Whale of a Change

Social networking can lead businesses and groups to strange places - like a tattoo parlor

March 03, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

How it came to pass that a young Baltimore man lay down at a tattoo parlor Wednesday night as an artist etched Twitter's whale icon onto his leg is a tale that illustrates not only the power of social media, but the idiosyncrasies that drive it.

What started with an impromptu race to bring traffic to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association's feed on Twitter, the micro-blogging social media site, resulted in an Internet sensation, complete with live streaming video of a tattooing that twice last week topped Twitter's most-talked-about list.

It's no fluke that a quirky, impulsive, seemingly random act found such traction in the fast-moving, youthful world of social media. Chancy artlessness rules that universe, and traditional companies used to traditional advertising and traditional results are still trying to figure out how to engineer such happy accidents.

"With Twitter and Facebook, the power of it is just amazing. I'm constantly blown away by this world," says Andy Malis, president of Baltimore's MGH Advertising. "How quickly you can get people to respond, to react, to become aware of something. ... It underscores how no business can ignore this."

The social media space is increasingly crowded with businesses and organizations trying to gain a foothold. It's not only a fast way to grab attention, it's essentially free - and in this economy, saving money is no small virtue.

Companies such as Comcast, Starbucks, Dell and online retailer Zappos have been widely praised for cleverly working Twitter to their advantage. Comcast, for instance, uses the handle "ComcastCares" to immediately reach out to customers who complain on the site, nipping what could have become bad news for the company in the bud. The rock band U2 used MySpace last month to unveil its new CD, due out in stores in the U.S. today. Last weekend, the maker of the candy Skittles got some buzz for redirecting its Web site to a Twitter search for the term "skittles."

But Web-savvy social media users can usually smell a corporate ploy a mile away. What seems to work are easy, organic, if not outright oddball un-campaigns. Which might be why business people on Twitter spend so much time talking about Top Chef, sharing links to interesting tidbits - and daring one another to get tattoos.

"The word is authenticity," says Todd Scott, director of media for Baltimore's Himmelrich PR, a company that's been urging its clients to experiment with social media. "It's stepping out of the rehearsed, strict messaging."

George Murphy, a Baltimore social media consultant, says trying to work Twitter with a sales pitch is poison because it feels like spam.

"Be personal, share personal stuff on there so that people can relate to you, and they'll actually pay attention to what you're saying," he says. "Nobody pays attention to you if you're self-promoting most of the time."

The whirlwind whale tattoo saga started last week when Tom Rowe, BACVA's Web guru, threw down a spontaneous challenge on Twitter, hoping to beat Chicago and Portland's tourist bureaus to boasting 3,000 followers on the service.

As an afterthought, he tossed in the allure of someone getting a tattoo on live video as an incentive for people to follow BACVA on Twitter. The 31-year-old didn't want another tattoo, but his friend, Ryan Goff, a 24-year-old social marketing specialist at MGH Advertising, gamely offered his own leg.

The two holed up at a Fells Point bar last Monday night, sending messages on Twitter about the tattoo challenge and live-streaming video of their antics. In a matter of hours, they attracted 1,495 new followers for BACVA, hit Twitter's coveted most-discussed threshold, and forced Goff to make good on his promise to have Twitter's "fail whale" tattooed on his body.

The tattooing on Wednesday night, with its own video stream watched by hundreds of people worldwide and a flurry of update "Tweets" from Rowe and Goff, also became one of the hottest topics on Twitter, an achievement on a site with about 6 million followers.

Though the inky whale logo - which features Baltimore's Natty Boh icon in place of the birds - on Goff's calf is as real as the blood that trickled from his leg as he was getting it, less clear are any other results of the young men's exploits.

Baltimore's tourism agency, of course, hopes it means quite a bit, and that each of its 3,000 new fans on Twitter might visit the city and spend money.

Tom Noonan, BACVA's president and CEO, who had no idea what Rowe and Goff were doing on his organization's behalf until after the fact, is thrilled at the buzz - especially that it was free. (Rowe said he paid for Goff's leg art out of his own pocket.)

"I'm glad we had the opportunity to put ourselves out there in front of people around the world," Noonan says. "To rise to the top like that is great marketing."

Noonan acknowledges that the Twittering 20-somethings who might have been most smitten by the tattoo gimmick aren't exactly Baltimore tourism's top customers.

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