.
I see the same thing when I look at more relevant metrics, like new subscribers or new free-trials to Baekdal Plus.
So far, only one person might have subscribed after seeing the tweet, although I can't be sure because it's not a straight line, so this person might have seen something else before. And during this whole thing, my number of free-trials went up by between 0 and 10 compared to the normal levels.
Again, almost nothing.
You might say, "what about all those new Twitter followers, won't they boost your growth?"
Well, it's too early to tell. The problem is that many of these people started following me because of a burger emoji, and the likelihood that they will then turn into Baekdal Plus subscribers, is slim. It's just not the same audience.
I hope that, in time, some people might end up subscribing to my articles and reports, but most of them are way outside my normal demographics.
So, a lot of people commented to me how "amazing" this whole thing was, and how it would help me grow. The reality is that it probably won't have any real impact.
The context is all wrong.
It's the same story with Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai. Many people have commented how excited I must be that he retweeted one of my posts, but again, did he retweet it because of me... or because of the burger?
Let me give you an example.
If I look at Ana's profile, I can see that she is following me.
But if I instead look at Sundar's profile, I can see that he isn't following me.
So, again, we see the link between context and effect. It was fun waking up on Sunday morning to see that Sundar had retweeted one of my tweets. But, in terms of effect, it didn't really do anything because it didn't persuade him to actually connect with me.
Ask yourself this:
If you were to call up Sundar today and ask him: "Do you remember who wrote that tweet about the burger emoji?" What do you think he would answer?
Will he say: "Yes, it was posted by the media analyst, Thomas Baekdal"... or will he answer: "No, sorry"?
This is how social media and snackable content work. The context defines the value. And since the context was about the emoji and not me, everyone only remembers the emoji.
It would have been amazing if Sundar, or a similarly well-respected, high-profile individual had retweeted one of my Plus articles because he liked my analysis. If he had done that, and that tweet had reached 8.5 million views, I would probably have easily doubled my Plus subscribers.
And this is true for all media.
About once or twice per month, I'm contacted by a journalist for an interview in relation to an article they are working on. And here the same principle applies.
If the article is about someone else, the actual effect it has for me is almost zero. But if the article is about me, then the impact is much higher.
This is one of the key differences between the old and new world of media. In this new world of media, we have so much of everything, that just getting engagement means nothing.
I had a great time personally seeing all this activity. It was definitely fun, and some people even suggested that my tweet might be the most popular one ever posted by someone from Denmark (but I have no idea if that's true). As a vanity metric, this was amazing. But as a real metric? It was just another tweet.
Up next is a closer look at how the media reacted to all of this, and the patterns that we, as media analysts, identified.
-- Update: Google has now delivered on its promise and updated the design of the burger emoji. So, we made it.
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