With the rise of new media, more and more companies are becoming interested in building their brands with the social media audience. Many of these companies are often lost when it comes to where to start in regards to developing an optimal viral campaign. That’s when they come to guys like Brendan Gahan. Brendan is the current Director of Social Media at Mekanism, a creative agency that specializes in implementing good storytelling into viral campaigns, branded entertainment and social media. He is the man behind successful online marketing campaigns that include the film “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Doritos, Brisk, the Star Wars brand and more. Read on to find out what Brendan thinks are the important components of a successful viral campaign, his creative process when coming up with new ideas, his thoughts on the new YouTube networks and more!
Let’s start off with some quick fun facts. What takes up most of your time right now?
I would say my time is split between three things: one is managing the team, the other is working on new business, and then the other is a lot of research, building relationships, you know — identifying vendors and sponsors, that type of thing.
What are your guilty pleasures?
Oh gosh, I should have been ready for this one. I grew up surfing. I love surfing. I hardly ever get to do it anymore; that’s definitely something I love. Oh man, I’m not ready for this. Let me think a little bit, and I’ll get back to you on this.
Your favorite YouTube video and why?
Favorite YouTube video and why…YouTube video. Can I get back to you on that one as well? Am I being a pain in the a55 right now?
It’s completely fine. Give us an embarrassing moment in your life.
So they shot an Indian commercial in Thailand?
Interesting. What were you living in Thailand for?
I studied abroad there.
Alright, first question. For the sake of our readers, tell us about your position in Mekanism, and give us a short summary of what your company does.
Yeah, so I’m the director of social media at Mekanism. Mekanism is an ad agency specializing in storytelling for emerging media. Basically, we create ad campaigns for major brands, and we’re structured uniquely in a way that’s different than most ad agencies in that most agencies have kind of like the agency structure in place, which is kind of like strategy, creative, account services, but we’ve also got the production capabilities in house. So we’ll do live action, animation, mobile social apps, all that, and we also have distribution in place. So we’ve got the social media team in house, which is just responsible for distributing and promoting the content that we create within social, you know. And obviously we do stuff beyond just social media campaigns; we’ve done a Super Bowl spot, we’ve done a lot of mainstream campaigns, etcetera. So that’s kind of the agency structure. The way my team is structured and the work that we’ll do is pretty much four campaigns that involve social media. We’re responsible for getting those campaigns to get traction online, and that’s really bringing together two separate disciplines, and that is leveraging people. So, like how do we gain traction with online influences and blogs, YouTubers, etcetera, as well as the platforms; so where should we be; how should we be leveraging YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and really getting these two disciplines to kind of work together so that we have the best possible chance of creating a viral hit.
Basically, Mekanism claims to have a recipe for engineering virality based on community engagement, social media and tracking analysis, so would you say your recipe is fool-proof and if done correctly will work a 100 percent of the time?
I would say so. Yeah, I mean it takes a lot of hard work, and some campaigns are more successful than others, but I think we engineer our social media campaigns in a way that it’s going to be engaging and compelling.
How do you choose the digital influencers for each campaign, and how can you guarantee that they will act with their client’s best interest in mind?
That’s a good question. I think that every client and every campaign is different, and we need to identify influencers that are appropriate for each campaign. So we’ll collaborate with the client, and keeping in mind our goals, what kind of filters we want to put in place, like what categories are relevant — what’s our goal, is it engagement, is it just awareness — and then basically from there once we have established what our filters are and what verticals we want to hit, we’ll go out, do a bunch of research, put together a list and collaborate with the client to make sure that we have the right people and kind of go back and forth to whittle it down to the final group. With regards to making sure that we got people who aren’t going to badmouth the client or whatever, I think that comes into play in the research. You want to find people that are relevant and ideally care about the brand and the brand will bring value to, and if you’ve done that, then it shouldn’t be an issue.
So when a client wants to reach a maximum number of people, how do you go about creating content specifically for a key demographic? What type of research do you guys use to kind of gauge the content for a type of people?
That’s a great point. The way that works, basically, is to figure out what makes this target demographic tick, and we make sure that we come up with a strategic insight, essentially a big idea that every piece of content can ladder up to that’s relevant to the client, the campaign and the target demographic. What you don’t want to do is basically do just random content for the sake of doing content when you’re doing a campaign. You should really have a strategic insight that, whether it’s mobile, video, a Facebook app, etcetera, it’s all laddering up to this strategic insight and everything is, while in execution, different, and maintains that same theme. Is that a good answer?
That’s a great answer. I like it.
So strategy first, and then execution, essentially.
Regardless of who you’re working with, you know the bottom line for every company that chooses to work with you is to essentially drag conversions from their product. As many of us know, no one can ever really guarantee a social media campaign will succeed or bring a positive ROI. What does Mekanism tell companies when they ask, “If I invest in your company, am I guaranteed to expect a positive ROI? If not, then why should I still work for you?”
Totally. I mean, I think that the client should come to the table with goals in mind, and you know, not every campaign is necessarily ROI. Sometimes, it’s strictly awareness. I mean, if it’s about the sales, and that’s the goal, and that’s what we are talking about, like positive ROI, that’s something we can work towards. Typically, people come to us because they want something that’s more about buzz and building excitement around their brand. That puts us in a really fortunate situation in the sense that we specialize in creating awesome content and getting the word out around that. You know, we’re not a direct response company or something like that, so people really want to work with us because they want to create that kind of aura around their brand. But everybody’s objectives are different. And like anything else, we’ll just have to take into account what their goals are and build a campaign around it.
How do you personally think new media has the changed the way brands engage with their consumers?
I think overall it’s been for the positive. I think it holds people accountable for their actions a lot more, and it allows for them to take feedback from the community, so I would say it creates a conversation; it allows a lot of opportunity for feedback and in a lot of ways has personalized brands. I mean, if you’re on Facebook, Twitter, whatever, you’ve got to have this consistent brand voice, and you’ve got to be reacting to people and engaging with them, and to do that you need to really establish a voice and a personality. You’ve got to speak to people, and so as a result, I think it’s made a lot of brands a lot more open to feedback and helped kind of personalize them a lot more.
How big of an impact do you think online video has on marketing in the future?
I think it’s huge. I mean, you see kind of the direction of TV and online video. They slowly seem to be almost converging, and I think that we’ll see more and more of that in the future. But already, online video is playing a huge, huge role in so much advertising, you know. You look at the entertainment industry, it’s such a big deal when a movie trailer gets launched online, etcetera. It’s massive, the hype around that type of thing.
I mean, YouTube is uploading 72 hours of content every minute, and there is no sign of that slowing down. On top of that, we’ve seen this migration to the Web where people are doing big, big — I shouldn’t say “big” — but high production content strictly for online. You know, there are the original Hulu series, Youtube’s 100 million in grant money for YouTube channels, so there is definitely this trend to invest in online video, and it’s just growing. There is also that intersection of both TV and online video where I think the two are going to be really ubiquitous; there’s not going to be differentiation. And you see that already in a lot of ways with Netflix streaming, Hulu, etcetera. A lot of people are opting out of cable contracts in place of setting up an Apple TV or their computer to their TV. Content is content, and I think people are just going to search for content online as cable becomes more and more irrelevant.
So, next question: you have been the man behind social media campaigns for Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Doritos, Brisk and more. What is your favorite campaign you’ve worked on and why?
Oh, that is a good question. Favorite campaign and why…I’ll go with Brisk when we did the Brisk-Star Wars partnership, and the reason why is it was an integrated campaign. You know, we did TV, mobile, online video, an online influencer campaign, so it was a nice. It was like the entire media ecosystem was working together in a way that we developed a community; we were driving engagement, we created an iPhone app that generated over 1.6 million installs. It was crazy big. And engagement on that was through the roof. You know, we did a whole online influencer campaign which was a lot of fun and drove a lot of results. There was a great TV spot, and the TV spot was driving engagement with the app, so throughout social and traditional everything was really working together to build a community and leverage new media in a really unique way.
You wouldn’t say it’s your most successful campaign, right?
I mean, it depends on success. I think that one was definitely wildly successful for branded apps to get more than 1.6 million installs and have as much engagement as it did. I think it is huge, so it depends on what the benchmark of success is.
Well, that kind of leads in well to my next question. Walk us through your creative process for conceptualizing an idea for a social media campaign.
Good question. I think, kind of like I was saying before, what you want to do is before you go into a platform or the people or any of that stuff, before you start talking about Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, you really want to come up with a big idea and a big strategic insight that execution can all kind of all fall out of and reinforce whatever your idea is and strategic insight. So, our process, essentially, is first, come up with the strategic insight based on what the brand stands for and what we want to communicate as well as what is going to resonate with the target demographic. And then from there, keep a close look at who are these people, where do they spend their time, and more than anything, what is going to drive them to engage. And then once we kind of zero in on what those platforms and kind of touch points are, from there, build out a campaign and various executions and then put together a promotional plan to ensure getting them in front of the right people.
How do you personally define success in social media marketing?
How do I define success in social media marketing…I mean, as an ad agency I think it’s a couple of things. One is did we surpass the goals set by the client? Delivering on the benchmark, that’s the key metric to success. But beyond that, being a creative entity, we want to do something that’s new, innovative and different that actually gains traction. So I think for us it’s that combination to delivering on the clients’ goals and needs and doing something thats really innovative and creative. And to accomplish those two, that’s a home run.
Another thing to add, within social media marketing, I think often times people have a narrow focus on what that stands for, and there is so much more than viral video views and this and that. All those are super, super relevant and stuff that I personally enjoy working on, but there’s so many different ways to engage communities online. The most gratifying thing is when you bring something new and break through to the table that generates traction, and when those risks pay off, thats where you know the innovation occurs, and that’s what I think we really strive for.
Targeting the right audience is very important when it comes to marketing and brand. You’ve worked with a variety of YouTube artists to help promote the brands that they work with. Do you have any specific tools that you use to match advertisers with creators that share similar demographics?
Yeah, we use a ton of different tools. If we are talking about YouTube specifically, looking at their insights, the public insights, leveraging VidStatsX, we definitely take all these into account. You know, there are also tools like SocMetric, Topsy, Rating 6; those go on and on to help you identify people. I think internally we leverage tools, but we also kind of talk to, have that human element to make sure that whatever we’re doing and whoever we’re using is relevant. There is a lot of kind of nuances in people, and their personalities don’t necessarily get surface stuff by just leveraging an analytics tool, and so using the numbers to kind of validate and streamline a lot of research is super important. But ultimately, that human touch needs to be the end filter to make sure that you’re getting somebody that is really relevant to your brand.
Give us your thoughts on the current YouTube premium channels and the networks that are rapidly forming. Tell us how you think that it’s good and/or bad for the industry, because essentially this industry was built on independent artists.
I imagine if you are part of a brand you can leverage other channels, cross-promotion, you know. I know some of the networks provide production capabilities and support stuff like that, so kind of that infrastructure is in place from production until standpoint, so I can understand why people would go to a network. The downside is I think having all these networks in place and bringing the money to the table makes it much more difficult for your average Joe to get up and running, which is a bit of a bummer. I think beyond that though, probably the thing that I’ve noticed most, and I’m not saying this is a bad thing or a good thing, but I think one of things that I’ve seen the most over the last seven years is the transition from like these really raw, raw personalities and content and emotion that you used to see in some of the really big personalities early on. You know, I’ve heard Phil talk about his early days in YouTube, and these guys used to pour their heart out online, and you don’t see that quite as much. And like I said, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or a good thing, but I am curious to see the impact that it has on the audiences because I still think that the personalities these channels have is the personalities’ behind them and the emotional connection people have with those personalities and not how many subscribers they have. Its just really interesting because as stuff gets more polished I wonder if you use a lot of that emotional connection and how that impacts kind of how engaged the audience is.
And I think it’s more than like, oh, people have nicer cameras or this and that. It’s way beyond that. It’s kind of how people express themselves. It’s all gotten a little bit polished, and I think before what made a lot of channels successful was because people were more relatable.
What advice or words of wisdom would you give to anyone trying to start a career in the new media field?
Take lots of risks. I think to make an impact in any industry, you’re going to be more of an impact by being different then being better. So be different. Identify those untapped opportunities in communities and exploit them. Really, really capitalize on them because otherwise, you’re in a numbers game, and that’s tough. I think if you can get recognized, whether that’s by creating your own content or whatever, any way you can show that you can think differently and strategically and bring that to life online, that’s going to be your easiest way to cut through the clutter and get noticed.
Awesome. And so back to fun facts, what’s your favorite YouTube video?
Yeah, so my favorite YouTube video is the video of Steve Jobs’ view of the world, and I just like it because it’s basically saying, think big, push your boundaries. I think his perception was don’t just go with the status quo or the flow of things for the sake of doing it, really think about what you want to do and what you want to accomplish and you know, follow that. That resonates with me.
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Photography by Melly Lee