How One Giant Chalkboard Went Viral Worldwide

We’ve seen the power of social media and the speed at which messages can originate, spread…and well, spread some more. A perfect example of this is when Brian Morrissey’s photo taken in the peak of Hurricane Sandy was shared all over the world in less than 24 hours. From Instagram to Twitter to news outlets like CNN, The Huffington Post, and The New Yorker–the image went from a simple photo created by one user to, as Morrissey describes, “the iconic image from the storm.”

He goes on to explain that the combination of the unique shot with the timing of the storm is what caused the photo to instantly go viral. Brian may be a more extreme example of this, but the truth is, no one really knows what will happen to story (or a simple photo) once it is released.


Courtesy of Google Images

This brings me to the viral news story I chose to analyze: The Giant Chalkboard. Created by ad agency DraftFCB as a campaign for Dow, the story begins against a wall in New York’s SoHo District. This unique billboard first appeared in the district completely blank–sparking conversation among bystanders, locals, and bloggers about what it could be. Turns out, it was a teaser for their campaign, which would include the evolution of a detailed equation combining math and a variety of historical events. Parts of the equation would be added throughout the week, allowing people to engage and guess their significance as well as speculate the final answer.

One aspect of this campaign that contributed to it’s success was their inclusion of other social platforms. The campaign was integrated on Twitter and Tumblr, creating even more buzz for a billboard that started in one street corner in New York. Ginny Sosky specifically suggests this tactic in her article “5 Ways to Make Your Content Instantly More Shareable.” She claims

At the end of the day, you want your visitors sharing your content with their social networks so that you can reach even more people…Your social sharing buttons are like a call to action.

The fact that the contents of a single billboard were able to transform into shareable online content exemplifies the power of these networks. The billboard itself was the call to action–prompting users to discuss with each other the possible meanings of the equation and share pictures as the equation developed. The puzzle went viral and people from all over the world found ways to relate to it.

But the question is, can companies really predict whether an advertisement will go viral? My answer is no. A message becomes viral when it is passed on through multiple platforms and reaches people the company may never have been able to reach on their own. In his book Unmarketing, Scott Stratten explains how the sharing of a message is truly in the hands of the audience, not the creator.

Company reps are scared to use social media in this manner, though, because they’ve always had the misconception that they can control the message….They have to realize something very quickly: They never controlled the message, because it’s in the receiver’s hands to absorb, experience, and spread their own experience with you message in their eyes.

This is the exact reason videos like “Call Me Maybe” and “What Does the Fox Say” became the unexpected viral sensations that they did. The receivers saw something unique and created exposure for the content it never would have had on its own.

So what does all this mean? In a sense, anything can go viral. The speed at which information travels from platform to platform opens the door to new types of content that will excite and intrigue people. Without the online integration of this campaign, the billboard would likely have just been the talk of the town. Instead, it was the talk of the world.

And in case you were wondering, the answer to the equation was 7 billion: the population our planet reached the week of the campaign. Pretty cool, huh?


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