How Four Teens Taught Brands a Real-Time Marketing Lesson


You have probably heard the story by now: a 16-year-old Omaha resident named Tom White is a media sensation thanks to an amateur photo of White grinning with Sir Paul McCartney and Warren Buffett. But Tom White and the three teenagers who helped him create the moment on the streets of Omaha are more than a passing story. They have taught brands a valuable lesson about how to do real-time marketing right.

As reported via an interview with CNN, on July 13, White, with the help of his friends Luke Koesters, Jacob Murray, and Drew Tvrdy, captured what appears to be a fortuitous brush with fame. Murray photographed White grinning and giving a thumbs-up while McCartney and Buffett sat casually on a bench looking like they were just shooting the breeze. After White posted the image on his Instagram account, the photo went viral. Within 48 hours, the image accumulated more than 4,800 likes and hundreds of comments. Paul McCartney tweeted the photo, and news media such as ABC, BuzzFeed, and Mashable covered the encounter.

Far from being a random moment, the viral photo is a result of four kids hustling to create their own news. Here’s what White and his friends did right — and what brands should be doing more consistently with real-time marketing:

  • Listened. On the evening of July 13, White’s friend Jacob Murray noticed an amateur Instagram post mentioning that Paul McCartney had been spotted on the streets of the Dundee neighborhood of Omaha. In fact, McCartney was in town for a concert and was going out for some ice cream with the legendary financial wizard Buffett, an Omaha resident. Murray did what many brands strive to do on a larger scale: performed some good old-fashioned social listening. Credit Murray for being hyperaware of a rapidly unfolding event.
  • Acted quickly. Uncovering an opportunity is one thing; acting on it is another matter. Murray quickly notified his friends of the Macca sighting. Koesters, Murray, Tvrdy, and White hustled over to Dundee with their smart phones and personal belongings to autograph, including a guitar and Abbey Road album cover. In the CNN interview, note how aware they were of the need for speed. White notes that by the time they arrived at Dundee, the Instagram photo that tipped them off was already seven minutes old — correctly noting that seven minutes is an eternity in the world of real-time marketing.

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How Internet Pranksters Such as Elan Gale and Randy Liedtke Take Advantage of Our “Me, Too, Me, First” Culture


Truth is the first casualty in the digital war for attention.

Throughout 2013, a rash of hoaxes perpetuated online have reminded us of the fragile nature of credibility in the digital world. So many attention-grubbing pranksters have hijacked digital media that CNN has declared 2013 as the year of the hoax. But 2013 is just the tip of the iceberg. Hoaxes perpetrated by entertainers, everyday people, and brands threaten to disrupt the Internet on a constant basis. Just within recent days, a rash of self-promotional hoaxes have bamboozled the news media, tarnished a national brand, and shamelessly capitalized on the death of a global hero to sling mud at a celebrity. In all cases, hoaxers are taking advantage of the “me, too, me, first” culture that pervades the digital world. It’s time to slow down and exercise some good old-fashioned critical thinking.

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TMZ: The Time Inc. of Fame Inc.

TMZ has transformed itself from everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure to a powerhouse news reporting and entertainment brand. The multi-million dollar organization managed by Harvey Levin long ago shrugged off its image as a snarky Hollywood gossip site and by beating mainstream news organizations such as CNN at their own game. When Mel Gibson was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and hurled shocking religious epithets at his arresting officers, TMZ broke the news first. When Michael Jackson died abruptly in 2009, TMZ scooped the world. As Harvey Levin explained at a recent appearance at the SXSW Interactive Festival, TMZ has succeeded by covering celebrity news with the rigor and professionalism of a serious newsroom — while still retaining much of the snarky voice that endears TMZ to some and infuriates others. And yet, something else beyond Harvey Levin’s control has helped legitimize TMZ: celebrity news itself. “Celebrity” is like a vertical market akin to retail: an industry with many inter-related stake holders such as from celebrities themselves to the media who cover them, the merchants to sell them, the products who rely on them for endorsement, and the media that spin content out of their lives. As I discuss in a new post for the iCrossing Content Lab, celebrity news sites have become diversified and specialized, ranging from Egotastic, which focuses on “the sexy side of celebrity gossip,” to Bossip, which covers black celebrity news. TMZ now rules as the Time Inc. of Fame Inc. Check out my post for more insight.

Flip off a Judge and Become a Celebrity

File this one under “Only in America”: on February 4, a Florida teen named Penelope Soto flips off a judge at a hearing for a Xanax possession charge, which earns her a 30-day contempt of court sentence.  The moment is captured via courtroom video. The video goes viral and becomes a story on CNN and CBS. Soto generates another cycle of news by issuing a tearful apology on February 8, which creates the perfect story arc and more mainstream media attention, including coverage from The Huffington Post. And, wouldn’t you know: she gains attention on social media, too, with a Facebook Fan page and Twitter feed making her out to be a victim of the U.S. “war on drugs and the poor.”

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How a $50 iPod Shuffle cost me $1,000

The Apple product experience does not always live up to the Apple brand name. Case in point: recently my daughter purchased an iPod Shuffle after carefully saving $50 in her piggy bank. Her excitement was palpable as we made our purchase at a nearby Apple Store. As I drove us home to activate the product, she made a lengthy list of all Lady Gaga songs she wanted to start playing.

Excitement turned to frustration when we tried to activate the device via the required synchronization with iTunes on our family MacBook. Here’s what happened:

1. iTunes told us we needed to update to a more recent version of iTunes to activate the iPod Shuffle.

2. When we tried to update iTunes, we discovered that we needed a newer MacBook operating system (for a price, of course, far exceeding the cost of the iPod Shuffle).

3. Getting a newer operating system would require buying a memory upgrade for our computer — also for a price exceeding the value of the iPod Shuffle. The folks at our Apple Store told us we’d either need to buy and install our own memory upgrade or wait a month if we wanted Apple to do it for us. (Apple was out of stock of its own memory upgrade).

The new operating system and memory upgrade would set us back considerably. The prospect of installing our own memory or waiting a month for Apple to do it felt as feasible as either losing our car for a month or fixing our own engine.

We consulted a few trusted Mac experts who told us we were better off buying a new MacBook for $1,000 than trying to upgrade our memory and operating system. The latter approach would risk incurring performance problems with our current MacBook and make it harder for us to keep pace with enhancements to the Apple operating system.

So we have a new MacBook, and guess what? Now I need to look for a new printer because the newest generation of Macs is not compatible with my HP LaserJet model.

Ironically my ancient Philips disc player delivers a superior product experience. To play it, I simply insert a disc and press “play.” No wonky synchronization with a computer required. And the sound quality of the disc is superior to the muddy MP3 file format that you must endure to hear digital music on an iPod. Neither must I worry about new digital formats rendering music files obsolete, which is a major problem facing the music industry.

Recently Dan Frommer identified three Apple vulnerabilities in an insightful CNN analysis. One point resonated with me:

Apple has been bragging about how the iPad 2 is a “post-PC” device, but you still need to plug it into a computer to activate and sync it. The easiest way to get photos off your iPhone is to email them to yourself. You still can’t sync your iTunes music over Wi-Fi or 3G. This is a shame.

Apple needs to think about the cloud the way Google does — as the future of mobile services. You shouldn’t be tied to a USB cord to access files. You shouldn’t need a PC to use a “post-PC” iPad. You shouldn’t have to email a map link from your computer to your iPhone.

Yeah, you might say I agree with Dan. Apple has a well deserved reputation for being ahead of the curve and creating needs we did not know existed. When it comes to supporting our mobile lifestyles, it’s time for Apple to start delivering on its brand promise.