Lessons from Susan Boyle, YouTube sensation

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

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  1. Hi Imran.
    Fantastic commentary on the power of social media. I completely agree with you that fashion could learn a thing from Susan Doyle. But I think the real danger may be that fashion brands may use the social web in much the same manner as they have all other forms of communication – in a very contrived, polished way. As you stated, without the realness, fashion brands may exploit social media and use it as a forum for commercials rather than peeling away to the realness we all crave. When designers start tweeting or blogging about the development of their collection without having to hire a PR company to ghost write for them, then I think we may see the real side of a brand. Until then, the social web could become just one more marketing avenue – nothing more.

    On a similar note, I first started noticing that indie designers were using social media in this way in 2007. Indie and up can coming designers seems to get it when it comes to social media. http://www.webinknow.com/2007/11/malcolm-harris.html

  2. wow realy excited to see the video

    zahra from Saudi Arabia
  3. The clip is a piece of very expensively produced mass-market terrestrial TV turned into a net phenomenon by a well-oiled PR machine.

    The judges’ surprise at Boyle’s voice is feigned. Her dowdy appearance is contrived.

    Where’s the authenticity?

    How is this a many-to-many conversation?

    Martin Webb from Machida, Tōkyō, Japan
  4. @Sandra: I agree that fashion companies’ success at using social media is about both the Medium and the Message. If they get the message wrong, then it will only have so much impact. If they get both right, it could be huge in terms of impact and engagement.

    @Martin Webb: Thanks so much for your comment. The many-to-many conversation is the absolute frenzy of discussion, inspiration and debate demonstrated by the video’s rapid propagation around the internet. On Twitter, Facebook, blogs and websites around the world, including this one, people are talking about Susan Boyle and what she means to them.

    As a made-for TV clip, the production of course was expensive. But when you think about the cost of taking the clip and distributing on the Internet, that costs almost nothing. This kind of mass distribution at a marginal cost of zero (to the content developer) was not available before the Internet.

    I can see what you mean about it feeling well-oiled and mass-market, but is there really anything wrong with that? PR will always exist — for me the debate is more about what actually evokes a reaction these days. And, if this internet sensation was part of the plan, then it shows that some people out there in TV land really know how to use these tools. And that’s something fashion people could learn a lot from.

    As it is made-for-television, it is up to each of us to decide whether we buy into what we are being told and sold, or not. For me, despite the mass market television format, the person who really shines through is Boyle, whose dowdy appearance seems 100% genuine to me. I found her 100% authentic.

    Whether the judges reactions are feigned is also up to judgment, but while they may have put on a bit of an extra show for the audience as the performance went along (that’s their job, after all!), it seemed to me they were genuinely surprised when she started singing.

    Imran Amed, Editor from France (post author)
  5. Imran,
    I agree with your response to Martin. There is nothing wrong with a well oiled machine as long, as previously stated, the message is authentic. I personally don’t think Susan’s dowdiness was contrived or costumed, and any TV personality is naturally going to over-react/act. You have to be bigger than life when you are being watched. I’m a teacher by day and I over act all the time – I have to. It’s part of the presentation. Does it mean what I am saying is contrived? No. I’m just packaging it in an attention getting manner.

  6. Personally I think the fact that she reminds us all of someone we know…maybe a teacher, a church member, a neighbor or whatever it may be. She comes across as very real & as a viewer I must say I was pleasantly surprised with her talent. In terms of marketing those qualities will be exploited/over-emphasized to a degree but that “realness” will be what people identify with and adore about Susan Boyle.

    In the age of Twitter and YouTube people tend to identify with the “realness” factor even more and somone can skyrocket to success literally overnight just like Susan.

    You go girl. If I am going to sit down and listen to someone sing I’d rather hear someone with actual talent than someone that is completely studio manufactured because they fit into the right image.


  7. Great news that ‘creating something authentic doesn’t mean it can’t have commercial intent.’. Of course, Ms. Boyle’s act is a New Media phenomenon, and now that everyone has seen the numbers and bent to their power, it is a simple matter of… making them happen again!