LONDON, United Kingdom — Blanket media coverage over the weekend reported that a British woman named Susan Doyle has become one of the biggest Youtube sensations ever, registering more than 47 million views across the world, in less than one week. That’s more than the George Bush shoe-throwing incident, more than Tina Fey’s satire of Sarah Palin, and even surpasses views of Barack Obama’s victory speech. More than 150,000 comments have been registered on the YouTube page where the video appears. The numbers place the Susan Boyle video amongst the fastest spreading internet memes ever.
Boyle’s overnight international stardom holds a few interesting lessons for the fashion industry.
First, it demonstrates the potential impact and cost effectiveness of viral marketing strategies. Create content that evokes an emotional response, and it can travel like wildfire, turbo-boosted by social media like Facebook and Twitter. The cost implications of this are minimal as distribution is virtually free once the technology has been employed to seed the content in the internet’s fertile conversation garden. (Well, at least free to use if not free to deliver. A report from Credit Suisse last week said that Youtube was losing $470 million a year for Google, which owns the video sharing site.)
Kudos to brands like Halston and Diesel and designers including Viktor & Rolf and Gareth Pugh who have experimented with viral videos and achieved thousands of video views. But the viewership of Boyle’s video demonstrates just how much more potential there is to use these tools to connect consumers with a brand’s message. Imagine. Over the last year, we have watched as the Internet played a pivotal role in electing an American President. What could it do for a brand with a powerful story to tell?
Second, it highlights a return to realness. One of the reasons for the success of the video is the power of Boyle’s voice when compared to her grandmotherly appearance. Nobody expects her to belt out a performance of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables, worthy of West End legends like Sarah Brightman and her idol, Elaine Page. But belt it out she does, catching everyone off guard. Even if you know something remarkable is coming, she still manages to impress.
I suspect that a large reason for this is not only the immensity of her talent, but also the celebration of something real. She uses her talent to tell her own story, making the performance all the more authentic. Boyle is an unemployed church volunteer who cared for her aging mother until she passed away in 2007. “I had a dream my life would be, so different from the one I’m living,” she sang, fulfilling a promise to her mother to enter the competition.
Fashion companies, which have relied heavily on image-driven marketing in recent years may want to think about this: Boyle was not styled for the performance, nor was she coached to be anything but herself. Image will always be a part of fashion communication, but more and more, unless it is accompanied by authenticity and honesty, it rings hollow. Consumers no longer want to aspire to something fake.
Finally, creating something authentic doesn’t mean it can’t have commercial intent. Cowell says that Boyle will soon appear on Oprah and that her eventual album could hit number one in America. While some have criticised the way the Boyle’s awkward mannerisms were exploited to score the international PR coup, I believe it shows cleverness on the part of Simon Cowell and his producers for the show on how to communicate with consumers, using social media and the Internet, to heighten the overall television experience. Sharing the video with my friends was just as good as seeing the video for the first time myself.
There is a brave new world of communication going on. The many-to-many conversation maybe a bit noisy and distracting at times, but that in itself speaks volumes for those who manage to rise above the noise.
Imran Amed is Editor of The Business of Fashion