Jeremy Lin, Linsanity & 5 Lessons for Viral Marketing

Fans are Linsane for Jeremy Lin

Photo by REUTERS/Mike Cassese

Jeremy Lin is on fire right now. On the basketball court, the new New York Knick point guard has been crazy hot, successful beyond anyone’s expectations, even his own.

Off the court, Lin’s been even hotter. Linsanity is the most popular term to capture the buzz. Everybody’s talking Lin. My 9-year-old daughter has been asking about him every day. Even my wife, who prides herself on being checked out of popular culture, knows about Jeremy Lin.

In other words, Jeremy Lin has gone viral. The viral buzz seems even more intense than it was for Tim Tebow earlier in the year.

So what lessons, if any, can Jeremy Lin and Linsanity teach viral marketers? Here’s what I think.

You Need a Story Before the Story Can Go Viral
By story, of course, I mean a real story, a compelling story. The best-known example is that Dog Bites Man is not a story. Man Bites Dog is a story. In other words, the common or expected is not a story.

In the basketball world, Lebron James scoring 20+ points for 5 games in a row is not a story. Happens all the time. Even for lesser players, that kind of scoring would hardly garner much more than “Yeah, he’s playing well lately,” if it got any attention at all.

But with Lin, there’s much more. Jeremy Lin is one of just 15 NBA players since 1986 to record at least 20 points, seven assists and a steal in six consecutive games.

That makes his performance historically significant, but that’s not enough to push the story viral. It’s too insider-y.

This ESPN True Hoop article point to other stats that make Jeremy Lin’s performance worthy of being a story – and a good story.

Lin’s 136 points in his first five NBA starts is the most for any player in 36 years. In addition, Lin is the only player since the NBA/ABA merger to win his first five starts while scoring 20 or more points in each.

But as incredible as those stats are, on their own they would lack what it takes to go viral. They help sustain the virus but didn’t initiate it. The Linsanity started before his stats built up to these truly impressive levels.

Viral marketing lesson #1: Viral marketers need to have a keen ear for story so they don’t waste time and money investing in an idea that doesn’t have potential. It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged linear story. It actually only needs to be the kernel of a story, something truly compelling that generates a story in the re-telling and sharing.

I can’t believe what I just saw…” and “You gotta see this…” are the responses that viral marketing is after, because you know they’re going to give the story more viral momentum. To get there, viral marketing needs to defy expectations.

Viral Marketing Defies Expectations
On their own, the stats above are truly impressive. But who’s heard about the 14 other guys who scored 20 points with 7 assists and a steal in six consecutive games? My guess is almost nobody.

One of the key ingredients in the Jeremy Lin story and the story of viral marketing is expectations. People rarely talk about it when something expected happens. Viral marketing thrives by delivering the unexpected.

That a blender can blend fruit into smoothies is expected. That a blender can blend (or try to blend) an iPhone, a Rubix cube, golf balls, a Nintendo Wii, a crowbar and a Ford Fiesta, was highly unexpected and led to a viral marketing homerun, the Will It Blend? YouTube videos for Blendtec.

The Old Spice Guy campaign became a viral marketing mega-hit by subverting expectations of a traditional personal hygiene commercial, by blending random and surreal elements with quotable copy and a bizarrely charismatic lead actor.

The Jeremy Lin viral buzz got going based on defying three expectations in a big way.

What was Jeremy Lin expected to do in the NBA? Nothing. That’s why no team drafted him. When he finally made a team, he got cut. Then cut again. So expectation #1 was that he would fail based on basketball evaluations by the experts in the NBA. Undrafted, cut twice, he arrives at team #3 DOA. Expectation #2 was failure based on his being from Harvard. The Ivy League just doesn’t produce NBA stars (at least not since Bill Bradley). The third expectation was failure based on Lin’s ethnicity: he’s Chinese-American. And while Yao Ming was a sensation not long ago, there have had been zero Americans of Chinese or Taiwanese descent in the NBA. Zero.

But having these 3 big strikes against him made him a curiosity early on. Undrafted, really? Harvard, really. Chinese, really? The last one especially, since being the first of anything is noteworthy and that’s a very big demographic that had yet to be represented in the NBA.

So Lin started his first game as a novelty and underdog and was therefore teed up to generate big-time buzz if somehow he could subvert the built-in expectations (and some would say stereotypes). Which he started to do from day one.

Viral marketing lesson #2: Look for novelty, surprise, the surreal – anything that defies expectations. When you have an idea, push it further to make it memorable and share-worthy. Undrafted player playing well is a story, but not viral. Undrafted from Harvard playing really well might take off if there’s something else compelling about him personally. Push your campaign to that tipping point where it has enough to get viral traction.

Audience Matters for Viral Marketing Success

Viral success depends on sharing, and sharing skews young. The 18 – 29 Gen Y demographic is often the driving force of effective viral marketing, since they share a lot and are often seen as the group to decide if something is cool and buzz-worthy.

The NBA fan base is pretty youthful (according to these stats, 25% of fans attending games were 18 – 29 and 62% were 44 or younger), as well as concentrated in major media markets, so Lin had a built-in base of Tweeters, Facebook sharers, bloggers and YouTube video posters to spread his story, if there was any.

Jeremy Lin also had from the beginning two very interested audiences ready to amplify the buzz about his success: New York and Asians.

New York is the largest media market, and it’s a passionate basketball city that’s without a major (sorry St. John’s) college program. So the NBA and the Knicks get all the attention. Knick fans have been desperate for success and this year their desperation had begun to focus on the need for a point guards. So, when injuries and other issues forced Jeremy Lin from the end of the bench into the starting rotation, millions of eyes focused on him. Most were likely bemoaning their bad luck to be down to Jeremy Lin running their team’s offence and therefore ready to be thrilled when he defied their expectations.

Asian-Americans (followed by Asians abroad) were another built-in audience for Lin. As noted above, they’d never seen an Asian-American in the NBA so there was obvious keen interest in his story. His early success made it likely that this audience would spread the word and help it go viral, taking it well beyond the typical NBA or any other sports story. A feel-good story is often considered too corny for marketing in our cynical society, but there are times, like this one, where a feel-good story helps it go viral.

Viral marketing lesson #3: Make sure you are producing viral content for at least one audience you expect it to resonate with and be shared by. A viral marketing campaign can’t even get started if it doesn’t resonate with any particular audience. Identify which element(s) of your viral campaign are likely to do that.

Emotions Feed Viral Marketing

Connecting with people on some emotional level makes viral success more likely.

Humor (Blendtec), especially irreverent or over-the-top humor (Subservient Chicken), tends to work well with viral campaigns. Also surprise (Evian’s Live Young skating babies). Curiosity and intrigue (Blair Witch).

Jeremy Lin’s story misses out on the big push humor can provide, but it does capitalize on surprise and curiosity. There’s also empathy at work, people rooting for the underdog, someone more like they are, fighting against all odds. The Lin story also has another big factor in it’s favor: likeability of the central character.

When Betty White rose to viral fame, much of it was attributable to the surprise and intrigue factor of a Facebook petition to get her on Saturday Night Live, but the campaign was a viral marketing success because she was likeable. It was funny (and random) to suddenly push for an 80-something TV star to host a young and edgy show, but people could better get behind it because she’s such a likeable star. Jeremy Lin also seems quite likeable. Lin comes across as a smart, hard-working, humble guy, a guy so unsure of how he fit into the Knicks he was sleeping on his brother’s couch. In a world of over-entitled and look-at-me sports stars his low profile but intense and successful approach stood out. And encouraged people to root for him. And spread the buzz about him. Again and again and again.

Viral marketing lesson #4: Hook people emotionally and they’ll more likely be motivated to share their emotion. Laughter and surprise are good starting points. And if you are featuring a person in your viral marketing campaign, make it someone likeable, someone that others will line up to support. Some viral characters don’t really need to be likeable, per se, but they must at least be charismatic or attention-getting in some way (I’d put Old Spice guy in this category as not as likeable as watchable).

Viral Marketing Requires Distribution Channels
Jeremy Lin doesn’t have to worry about distribution. Being seen regularly in the largest media market, on national TV, in nightly ESPN highlights, and in daily sports pages ensures that enough people are aware of his story even before it spread on social media. Most viral marketing campaigns won’t get this kind of head start.

Viral marketing lesson #5: Viral marketing campaigns need to be integrated into all the social media platforms to facilitate sharing. Ideally you can get a critical mass of socially influential people to tweet about, blog about, post to Facebook, and put the word out to their followers that this is something to look at.

How long with the Linsanity last? Hard to say. He doesn’t need to score 20 points every night. In fact, the Knick-Kings game just ended as I’m wrapping up this post Tuesday night and Lin scored just 10 points…but had 13 assists and the Knicks won 7 straight with him. So on it goes…

As long as it’s a good story. As long as he keeps defying expectations. As long as he continues to connect with his audience. As long he stays the likeable kid he seems to be. And as long as he keeps appearing on the sports highlights.

And then the playoffs will arrive, just as they did for Tebow. We’ll see.

Good luck Jeremy.