Digital Fire

Dave Carroll. Keenan Cahill. Ted Williams. These are some of the names that have blown up on YouTube and became instant media sensations.  They had suddenly found a platform for their creativity or talent and leveraged it: Dave Carroll on his guitar fiasco with United Airlines, Keenan Cahill with his lip synching videos and Ted Williams with his ‘golden radio voice’. These stars have captured an audience big enough online to get noticed in the mainstream media.  I termed this phenomenon: catching the digital fire.

I met Dave Carroll at the BRITE Conference. He spoke about his experience with United Airlines and how his customer compliant video posted on YouTube went viral. It shows that in this digital age a customer service complaint when not properly addressed can have a major impact on a company. It taught companies that a customer complaint cannot be ignored and reminded them to serve their customers best. Dave Carroll’s popularity took off on YouTube as he released three versions of the song, United Breaks Guitars. These days, he continues to play guitar with his band, Sons of Maxwell. So far, his most popular video on YouTube is United Breaks Guitars with over 10 million views.

Keenan Cahill is a proven star. He has the online charisma with a great personality and a powerful story. He became famous after posting a video of him lip-syncing to Kate Perry’s “Teenage Dream” song on YouTube. Soon after, he appeared on the Chelsea Lately show, shot a commercial with Jennifer Aniston and posted more lip-synching videos with players from the San Francisco Giants, 50 Cent and Nick Cannon among others.  He has MPS VI, a rare inherited lysosomal storage disorder which makes his story very powerful and inspiring. His YouTube channel is #22 most subscribed (all time) for musicians and #49 most viewed (all time) for musicians.

Ted Williams caused a media storm when he was discovered on an Ohio roadside with his “golden radio voice.” His short video quickly caught fire online and landed him interviews at major media outlets such as ABC, CBS and CNN. He also landed a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers and a house. It was even reported that Oprah wanted Ted to become part of her Oprah Winfrey Network. His discovery video on YouTube has received over 12 million views.

It’s fascinating to see what goes viral aka catches digital fire. For something to catch digital fire, it does have certain similar elements to it. First it has a good story to it. Dave Carroll’s guitar was mishandled by United Airlines so instead of writing a letter to the company, he wrote a song about it. Second it is unique in some sort of way. Keenan Cahill took lip-synching and made it catchy, collaborative and interactive. Third, people have some emotional attachment to the video.  I’m sure people have felt some emotional attachment to hear stories like Ted Williams. Finally, these online stars are creative or have some sort of talent.

For these YouTube stars becoming famous is one thing but maintaining that limelight is another matter.  Although it seems that the YouTube videos made them stars overnight, it’s harder to maintain that popularity online. As David Rogers, professor at Columbia Business School puts it: to thrive online they have to offer a personal voice, show some out-sized personality, pull back the curtain a little and show the face of your customer.

Whether you are a company or a personal brand, it’s important to build a community around it. A community makes the brand more interesting and relevant.  To stay relevant beyond the viral videos, YouTube stars have to ace the fundamentals of branding: creating a community with unique content and engaging their members.

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